Goa: an Indian gem

by Trevor.Claringbold

Goa's famous for its beaches - and rightly so - but this former Portuguese colony on India's west coast also has a wealth of other natural and cultural highlights that might surprise you


A tiny piece of Portugal nestles on the Indian sub-continent. Well, technically not any more, since Goa was absorbed by India in 1961. But for 450 years this was Portugal’s foothold in Asia. While the surrounding countries were bloodying themselves in conflicts, Goa went calmly about its business of fishing and farming. That calm, relaxed, time-doesn’t-matter attitude was my most overriding impression when I visited.

I knew all about the miles of gorgeous palm-fringed sandy beaches, and the turquoise waters of the Arabian Sea. Every guidebook, travel brochure and website has pictures of them to tempt you. I have to admit to being pleasantly surprised, however, by just how much more this tiny province has to offer.

I was staying at the charming Hotel Golden Eye, in one of the main tourist resorts, Calangute. It’s a pleasant mid-range hotel, run by a Swiss-Goan family who are both friendly and knowledgeable. As well as the tasteful, comfortable rooms, I appreciated the excellent seafood restaurant.

The town itself has grown dramatically in the last few decades, capitalising on the influx of both overseas and Indian visitors. That said, it’s not without appeal. The lively bustle of people and traffic, combined with the exotic mix of aromas when the spices of the local food stalls meet the fragrant sea air, made this an intriguing place to explore.

I found the main tourist district, near the beach, a strange blend of 21st-century aspirations, and (in places) decidedly 19th-century standards. Malnourished cows, apparently strays, wander past five-star hotels, while India’s well-to-do, in their Prada shoes, pick their way through rotting rubbish beside the road. It’s not a clean town, but then this is India, and health and hygiene have never been things they excel in. Thankfully it’s mostly not obtrusive, and as long as you stay sensible, only drink bottled water, and steer clear of food stalls that are surrounded by piles of rubbish, you should be all right.

The lines of souvenir stalls, markets and hawkers do give the place a real buzz, and there are plenty of nice areas and pleasant restaurants. Try the Souza Lobo, right on the beach, where I downed a very agreeable dish of tiger prawns and stuffed avocados.

The beach in Calangute is nothing special, but a short trip north to Anjuna provides the tourist-poster white sands, and a far more pleasant town generally. It’s renowned for its flea market, held every Wednesday, although that naturally means it’s inundated with visitors for that day. There are boats that will take you from either Baga or Calangute, making the trip more interesting than the standard coach excursion. It’s a fabulously colourful event, with traders in multicoloured traditional garb, and goods from right across India, Tibet and the Himalayas. It’s the best place if you’re souvenir hunting, but go prepared for some hard bartering to get a bargain.

I spent the whole day exploring the flea market and the old town area, with just a brief stop for lunch at the Sea Breeze, in the Market Place, and returned the next day to find it a completely different town. Peace and tranquillity were restored, with hardly a tourist to be seen, and the paradise beach offering ample space. Towards the southern end of the beach were makeshift tents and a small multinational group of ageing hippies - a faint reminder of the days of the Sixties and Seventies when this was a stronghold of such free spirits.

To the south of Calangute, the beach ends in a rocky headland, on top of which is the best preserved of all the Portuguese defences: Fort Aguada. I took a local bus along the coast, and was very impressed at what I found. Part of the citadel now serves as a prison, and therefore is not open to the public, but above that the rest of the structure is suitably magnificent. A huge water cistern sits in the main square, which could hold up to 10 million litres of fresh water. Nearby is Asia’s oldest lighthouse.
Goa is famous for it’s coast, and rightly so, but I also had the opportunity to explore inland. The largest town in the northern district, Mapusa, made a good trip for the Friday market, and the historic feel of the former capital – now known as Old Goa – also made an interesting visit. I wandered the maze of winding streets, saw the wealth of beautifully preserved churches. The main Cathedral Square has perfectly manicured lawns where many visitors stop and picnic. It lost a little of its restfulness for me after I read a sign detailing the history of this spot, which included it being used for public hangings, cockfights, and as a military parade ground!
My longest trip inland was to the Bhagwan Mahaveer Sanctury, on Goa’s eastern border. The huge wildlife park ranges from mountains in the north, through dense forests that take on an almost jungle-like appearance, to open plains with tribal villages and gentle rivers. I had been told of the stunning Dudhsagar waterfalls, and was determined to see them for myself. The jeep trip through the breathtaking countryside turned out to be every bit as special as the falls themselves. This is a historic land, with traditions dating back centuries, and a visit to the Mahadeva Temple – said to be Goa’s best preserved ancient monument – made me realise just how long people have been carving a living here. A brief visit to the Devil's Canyon, with its picturesque scenery, and deadly crocodiles, made me wish I’d opted for the overnight version of this excursion.
Sadly, my visit to the mountains, like my visit to Goa, was over all too soon. If there’s one tip I would give, it’s if you are thinking of going, go soon. The encroachment of tourism is slowly eroding the traditional side of life here, and with Goa’s unbounded beauty, that’s not going to change.


With more than 30 years experience as a writer and broadcaster, including 14 years with the BBC, Trevor's main passions are travel and history. He has travelled widely, including to the most remote parts of Africa to report on the work of aid charities. He is also an accomplished photographer, and edits a number of websites. He lives on the Kent coast, with his wife and daughter. Favourite places: it's always difficult to choose a favourite place, having visited so many wonderful destinations. Essentially, I like those places that are well off the beaten track, such as the beautiful Isle of Valaam in the north of Russia, or following the smaller roads through the European mountains. However, top of my list is always Africa. The people are wonderful, the scenery is breathtaking, and, as anyone who has ever travelled there will tell you, Africa just gets under your skin forever!