An amalgam of spices, women in colorful saris, busy streets with a hundred rickshaws and a thousand passersby, heavily decorated temple towers and an exuberant frankincense smell filling the air. This is most probably the picture our minds conjure whenever India is mentioned. However, the Indian Subcontinent is huge, and each part of it offers a unique and peculiar travel experience. Goa is no different.Looking back at history, most of India suffered an extended period of British colonization, but not Goa.The small western state, overlooking the Arabian Sea, was a Portuguese colony. Soon after Vasco da Gama rounded the Cape of Good Hope in 1498 and discovered a new maritime trade route that connects Europe to South Asia, Portuguese interest in Asia grew considerably. In 1510, another Portuguese by the name of Afonso de Albuquerque landed in Goa. After a fierce battle with the local forces led by King Ismail Adel Shah, Albuquerque took control of the city. Goa’s population had a Hindu majority at the time. Disliking their rulers, they greeted the Portuguese as their new liberators. Those feelings didn’t last for long. The Portuguese soon frowned upon the heathen Hindus and started prosecuting the Goans wholesale.
That was the start of the horrific Goa Inquisition. Similar to the Spanish and Portuguese ones, the Goa Inquisition prosecuted newly converted Catholics, often dubbed as New Christians, suspected of practicing their ancestral religions in secrecy, as well as non-converts who observed their faith or broke Catholicism prohibitions. The notorious autos-da-fé, trials of faith, lasted between 1560 and 1812, except for a brief four-year suspension between 1774 and 1778. It saw thousands of victims tortured, killed or burned in effigy.Round the turn of the 17th century, the Dutch started to record their presence in Indian waters, posing as a direct threat to the Portuguese. Though the Portuguese managed to keep the Dutch at bay, their power dwindled. In two centuries time, their occupation suffered another blow when India gained independence from Great Britain. The Indian calls for withdrawal fell on deaf Portuguese ears, leaving the patriotic Indians, who subscribed to Gandhi’s non-violent resistance, no other choice but to launch Operation Vijay on Dec. 16, 1961. In no more than 36 hours, the Portuguese forces surrendered unconditionally.
The Portuguese might be long gone, but their legacy lingers on, up till today. Old Goa, the former state capital, is peppered with churches, monasteries, and cathedrals all built following colonial Portuguese architecture. Heading the league is the stunning Basilica of Bom Jesus. It was built using laterite stone, and contrary to the rest of Goa’s churches, it comes in without exterior plastering. The Basilica of Bom Jesus is most famous for being the resting place for St. Francis Xavier’s incorrupt body. The Spanish born Apostle of the Indies, as he is better known as, dedicated his life to missionary activities in Goa and further afield. For long after his death in 1552, St. Francis Xavier’s body remained intact — something that was deemed a miracle at the time. Every Dec. 3rd, the Feast of St. Francis Xavier is held, and once every ten years the saint’s body (now preserved in a glass coffin), is paraded through the streets. It is the time when devotees from all over the Roman Catholic realms flock to Old Goa.
My most favorite Old Goa church is the Church of St. Francis of Assisi. It took off as a small chapel built by eight Franciscan friars back in 1517. However, a series of additions, replacements and rebuilds led to the grand church you see today. Note the Manueline styled doorway, as well as the several maritime theme ornaments that adorn the walls.After you are done visiting Old Goa sites, head to the Church of Our Lady of the Mount. Located on a hilltop, it offers 360º panoramic views of Old Goa draped in lush greenery — a perfect postcard-like picture to send back home.Not long after independence in 1960s, hippies started frequenting Goa, and in no time the place turned into a hippies’ wonderland. Thousand of tourists followed the hippies’ trail, and by the turn of the 21st century, Goa had become one of the world’s top sun and fun destinations. Enjoying a lovely sunshine and moderate temperature between October and April, Goa is on the map of relaxation seekers and partygoers alike.
Where in Goa you want to go depends on what you are looking for. Goa is divided into two main sections: north and south. North Goa retains much of its bohemian hippie style with a plethora of simple and budget accommodations on offer. It comes with an amazingly beautiful long beach dotted with restaurants and eateries offering spicy Indian delicacies. This part of Goa is marked with several pedestrian-only dirt roads peppered with shops and makeshift kiosks selling all type of souvenirs and knickknacks. One important item to buy while you are here is the cashew nut — Goan cashew is among the best in the world. If you are big on jewelry, especially pieces that come with unusual exotic designs, look up a couple of jewelry shops in North Goa. Speaking of after dark, the nightlife here is at its best with plenty of venues to go bar hopping, as well as several nightclubs if you are in the mood for some hardcore partying.
Heading to the other end of the state, South Goa is completely different animal. Instead of the vibrant sun and fun mode of the north, the south is all about relaxation in style. Here, fancy hotels and resorts make up the accommodation scene with The Zuri White Sands topping the league. Blending authentic elements with modern ones, the hotel exteriors are colonial in style while the interiors follow a more modern one, yet with touches of authenticity that keeps you reminded that you are in beautiful Goa. All the hotel buildings are no more than two stories high, which gives the place an overall amicable and relaxing feel to it. The hotel also hosts a casino on site in case you would like to try out your luck with a couple of chips. Though there is no real need to leave the Zuri White Sands, as everything is readily available, there is frequent transportation to North Goa should you want to sample the other platter.Goa has managed to surprise me in a way I didn’t expect. Indeed, the frankincense smell, the multitude of spices, the crowded streets, and the colorful saris were all there, but so were the colonial churches of Old Goa, the sun-and-fun hippies’ playground of the North, as well as the serene and luxurious South. It is true in every sense that Goa is uniquely Indian – Arabnews