Golden sand beaches, pot-smoking hippies, the freshest seafood, vibrant markets…. these are some of the things that come to mind when you think of Goa today. But what most people don’t realise is that nearly 500 years ago, Goa played a crucial role in shaping Asia’s future.
In 1498, Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama landed in Calicut in south-western India. He was the first European to reach India by sea and this sea route was followed by several other Portuguese fleets. By 1510, Goa had become the headquarters of the Portuguese empire in Asia and Africa; making Portugal the first colonial power to establish itself in Asia. The Spanish, the Dutch and the British followed. And the rest, as they say, is history!
A 1579 map of India by Flemish cartographer, Abraham Ortelius, showing Goa (indicated by the red arrow). Currently on display at the National Library, Singapore
Goa remained a Portuguese colony for 450 years (until 1961) and the influence runs deep. Ruins of the once imposing forts, hundreds (if not thousands) of churches and chapels, brightly painted houses, the lively music and most importantly, the cuisine. Who among us hasn’t drooled over pictures of spicy sorpotel or tangy vindaloo?
The lighthouse at Fort Aguada (a fairly well-preserved 17th century Portuguese fort on Sinquerim beach, North Goa)
The Goans, as the friendly locals are known, have a susegad (meaning relaxed or laid-back) outlook to life; akin to the ‘island pace’ you experience in the Seychelles or Maldives.
For me, growing up in Bombay (now Mumbai), Goa was the closest holiday destination and ‘the’ place to visit in summer.
Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception Church (built in 1609) in Panjim, the capital of Goa
While Goa has so much to offer the curious tourist, it can be explored without a set itinerary. If you have any time left after sunbathing, eating and sleeping, you could just ramble around the nearby scenic towns and villages. They are all charming in their own right.
Here are a few of my favourite things to do in Goa:
1) Walk around Old Goa
Old Goa was the capital of Portuguese India from the 16th – 18th century and is today a UNSECO World Heritage Site.
The 400 year old, Basilica of Bom Jesus houses the undecayed body of St. Francis Xavier, who died in 1552. The relics are put on public display every 10 years, with the last exposition held in 2014.
Well worth a visit for the Baroque architecture, gold-gilded alters and the striking marble flooring.
The entrance to the Basilica of Bom Jesus in Old Goa
The elaborate, gold-gilded altar of the Basilica of Bom Jesus
The silver casket that holds the relics of St. Francis Xavier
2) Visit some of the exquisite, Indo-Portuguese mansions
Goa has several carefully preserved homes dating back to the 1700s, many of which have been passed down the generations. These colonial era homes display the finest European décor (including chandeliers, tapestries and mirrors) and house delicate Chinese porcelain collections; all indicative of the wealth and status of their owners. My personal favourite is the Figueiredo Museum, where the spirited owner, Maria Lourdes regales you with stories from her family’s glorious past.
The rustic environs of Loutulim
The Indo-Portuguese architecture of the Figueiredo mansion
3) Eat at the many beachside restaurants
Goa’s 105km coastline is dotted with seaside restaurants. Most are humble beach shacks but some like Britto’s in Baga or Martin’s Corner in Betalbatim have established quite a reputation for themselves. But let me warn you, if you suffer from agoraphobia (fear of crowded places), these eateries are not for you.
Try the more inland restaurants like Fisherman’s Wharf or Mum’s Kitchen (both in Panaji) for a quiet and authentic Goan food experience.
Rawa (semolina) coated fried fish – a local delicacy
I can’t do any justice to Goan food in one blogpost but for the moment, suffice to say that it is a tantalizing fusion of Portuguese and South Indian influences. The vinegar (as in the vindaloo dishes) comes from the Portuguese while the coconut and spices (as in xacutis and curries) comes from India.
Only the freshest seafood in Goa!
Wash the food down with beer or for the adventurous – feni, a locally brewed liquor. In the 16th century, the Portuguese brought with them, the cashew plant from Brazil. Before long, the cashew apples were being crushed, fermented and distilled to produce feni. A must-try!
When in Goa, eat and drink like the Goans. Rest assured, you will leave a few kilos heavier 🙂
4) Browse the many markets
Can’t talk about Goa without mentioning the hippies. Several years ago, they started the flea market near Anjuna beach. Today, the Wednesday market at Anjuna is a tourist staple.
The Friday markets at Mapusa and Banastarim are where the locals go to shop. While visiting these markets, remember to pick-up Goa sausages – similar to the chouricos of Portugal, only spicier!
Also add bebinca to the list. This is a divine layer cake made of flour, jaggery (traditional cane sugar), eggs and coconut milk.
5) Most importantly, just do nothing! Sunbathe – eat – sleep – repeat 🙂