Think Goa is just about the beaches? Think again. Shake the sand from your flip-flops and head inland to discover why Goa, a former Portuguese colony, is a world apart from the rest of India, with crumbly colonial towns, verdant forests and a distinctly hippy vibe
Even Richard F Burton, the indomitable Victorian explorer and writer who once made the hajj to Mecca disguised as a Pashtun pilgrim, was dazzled by Goa.
"Most beautiful was the hazy tone of colour all around," waxed Burton on a visit from neighbouring Hindoo’ India, before going on to describe "huge masses of masonry – some standing out from the cloudless sky, others lining the edge of the creek – ruins of very picturesque form, and churches of most unpicturesque hue."
Hindu temple in Goa (Dreamstime)
Nowadays, Goa is better known for its beach holidays. So what did Burton, in his 1851 travelogue Goa and the Blue Mountains, have to say about the sun-kissed coastline? Zilch.
Rather, he travelled down from British-ruled Bombay (now Mumbai) because he was "rudely roused by curiosity" about the Portuguese colony on the Indian subcontinent, which, at that time, had been governed from Lisbon for the past three centuries.
Like Burton before me, it wasn’t Goa’s white sands that stirred my interest. The colonial era may be behind it, but I was expecting some areas to still be closer in spirit to the Mediterranean than the rest of the subcontinent.
So I set out to discover what lay beyond the famed beaches of India’s smallest state, sniffing out its hinterlands and echoes of its 400-year-long colonial era, which only ended in 1961 when then-Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru ordered the Portuguese to be ejected by force. I was in search of a country within a country.
Being around the size of Cornwall, it would have been feasible (just about) to explore the length of Goa on day trips from a single location, and in truth that’s what most visitors do here. But to get closer to the core of this tiny state, I opted to move around.
My starting point, I have to confess, was a peach of a beach hotel, surrounded by paddies and wallowing water buffaloes. From the five-star Alila Diwa, I walked ten minutes along a track beneath deep green mango trees tasselled with fruit bats to a swathe of palm-fringed white sand where I necked my first King’s beer in the shade of a weathered fishing boat painted with Hindu and Catholic symbols.
Betalbatim beach (Dreamstime)
This was Betalbatim beach, down in the south of Goa, a far-flung, little developed stretch of Arabian Sea-side. If people tell you that Goa’s coast has been ‘spoiled by tourism’, tell them to come here. (Actually, on second thoughts, don’t).
Alert to the danger of drifting into a tropical trance, I asked my driver to point his exhaust pipe at paradise and take me inland.
Soon we were weaving through coconut plantations dotted with whitewashed Portuguese churches. Chickens and little black pigs scattered as we sped through villages strung with cafés and wine shops.
First stop was the stately, though unkempt, Palácio do Deão colonial residence in the languid village of Quepem. I was greeted by a panting dog stood on a stone veranda tiled with blue azulejos ceramics) from Lisbon. I had expected to work hard in unearthing those tastes of old Portugal, not find them everywhere.
My host was Ruben Vasco da Gama. Was he related to his namesake discoverer of the sea route to India?
“Maybe, maybe not. I don’t really know how long ago my family settled in Goa,” Senhor Vasco da Gama replied enigmatically, as we wandered the rambling formal gardens and ageing home he hopes, in time, to turn into a colonial heritage hotel.
“I believe there is a growing interest in Goa’s hinterland, both geographically and culturally,” he predicted with confidence.
Braganza House (Dreamstime)
Imperial age tourism is already up and running in nearby Chandor town, where my next stop was at the imperious 17th-century Braganza House, which struck me as resembling something like a French château.
The house has survived recent times by doubling as a museum and octogenarian Senhora Pereira-Braganza, who has lived here since Portugal ruled the roost, showed me round the East Wing.
Speaking Portuguese, as the older generation do (and because I understand the language), she pointed out bits of finery from the vanquished era, such as furniture from France, paintings from England, chandeliers from Belgium and china from China.
“And your television is from Japan,” I observed.
“Yes,” she nodded solemnly, leading the way to the tiny, candle-lit chapel housing a holy relic: a fingernail of St Francis Xavier.
I was to find out more about the so-called ‘Apostle of the Indies’, not to mention his digits, in the city of Old Goa. The former capital of Portuguese India lies on a hill a few kilometres inland. At its zenith, it was known as the ’Rome of the East’ and rivalled European capitals in scale, splendour and wealth.
Then, following a wave of deadly plague in the early 19th-century, it was completely abandoned, with a new capital (Panjim) eventually being built to its west in 1843.
Arch of viceroys (Dreamstime)
Empty and haunting, the city echoed to the wingbeat of pigeons. Today, there is virtually no resident population living among the soaring bell towers, fortress walls, grand portals and triumphalist arches – some of them restored, others pink and grey stone ruins.
This was the ‘hazy tone of colour’ and the ‘huge masses of masonry’ that had Burton’s lyrical juices flowing. I was reminded of Fatehpur Sikri, the Mughal capital built on a similarly massive scale near Agra, then abandoned for lack of water.
In the Basilica of Bom Jesus, a few leathery bits of Francis Xavier were just visible through his glass-fronted silver casket. Under Portuguese patronage the revered saint evangelised as much of Asia as he could before he later died in China in 1552.
His mortal remains – completely uncorrupted, it is said – were returned to Goa and have been paraded through the streets once every ten years ever since.
“You are too late. He came out last year, so you’ll have to wait till 2025 now,” laughed guide Armando Silva before telling me how, in 1634, during the first exposition of the saint’s body in Goa, a woman, in a state of religious zeal bit off the little toe of his right foot.
“And that’s not all,” he chuckled. “During the 1995 parade, another adoring woman bit off the little toe of his left foot.” Symmetry at last.
Colourful street in Panaji (Dreamstime)
The flavours of Lisbon remain strong in Goa’s state capital Panaji (still widely called Panjim, its Portuguese name), built on the hilly south bank of the Mandovi estuary.
I settled into a rather rough-and-ready old colonial-era home, The Panjim Inn, at the heart of Fontainhas, its easy-paced ‘Latin Quarter’.
There I wandered through a bewildering amalgam of Iberia and India: languid lanes of cottages with shuttered windows; sun-bleached churches and whining yellow auto-rickshaws; and a river-front café with Ganesha, the elephant-headed Hindu god sitting trunk by jowl alongside the Virgin Mary.
And what could be more anomalous in India than everyday restaurants full of locals tucking into plates of beef and pork?
One such dish is carne de vinha d’alhos, a stew of meat with wine and garlic, and thought by many to be the precursor to ‘vindaloo’, its original Portuguese name having morphed as it spread through the subcontinent, before being appropriated (with added spice) by the British.
I was learning fast that Goa’s dissimilarities with the rest of India went far deeper than the buildings and the food. I kept hearing Goans talk about India as if it was a foreign country, and vice versa.
And, especially in Panaji, there is a laidback, distinctly Mediterranean tempo, with church bells chiming away the hours – every other city I’d been to in India was characterised by noise and frenzy. There is a term for Goa’s easy-going approach to life: susegad, a Konkani word deriving from the Portuguese for ‘tranquil’ (sossegado).
I needed to venture further afield to be reminded that Goa remains part of India. The Hindu temples – and the odd mosque – that dotted the town of Ponda offered a clue that this inland region was only incorporated into Portuguese India 250 years after the colonists arrived.
Shri Mangueshi temple (Dreamstime)
Crucially, the days of forceful Catholic proselytisation had by then segued into relative religious tolerance. Susegad felt like a distant dream at the Shri Mangueshi temple, where I joined throngs of barefoot pilgrims from all over India, bowing in devotion before an incarnation of Shiva amid clashing cymbals, flames, chanting and the smell of sandalwood.
Still, Ponda’s other draw – its spice plantations – bear testimony to the lucrative trade that brought the Portuguese to Goa in the first place. The one I went to doubled as a tourist operation, with cultural shows as well as walks through the forests, where cardamom, turmeric and nutmeg are cultivated.
Cashew trees became the main crop as I headed deeper into the hinterland. The nuts are delicious, but the main reason they are grown here is for their colourful, apple-sized fruit, which are mashed, fermented and distilled into the feni firewater, often offered on the house after a restaurant meal.
Silage-like whiffs wafted from crude, open-air distilleries as we snaked high up into Chorla Ghats, a forested range of waterfalls and wildlife that forms Goa’s natural border with the states of Maharashtra and Karnataka.
The British would no doubt have built a hill station and a narrow gauge railway to get there.
However, the Portuguese colonists were less interested in the unpopulated extremes of their territory and left no trace in these mountains.
I stayed at the recently built (and wonderfully named) Wildernest Nature Resort, a scattering of unfussy wooden bungalows and a beautifully discreet infinity pool sculpted from the mountainside, as if nature had intended it.
There are barking deer, sloth bears and even leopards in the forest, though these proved elusive. But dawn on my balcony, watching troupes of monkeys swinging through the trees and graceful hornbills gliding by, was a moment of magic. Crimson sunset atop Swapnagandha (meaning ‘fragrance of dreams’) hill was another.
Back on the coast, this time on the busy stretch north of Panaji, I felt I needed at least a peek at the beaches where the world’s ‘flower children’ arrived in the 1960s. The hippy vibe, I now realise, was perfectly attuned to the susegad lifestyle.
I am not sure they would find Calangute and Baga’s beaches quite as groovy now, what with noisy jet skis, hardcore clubs and giant TV screens pumping out Indian Premier League cricket. Europeans, Russians and Israelis all fill resorts, but Goa’s main tourism market is now India’s affluent middle classes.
Even Anjuna beach, the hippest hangout of all from the old days, seems to have become a bit of a Goa institution now; almost a hippy-era museum. The dirt track down to this stretch of golden sand has been preserved rather than replaced with tar while stalls selling sarongs and trinkets are faithfully laid out under palm-leaf shelters.
Driving up the far-north coastal road, the tourist resorts petered out after Aswem and Mandrem. That left just Arambol beach, a curve of sand and surf cradled between cliffs and backed by bamboo huts for rent.
Here, perhaps, was my last chance of finding some vestiges of flower power? But instead of peace signs and Bob Dylan songs strummed on battered guitars, I met a noisy, though very polite, gang of Gujarati medical students enjoying beach life.
“Gujarat is a 100 per cent dry state, but here we can drink beer 24/7,” enthused physician-of-tomorrow Harjit.
Fort Tiracol (Dreamstime)
My final stop – and perhaps the most enchanted spot on my whole journey – was Fort Tiracol, a tiny outpost of Goa on the northern jaw of the Tiracol river that separates Goa and Maharashtra.
From Querim on the south bank, my driver manoeuvred the car on to a small roll-on-roll-off ferry that was crammed with trucks, scooters and one skittish goat, and we drove our way to the fort.
From its crenelated walls, high on a rocky perch overlooking the estuary, it was easy to see why this fort had been bickered over for centuries. Originally built by India’s Maratha Empire, the Portuguese captured it in 1746 for its strategic defence against aggressors and it played host to occupants ranging from British garrisons to nationalist movements in the lead up to Nehru’s 1961 fightback.
Nowadays, it is hard to think of anywhere more peaceful. The fort has been turned into a luxury heritage hotel, with seven enormous suites. There’s nothing to do here – no beach, not even a swimming pool – so I went for lunch in the restaurant on the ramparts.
In view of the estuary, ocean and unblemished white beaches that swept southwards, I sucked on tiger prawns the size of bananas. Overhead a huge bird of prey was turning on the same trade winds that brought the first Portuguese explorers 500 years ago.
The author travelled with The Goa Experience (www.goaexperience.co.uk) who have a 14-night journey, including flights, private transfers, four nights at Alila Diwa, two nights at Panjim Inn, one night at Wildernest Nature Resort and six nights at Acron Waterfront Resort.
Main image: Old Goa (Dreamstime)