Goa: Beyond the beaches in India's smallest state
There's more to India's smallest state than sun, sea and sand. Margaret Scully goes beyond the beaches in glorious Goa.
With a machete strapped to his waist and the agility of an acrobat, a mature man scales the slender trunk of a palm tree. His bare feet are bound by a short rope, which levers his escalation to a dizzying height of some 60 feet. I'm watching in awe... and trepidation.
At the top, he leans under the enormous leaves and draws his knife, cutting free a clump of green coconuts. They hit the ground with an almighty thump. One of these on the head would guarantee immediate passage to the next life.
I'm in Goa, India, where manual coconut harvesting is part of traditional life. The tropical holiday state is famous for its stunning beaches - stretching from Arambol to Palolem - but there's a lot more to it than sun, sea and sand.
Venturing inland reveals a whole other world of beautiful scenery and culture. The road from Palolem to Old Goa gets off to a hilly (and nutty) start. Driver Jairam is pointing out the cashew plantations, where the local tipple 'feni' is made. As we motor through lush green scenery, he overtakes big trucks reeking of fish, and whole families riding on single small motorbikes. Indian road rules apply in Goa, which means no indicators and plenty of horn blowing.
Cows amble anywhere they please. No one pays any notice.
Churches and the Mandovi River
We pass the ramshackle remains of Portuguese colonial homes en route to the railway junction metropolis of Margao (Madgoan), a colourful and bustling market town. My friend Ginni disappears down a myriad of little laneways in search of bangles and fabric and we reunite at Longuinhos Bar & Restaurant. Uniformed waiters stand to attention, serving cold drinks and mediocre food in a colonial building which hasn't undergone a single renovation since the 1950s.
Workers are busy in paddy fields along the road between Margao and Panjim. We proceed to Velha Goa (Old Goa) on the banks of the Mandovi river, nine kilometers from the state capital. A handful of imposing churches and convents remain on the site of a former Portuguese city, reputably so grand and powerful (in its heyday, at least) that it rivalled Lisbon.
Fronted by a facade of basalt pillars combining elements of Doric, Ionic and Corinthian design, the elaborate late-renaissance Bom Jesus Basilica is distinctly European. A trip to Knock springs to mind as we pass stalls selling an eclectic collection of kitsch Christian souvenirs and rosary beads. Pilgrims flock to visit the state's most important church and resting place of Goa's patron saint, St Francis Xavier. We slip into a vacant seat, going through the up-and-down motions as a priest says mass in Konkani, Goa's native language.
Goa was colonised by the spice trading Portuguese from the 1600s to the 1960s. Today, 34pc of the population is Christian, 62pc Hindu and the remainder a mix of Buddhist, Sikh, Jain and Muslim.
On a spice farm in Goa
Entering the Hindu Shri Mangueshi temple near Ponda, we cross a courtyard with a water tank and striking seven-storey white 'Deepmal' tower. The main temple is housed in a former church and we join the procession up to the Hindu priest, who is scantily clad in Gandhi-style attire. He waves his incense boat about. Then he presses red powder onto our foreheads, a blessing from the god to whom this temple is devoted. Hindus believe Lord Shiva's powers of destruction and recreation are used to destroy the illusions and imperfections of this world, paving the way for beneficial change.
On arrival at an organic spice farm, an 'elephant bath' option piques my curiosity. I call on Lord Shiva at the sight of a chained elephant with tourists on her back, inhaling water from a bucket. Swinging the mighty trunk over her head she showers the screeching passengers, mainly Indian children. We proceed with our guide for a walk around the plantation, where cloves, cardamoms, cinnamon and vanilla are among the varieties growing. The turmeric root is barely visible in the earth until scratched to reveal its yellow powder. The pepper plant creeps up tall trees and a sign points out its medicinal benefits.
Healing and health is a major part of Indian culture, and Goa has an abundance of clinics offering alternative cures and detoxification for the mind, body and spirit. Ajay and Puja Sharma's Gurukul retreat centre is located off the beaten track in a forest near Patnem. Five-day Ayurvedic detox programmes, meditation and yoga classes are on the menu in a family-run centre which can only be reached on foot.
Inspired by the sporadic arrival of monkeys on the yoga room roof one morning, Ajay gives a philosophical talk about calming the monkey mind.
"It is jumping from place to place and has no home. Find a home within yourself and relax the mind," he proffers. I'm thinking about the man up the coconut tree, with the physical agility of a monkey, and total control of the mind.
In addition to its beautiful scenery, sweeping beaches, cultural attractions (and yes, its nightlife), Goa oozes charm and quirky, meaningful experiences.
I'll be back.
The Leela Hotel, Goa
What to pack
Pack little and light for temperatures hitting a tropical 30 degrees. Mozzie spray is a must, and don't splash on a sarong - you'll get it much cheaper in Palolem. Oh, and don't pack your mobile phone. I accidentally disconnected mine and discovered the bliss of holidaying in the 'now'!
British Airways (britishairways.com) flies twice daily from Dublin to Mumbai (via Heathrow's T5) from €625pp return. You can acclimatise in style at the 5-star Leela Mumbai (above, theleela.com) or take a one-hour flight from the former Bombay to Goa (makemytrip.com).You'll need a visa before travel (indianembassy.ie; €52). Check on vaccinations too.
Where to stay
Beach huts and family rooms are easily organised on arrival in Goa. Expect to pay from €7 per night. For something a little more luxurious, opt for a boutique colonial stay (turiyahotels.com). Or you could go the full 5-star treatment at the sublime Goa Leela (theleela.com).
Book the best value packages at travel.independent.ie.