Goan cuisine is often described as spicy and flavoursome, yet gentle on the palate: a description that also fairly well sums up Goa.
It is India’s smallest state, located on the west coast washed by the Arabian Sea, blessed with natural harbours, wide rivers and glorious beaches – some 75 miles of them.
Yet it has far more to offer than beach resorts. Move away from the coast and the visitor will discover lakes and water falls, forests, spice farms, cashew plantations and wildlife sanctuaries as well as churches, temples and forts bearing witness to its rich historical past.
Over the centuries Goa has had many rulers but one of the most influential were the Portuguese who established a settlement there in 1510 to control the spice route from the east. They remained for 450 years playing a big role in Goan culture. Evidence of the Portuguese occupation can be seen today not only in the food but in some of the mansions still standing as well as other buildings such as Hindu temples.
In colonial days the old capital, now known as Old Goa, was a powerful, thriving, bustling, wealthy city one of the great cities of the world. Today it is a UNESCO World Heritage site with several surviving churches and ruins. Don’t miss the Church of Bom Jesus wherein lie the remains of Saint Francis Xavier, Goa’s patron saint, or Our Lady of the Rosary that also offers panoramic views. The church and convent of St Francis of Assisi has been converted into a good archaeological museum.
Panjim (Panaji) is the modern state capital, a city begun in the late 18th century. It is a pleasant place built on the banks of the Mandovi river with a number of green spaces and elegant buildings. You could be forgiven for thinking you are in Portugal when you look at the Church of Mary Immaculate Conception with its sweeping white staircases. The city’s old latin quarter of Fontainhas is particularly attractive.
There is even more evidence of Goa’s colonial past for visitors who head south. The best beaches are considered to be here along with rich, fertile farmland and financially lucrative mines. And a number of well-maintained colonial homes in Margao.
Deep inland, closer to the Karnataka border in the Sanguem region is the intricately carved black basalt temple at Tambdi Surla dedicated to Lord Shiva , built so that the dawn sun shines onto his statue. Also in the region is the Bhagvan Mahaveer Sanctuary, the largest of Goa’s wildlife sanctuaries. For tigers, however, head to Canacona region and the Cotiagao Wildife Sanctuary.
Flea markets abound and are fascinating places to explore and pick up some local handicrafts. Visitors who love nosing round foody places should head for Margao and look out for the dried fish, spice and cashew nut shops.