David Abram scours the backwaters and palm groves of India's Portuguese corner in search of the most authentically Goan places to stay
Back in the late 1950s, Norman Lewis was seduced by the languorous charms of the Hotel Central: 'a precious repository of the atmosphere of Goa... The fine old Portuguese colonial building growing naturally from the red earth... is the colour of Spanish oxide... Coconuts and frangipani blossoms float down a jade-green stream at the back... and burnished bright-eyed crows come hopping into the front rooms and try to fly away with the guests' sunglasses.' (A View of the World, Eland, 1986)
Goa – in those days a 24-hour steamer ride from Bombay – was approaching the end of its colonial era. Only a few years later, Nehru finally gave up trying to negotiate with the recalcitrant Portuguese dictator Salazar and ordered what turned our to be a largely peaceful invasion of the enclave, bringing 451 years of India Portuguesa to a close.
Arriving in Goa today, it's easy to understand why Nehru's troops received a cool reception. Then, as now, Goans – both Hindus and Christians minority – were quietly proud of their distinctive way of life and concerned that 'liberation' might herald a loss of identity and a drop in quality of life. Statehood has guaranteed some autonomy, but the tidal wave of Indianisation predicted by Goan nationalists back then has most certainly broken. For travellers like me, long enough in the tooth to remember what Goa was like before the post-Independence boom, it's always a shock to see the new resorts, huge construction sites, Pepsi hoardings and shanty encampments that seem to pop up like mushrooms after each rainy season.
But the Goa fondly remembered by hundreds of thousands of expats who left in the 1960s and 1970s hasn't entirely disappeared – at least, not yet. The Hotel Central may have been replaced by a moldering concrete block but there are others that Lewis would recognise and enjoy for their quirky Goan feel. To find them, however, you have to turn your back on the beach resorts.
With evocative Portuguese-Konkani names such as Siolim, Aldona, Chandor and Loutolim, the settlements of the Velhas Conquistas – the land taken in the first wave of Portuguese colonisation back in the 16th century – nestle beside rivers and patches of brilliant green paddy at the centre of the state. This is the Christian heartland, where every village holds a church with icing-sugar baroque facades, and dim little 'De Sousa' and 'Pereira' bars whose wall cabinets display bottles of sweet port wine and Old Monk rum. Early each morning, poee-wallahs tour the lanes selling fluffy white Portuguese rolls from rickety bicycles and on Sundays the locals side along in flattering tailored dresses with puffed sleeves or crisps shirts and slacks.
It was in villages such as these that the wealthy Goan landowning classes – Brahmin converts whom the Portuguese left in charge when they trickled back to Portugal in the 17th- and 18th-centuries – erected the most charismatic colonial vestiges of all: the grand houses or palacios. Rising from a mantle of red-laterite dust and tropical foliage, they're curious hybrid piles, steeped in Lusitanian melancholy and he faded grandeur of a forgotten empire. Under their sloping, pitch-tiled roofs, pillared verandas with polished floors frame scenes that could have come straight from the pages of a magical realist novel. Their gates are flanked by grinning lions or saluting boy soldiers. Ceramic Chinese dragons lean from gutters wreathed in bougainvillea, and huge hibiscus glimpses through an oyster-shell window of a salon full of fancy rosewood furniture, Venetian crystal and Macau porcelain, with perhaps a garlanded oratory on the wall alongside sepia ancestral portraits.
Unfortunately, of the old palacios that have survived centuries of out-migration and inheritance disputes – not to mention the annual monsoons – few have actually opened their doors to visitors. Which is a pity, because only by spending a bit of time in them do you get a sense of what it must have been like to live there.
Over the past few years, however, a handful of heritage hotels have popped up in Goa in which you can stay in colonial-era high style. Prioritising traditional atmosphere over mod cons, it's a trend that flies in the face of the state government's obsession with five-star luxury, but has proved a successful way both of preserving historic buildings and of giving travellers some sense of what Goa was like before Independence – a perspective that's blissfully far removed from the Kingfisher-lager-fuelled brashness of the resorts.
Address: Siolim, Bardez
Spread along the banks of the Chapora River, a 20-minute scooter ride from some of Goa’s finest beaches, Siolim village harbours a bumper crop of old palacios, among them the residence of the former governor of Macau. This300-year-old building was in a dilapidated state when a couple of forward-thinking developers took it over in 1996. Standing proud in manicured gardens, it has been beautifully restored and now has seven huge rooms arranged around a flower-filled courtyard. Traditional oyster-shell windows filter the fierce sunshine and the floors have been remade in varnished Indian hardwoods; the only concession to modern taste is a big outdoor pool.
Doubles from Rs2,400/£32 per person per night.
Address: H 1284, Bamonwaddo, Siolim
No less than 11 signatures were needed for German couple Ute and Raimund Schütz to buy their dream home on the opposite side of Siolim. Its former owners would be amazed to see it today. Painted vivid cobalt blue, the house – a grand Hindu mansion built according to ancient Sanskrit architectural principals – now ranks among the most stylish guest addresses in India. It has three airy bedroom-suites, and two luxury bathrooms. Two huge terraces on the upper floor create long, airy lounges, dappled by light from the mango trees outside; and there’s a special ‘Full Moon’ terrace lined with broken pieces of reflective white china.
Sumptuous and ultra-stylish, but hardly a snip at £2000 and upwards per week (for the whole house).
Address: Tiracol, Pernem
The site of a now long-forgotten revolt against Portuguese rule, Fort Tiracol occupies the northernmost tip of Goa, a narrow slice of land on the far side of the Terekhol River. It's not much to look at from the outside but the interiors are very stylish indeed, with oxide-washed floors, designer furniture and reproduction antiques from around India. Clinging to a steep hillside, the fort is a deliciously moody place to stay, evoking as strongly as anywhere the feel of 18th- and 19th-century Portuguese Goa. Aim to be here for sunset, when the views south over deserted Querim beach from the hotel terrace are sublime.
Doubles from Rs3,650/£47 per night (half board for two).
Address: E-212, 31st January Road, Fontainhas, Panaji, Goa
Fontainhas is the tumbledown old quarter of the state capital, Panjim (or Panaji), and there’s no better place to soak up the colonial-era charm of the district than the Panjim Inn. Owner Ajit Sukhija renovated the family home of his mother (a lady doctor and, more improbably, Goa’s first Harley Davidson biker, he assured me) but kept a lot of the antique furniture – including some lovely four-posters – to preserve the original feel of the building. More recently, he acquired a second property across the street (Panjim Pousada), an old-style Hindu home whose highlight is a wonderful first-storey verandah with paddle fans and creaky wood floors, shaded by a magnificent breadfruit tree.
Doubles from Rs675/£8.60 a night.
Address: H 377, Loutolim, Salcete
Of all the heritage properties in Goa, this is the only one actually situated in a functioning stately home – the palacio of sisters Donna Georgina and Maria de Lourdes Figuereido de Albuquerque. Its three guest rooms are on the gloomy side, it has to be said, but nowhere else in the state can compare for old-world atmosphere. Express an interest and Maria de Lourdes may give you a guided tour of the house.
The salons are stuffed full of museum pieces, with Chinese vases, East India Company plates and 17th- and 18th-century sisal wood furniture numbering among the many treasured heirlooms. The ballroom is lit by three dazzling Venetian crystal chandeliers with huge mirrors at each end. And don't forget the dining room – its polished wooden floors can host 80 dinner guests.
This charming address is a unique cultural experience anyone with more than a passing interest in Goa shouldn’t miss; and the authentic Indo-Portuguese cuisine is superb, too.
Doubles cost from around £30 (half board for two).
When the Sequeira family built this gorgeous little beach-side bolt hole in 1886, there wasn’t another building in sight. Miraculously, there still isn’t. Here you pay for the exclusive run of one of Goa’s prettiest properties and unrivalled privacy. The house itself, painted in traditional red oxide with sun-bleached blue shutters, is a dream. To reach it you have to cross a private bamboo bridge straddling a creek full of tiny fish. But what makes it unique is its location, slap on the state’s last strip of undeveloped beach. With your feet up on a planter’s chair, enjoying the sunset from the breezy verandah, the only things in front of you are an empty beach, and the Arabian Sea. Perfection.
Renting the house (which sleeps six) costs from £500-1,450 per week.