We had heard from several people that there is a very definite difference to Goa from the rest of India, but it's when you come to the capital that you really see and feel the uniqueness of this part of India.
The natural harbours and wide rivers made Goa and important base for the Portuguese who arrived in 1510 with the aim to control the spice route to the East. Goa had been a center of activity since the 3rd century BC and the Muslims had controlled the region as far back as 1312. Goa's harbours saw the arrival of ships laden with Arabian horses bound for the Vijayanagar calvary. Jesuit missionaries led by St. Fracis Xavier arrived in 1542 and today Roman Catholicism remains a major religion. There are more western clothes than sarees, more wine and spirits shops than anywhere else in India and there are festivals throughout the year. Goans have the highest per capital income in all of India, but they have managed to achieve an easy-going, relaxed nature and are respectful of all who come to indulge themselves in this piece of tropical paradise.
Just 9 km east of the capital, Panjim (newly renamed Panaji) is the former Portuguese capital of Old Goa. This was a thriving centre even before the arrival of the Portuguese, with a fortress surrounded by walls and a moat. There is only one part of the palace gateway remaining today amongst the several stunning churches to give us a sense of the city that was once said to rival Lisbon.
In the evening, we took an autorickshaw out to Old Goa and toured the remaining churches. Luckily there is a renewed interest in restoration of these amazing structures and we enjoyed their beauty even while we picked our way around the scaffolding and workers. I have never been to Europe (I tell people that I'm saving the easy places for my old age!), so this was my introduction to huge, awe-inspiring Christian churches. I keep telling myself that this is just the way to start. These churches may not have seemed so incredible if I had already been to Florence, Rome or Paris. I would have liked more time to explore, but we know we will return to Goa on our next trip to India for a more thorough visit - this just gave us a taste of this delicious place.
We stayed in the center of the city of Panjim and in the morning set off on a 4.5 km self-guided walking tour of the town that is outlined in the Lonely Planet. Just at the end of the street we came upon the Church of Our Lady of Immaculate Conception. This church was consecrated in 1541 and was the first port of call for sailors from Portugal who would stop to give thanks for a safe crossing, before continuing on to Old Goa. Just a couple of blocks away, we came upon the lovely buildings that lend Goa it's charm. I took a few pictures to share with you - one of the most unusual things I saw here were the oyster-shell windows in some of the houses. The cut shells are placed between strips of wood in place of glass. This allows light to come into the rooms without sacrificing privacy in the ground floor rooms.
The walking tour was quite strenuous in the late March heat and humidity, but I am so glad we persevered as we came upon the beautiful Maruti Temple just before we scaled the large hill in the center of town. This colourful Hindu temple dedicated to Hanuman (the monkey God) was so very different from any other we have seen during our tour of South India. The fact that orange is one of my favorite colours made it all the more memorable. By the time we had done the walking tour, the heat had really overwhelmed me and I was so happy to reach our air-conditioned hotel where we could revive ourselves before our afternoon flight to Mumbai. I would not suggest a trip to Goa in March, no wonder the sensible tourists have cleared out by the end of February. But mark my words, we will be back to see more of this incredible part of India.