Window on Goa

Cashews, cafes, coconuts and chillies. You could say that this southern state of India is brought to you by the letter C.

(Don't be startled - these prices are in rupees - around 55 to the dollar)

This cafe we discovered on a walk one morning, in Calanute, just down the road from the new Novotel hotel where we were staying in Goa. We had passed it several times on the bus and its logo on the front (behind a maze of bamboo scaffolding) proclaimed 'a lot can happen over a cup of coffee'. That was enough to make us curious. Cafe Coffee Day seems to be a franchise in southern India, and inside, away from the works-in-progress outside, we found the coffee was remarkably good, and better still it came with blissful air-conditioning and comfy seats. The patrons have a good selection to choose from and the reverse of this menu card offered a bunch of coolingly tempting slushy drinks. A good start, we figured.

 

(Novotel lobby)

Let's pause here and remind ourselves that Goa is a state of India and not a city. It is the country's smallest state located about two-thirds of the distance down the western coast of the country. With an area of just 3700 square kilometres, it is about half the size of metropolitan London.

Goa is unique, as for 450 years, until it was annexed by India in 1961, it was under Portuguese rule. This results in differences in everything from cuisine to culture reflecting its relative separation from the rest of the sub-continent for centuries.

enjoy this short video of our visit to Goa

We have eaten hundreds of these nuts – many kilos over the years – but until this visit (our first) to Goa, I had never fully realised how cashews present themselves on the tree. Above is the cashew apple, or fruit, and the nut that we all know and love is in that cashew-shaped 'stem'. Simple arithmetic tells you that you need a lot of these fruit to even begin to fill a bag of cashews. And yes, the locals do eat the fruit, but no-one I spoke to seemed too enthusiastic about it.

However, what does get Goan eyes sparkling, is mention of an alcoholic spirit made from cashew apples. Fenny is strong (40%+) and has a distinct and not always appreciated aroma, although this is said to be an indication of how well it has been made. 

Cashew feni is distilled employing the traditional pot still (see above). A traditional distilling feni still is known as a bhatti. The use of an earthen pot as the boiling pot has now been replaced with copper pots, both known by the same name bhann. The distillate is collected in an earthen pot called a launni. The tradition of cold water being continuously poured on the launni to condense the distillate has now been replaced by immersing a coil in cold water.

We had been invited to visit the Goa International Travel Mart, which brought together tourism and hospitality companies from around Goa as well as media like us, travel agents and other tourism buyers.

 

As in any developing country, tourism is extremely important to India, and in some ways, because of its political history, Goa has some catching up to do with the rest of the country. Most recently Goa has become the destination of choice for Indian and foreign tourists, particularly Britons, with limited means who want to party, and the river is filled with casino ships ready and waiting for 'offshore gambling'. It seems that Goa is especially attractive to Russian tourists too, and it's not uncommon to see signs in Russian on tourist signs and material.  

Goa has all levels of accommodation, from simple home-stays to luxury hotels. The Grand Hyatt Goa, on Bambolin Bay, is one of Goa's best.

There are several restaurants and we sampled as many as we could in the couple of days we had there. The Dining Room offers all meals with a magnifcent buffet and traditional breads made to order.

Although only opened recently, the decor reflects Goa's Portuguese heritage.

Our suite was brilliantly appointed. The bathroom had vanity units at each end, equipped with every amenity you could think of.....

.... and then there was this on the balcony overlooking the gardens and the bay.

Goa's climate is fairly much the same all year: 21-28C in winter and 24-35C in summer, with annual rains from June to September. Obviously this free-form swimming pool is popular year-round, and there's also a 25-metre indoor lap-pool and the Shamana Spa with 19 treatment rooms, several of them for couples.

One major surprise for us was to discover that the ocean which washes the Goan coastline is not the Indian Ocean, but  seemingly more romantically – it is the Arabian Sea. These seats give a front row view of the sunset over the water each evening.

Set in 28 hectares of tropical gardens, the Grand Hyatt seems like light years away from the busy main city of Panjim (also called Panaji) but it is really only about 15 minutes by car. Dabolim airport is 25 minutes from the hotel.

No visit to Goa is complete without another 'c' - commerce. Shopping the local way will unearth all sorts of things, and it's no surprise that many of them are edible. These juices feature local fruits. To the right are packets of local cashews.

This roadside stall attracts locals as well as tourists with its jewellery, scarves and baskets. Just a metre away the road is packed with auto-rickshaws, motorbikes, cars and trucks.

Even at the famous Dona Paula lookout, built as a relaxing place to enjoy the breezes and the views of the harbour and river, there are stalls selling clothing, drinks and bits and pieces. The area is now a popular upmarket residential area, and the fine beach is a reminder that Goa's beaches are one of its under-recognised drawcards.

In the nearby fish market, the day's catch is sorted and sold by nimble-fingered women. Portuguese cuisine relies heavily on seafood and the nearby waters are rich in fish and crustaceans, all of which can be found here on a daily basis.

A little further on, the fruit and vegetable market has a wealth of produce, with the ladies seated high above their produce, and able to supervise everything. Goa is so small, though, that much of the bounty on sale has come from adjoining states.

And once again we find cashew nuts, still encased in the shell. Cashews were originally introduced by the Portuguese who transported them from Brazil where they are indigenous.

Many dishes in the south of India rely on coconut to add richness and flavour to many dishes. A fresh coconut with its cap sliced off is a common drink offered in  many places, but here these are older coconuts which will be grated and used in cookery.

There are dozens of chillies used in Indian cookery, each giving a different heat factor and flavour, and they are bought by the handful, either fresh or dried. It is also possible to buy local spices, but in order to bring them home and pass through quarantine, they need to be packaged correctly. Better still, plan a visit to one of the several spice plantations nearby, such as the Tropical Spice Plantation, where you can wander through groves of trees bearing fruit and nuts, past vanilla vines and trailing peppercorns, and watch young men clambering palms to pick coconuts.

Earthenware pots and small ornaments are portable and inexpensive and make good souvenirs. Many are made useing age-old techniques such as this.

Baskets made with local bamboo and leaves come in dozens of  shapes and sizes, and many are hand-woven.

The Basilica Bom Jesus, aka the church of Francis Xavier, is one of Goa's major tourist attractions in in the city. Thousands of pilgrims make their way here annually, especially for the saint's special day on December 3.

The body of the state's own saint, St Francis Xavier, an early Christian missionary to Goa, lies in a silver casket inside a glass case, high above the crowds that visit daily. It is said that it has never decomposed, even though he died in 1552.  For many years, the coffin was lowered once a year, but that practice has stopped in recent years.

The highly decorated basilica is a UNESCO World Heritage site in Old Goa and is one of the oldest churches in India.

Remnants of Portuguese colonialism are still alive and well in the city, and it is worth walking or driving around the neighbourhoods and imagining the old city as it was for centuries when it was an eastern outpost of Portugal.

The colours remain, or have been reworked into newer buildings: blue and white tiles, yellow paint, and ornate signs.

As you move around and meet people, it is obvious of the Portuguese heritage in people's names: Periera, Da Costa, De Silva and many others are a reminder that Portugal only withdrew from Goa around 50 years ago. 

Which brings us neatly to the final 'c' connected with Goa: its culture. Rich and varied, ancient and modern, European and Indian. The combination is unique and still evolving.

More information on Goa....

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Comments  

 
0 #1 Fun at GoaFelix Demello 2018-07-11 18:09
Goa is one of those few holiday destinations that can be visited the year round.Goa has been a popular honeymoon destination for Indians as well as foreigners. Blessed with scenic natural beauty, topped with delicious cuisine, Portuguese heritage and a youthful vibe, Goa is a magnet for young couples to have their first trip as a married couple.
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