Two hours by motorcycle or three hours by bus from Margao is Chauri. headquarters of Canacona taluka. which boasts a string of idyllic sandy coves along its rocky coastline.
The nearest of them, Palolem, an easy walk from Chauri, has a couple of seaside bars and accommodation for paying guests in the homes of local toddy tappers, but the main business of the town remains fishing and feni-running. The smuggling boat, a dhow-like sailing craft, leaves every Wednesday night after an uncharacteristically frenetic bout of loading activity on the part of the locals. A floating colony of Western castaways lives au naturel on an island at the end of the beach. Agonda, just north of Palolem, has been selected as the site of another five-star hotel. For the present, though, it is a kilometre-long (half-mile) stretch of virgin, palm-fringed beach backed by a friendly village with a grand, white 300-year-old church.
Similarly stunning beaches run the entire ten-kilometre (six-mile) length of the coastline of Pernem taluka at the northern end of Goa. This is Hindu country, so it is best not to rile local sensibilities by skinny-dipping. Beach-front accommodation is almost non-existent, but there is nothing to stop you from sleeping under the stars (as long as you look after your belongings; even here there arc still enough foreign visitors to make burglaries a consideration). Or you could stay at the clean and very economical resthouse run by the state tourism department in the romantic ruin of Tiracol Fort, linked to the Querim end of the beach by frequent ferries.
Sights in Goa
The first thing that strikes the eye about Goan architecture, at least in the more Europeanized parts of the state, is its monumentality. The most obvious examples are the massive church buildings now stranded on the empty grass plains or overgrown hillocks of Old Goa, like shipwrecks on some green seabed.
But even in the less deserted surroundings of the villages of Bardez and Salsete, the parish churches seem outsized compared with the pastel shop-fronts and colonnaded bungalows nearby. It is as though the masonry itself was planned with missionary intent — hectoring, aggressive sermons in stone.
Lest the point is lost on passer-by, crosses and chapels dot the roadsides, hilltops, river banks, seashores – and naturally arresting landscape feature. No coincidence, this: proselytizing Christianity made a conscious policy of usurping the sites previously occupied by Hindu and Muslim shrines.
Food and Drink in Goa
One advantage of a ’creole’ cuisine like Goa’s is that, no matter where you come from, it is bound to taste exotic. Freshly arrived Western tourists are struck by the Oriental pungencies of turmeric and cumin, not to mention some of the hottest chilli varieties anywhere. But if your visit to Goa comes at the end of a long stint in India, you will find the local flavours curiously ‘Western’ and a refreshing change from the increasingly homogenized masala that is becoming the standard restaurant fare all over the rest of the country.
Ingredients, especially seafood, tend to be fresher and less overcooked in Goa. Pork, a rarity elsewhere in India, is a staple of the Goan diet. Coconut milk and sometimes vinegar figure in the sauces to take some of the bite out of the curries and make for a richer, more complex flavour. Goan cooks arc more liberal with spices like nutmeg, cloves and cinnamon. Along with rice, the local cuisine features leavened breads rather than the unleavened flatcakes common elsewhere in India. Steamed dumplings, called ‘sanaa or ‘odo’ are also Goan favourites.
Subtler than most run-of-the mill Indian cuisine Goan cooking also requires a surer hand in the kitchen. No wonder that_Goan, cooks are of export standard. Chefs figure prominently among the emigrants Goa has been sending for generations throught the sub-continent and around the world.
They predominate in the galley of merchant ships and the kitchens of five-star hotels. They are adaptable to any cuisine from Chinese to Continental to Mughlai. But like other Goan expatriates, they are prey to gastronomic nostalgia.
Each year in the pre-monsoon months of May and June, when ‘it rains Goa flock home expressly to take care of their ancestral homesmore than alternately eat and snooze. But that is more than enough for the true cognoscenti. Early summer is when the shrimps, lobsters and fish are abundant, the cashews and coconuts arc ready for brewing into fresh feni liquor, the mango season is at its peak. Kids are on holiday from school and the Church obliges with a concentration of feast days, providing ample occasion for banquets.
In the expansive mood of one of these feasts — or Mardi Gras, or Christmas, or even just a village wedding — you might be lucky enough to land an invitation to a Goan home. That is by far the best place to sample the state’s classic cuisine. But even if nobody happens to take you home for dinner, you can still get a pretty good sense of the delicacy and ingenuity of Goan dishes just by visiting local tavernas.
For Goans, unlike most other Indians, are convivial drinkers. Every urban neighborhood and backwater village keeps two or three bars well patronized. Some of them boast three-page menus just to help wash down the feni. Featured items might include:
sorpotel. a vinegary stew of pork and pig’s liver. The deluxe version, called cabidel, also adds pig’s blood.
chorizo, the local variant of sausage, usually served in a red sauce. xacuti, a high-octane curry smoothed out with coconut milk, cloves and nutmeg.
vindaloo-style pork or fish, prepared in a piquant gravy. oyster guisado, a tomato-based soup. steamed prawns, often in a yogurt-and-mustard sauce. This preparation also works well for lobster.
cabidela de pato, dried duckling slowly simmered in an earthenware casserole. According to the classic recipe, the duck should be plied with vinegar before slaughter and later simmered in its own juices. Tamarind features in the spicing.
Other men items may be less excotic-sounding but are equally appetizing, In season you cannot go wrong with seafood. Beach front lean-to restaurants have enough to sense to serve it simply-steamed, fried or baked. Mercifully, these places have srpouted up just down the strand rom several of the five star hostelries, offering denizens of these golden ghettos a needed respite from mediocre and over-priced hotel food.
To wash down your meal, Goa produces a line of distinctly Iberian-flavoured wines under the Adega da Velha label. The whites tastes like cherry and the reds like port. For drier palates stick to Golconda, alternatively you can also try Caju-Feni
Cashew feni is belter as an aperitif than as a drink with food. It has a heavy, oily taste that clashes with some dishes. Uracco. the start-of- the-season distillate of young cashews (available only in the pre-monsoon) is lighter and more suited for table use. Coconut feni is also cleaner-tasting and more versatile. Ginger feni goes brilliantly with seafood. Drink it ice cold. Caution: feni can pack a wicked morning- after wallop. So can toddy, the sweet-sour undistilled palm wine that is the base for coconut feni.
Wherever you dine in Goa. be sure to save room for dessert. Better restaurants and tearooms boast a variety of pastries and puddings, including the classic Portuguese flan. But the undisputed queen of Goan sweets is bebinca, a multi-layered concoction of flour, eggs, coconut milk, butter and sugar that aficionados find irresistible, although it is as heavy as an ingot. For lighter appetites, mangoes round off a meal perfectly. Three Goan mango varieties are prized throughout India: Alphonsos, Fernandinas and Malcoradas.
Beaches of Goa
Beaches are why most tourists come to Goa. yet it is more than sun and sand that makes for the special cachet of this tiny stretch of coast. True, the broad, golden, palm-fringed expanse of shoreline, uninterrupted for miles on end. is as enticing as any beach on earth.
But no more so, intrinsically, than nameless strands up and down India’s scraggly coastline, let alone those of neighboring countries from Pakistan to Sri Lanka to Indonesia. But in many of these places, the beaches are either remote and inaccessible or teeming with fishermen, pilgrims and touts. Goa avoids either extreme. Villages live in close proximity and benign indifference to the seashore, offering basic amenities and diversions, but otherwise leaving holiday-makers to their own devices. Or at least, that is how it has been for the 30-odd years that Goa has been on the tourist map. The ‘creole’ culture of the Place has been sufficiently pliant, yet firmly enough rooted, to resist successive onslaughts of flower children, five-star jetsetters and busloads of newly affluent Indian families from neighboring states.
Nowadays, however, the strain is beginning to show, especially at some of the more established beach resorts, whose reputation is finally etching up with them. Cops routinely riffle through knapsacks in the tourist huts of Anjuna. Calangute and Colva, searching for drugs. Burglaries are on the rise, as much attributable to long-staying foreign beach bums as to affluence-dazzled villagers. Prude squads periodically prowl the beaches, forcibly clothing nude swimmers in a headline- tabbing byplay to political rivalry for control of Panaji’s new-fledged statehouse. (Goa achieved full statehood only in 1987).