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Sightseeing in Goa

Old Goa

Basilica of Bom Jesus in Old Goa

Old Goa has numerous Christian monuments and beautiful European style mansions left from the 451 years of Portuguese occupation. Old Goa ("Velha Goa") was a flourishing city from the 16th to the 18th centuries. It was nicknamed the “Lisbon of the Orient”. In the 1500s, the number of people living in the city was larger than that of such European cities as Lisbon, Paris, or London. Goa was equally important as a trading and Christian centre. It was one of the richest cities in Asia. However, in the 18th century, the Portuguese started to move the centre of colonial activities to nearby Panaji because Goa was susceptible to infectious diseases, such as cholera, malaria, and even plague. At the same time, commercial activities decreased and the city fell into decline. By the late 1900s, only a few thousand inhabitants still resided in Old Goa.

Nowadays, Old Goa offers many great places to visit with its entire area being listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Nearby, there is a small village with some churches and convents that are still active. Old Goa can be visited in one or two days. There are some hotels in the area. It is advisable to carry some water whilst on excursion due to the hot weather and lack of shops or street vendors as you walk between the monuments.

Amongst the architectural and religious attractions of Old Goa is the Basilica of Bom Jesus, built in 1605. It is widely known across the Christian world as the resting place of the patron saint of Goa, St Francis Xavier. Each year, many pilgrims come here on the 3rd of December to worship the saint on the anniversary of his death in 1552. Once every ten years, or so, the Basilica exhibits St Francis Xavier’s relics when even more worshipers flock to Goa to witness this rare occasion.

Next to the Basilica is Goa’s Cathedral and the seat of the Goan Diocese ("Sé" in Portuguese). The Cathedral was completed in 1619, and is dedicated to St Catherine of Alexandria. The day of her martyrdom falls on the 25th of November, the date when the Portuguese explorer Don Alfonso Albuquerque took Goa from the Muslims, in 1510, and made it a centre of Portuguese influence in India. The cathedral is regarded as the largest and most beautiful among the Christian churches of Asia. Its belfry tower contains the “Golden Bell”, one of the biggest in the world. In the time of the Inquisition its sound used to announce the burning of pagans and heretics. Not far, is the Convent and Church of Francis of Assisi built in the Portuguese Manueline style. It exhibits gilded, beautifully carved wood panels, elaborate frescoes and gravestones adorned with the coats-of-arms of the nobility that helped to spread Christianity in Goa. The Archaeological Museum keeps its exhibitions here: it has a gallery of portraits of Portuguese Viceroys as well as a large collection of ancient Indian sculpture from Hindu shrines that survived Muslim and Christian pursuit of religious domination.

The small chapel of St Catherine is located on a neighbouring street. It is the first Catholic structure in Goa, constructed shortly after and on the very place where Alfonso Albuquerque entered the city on November 25th, 1510. The chapel, hospital, and an arch were constructed in this place to honour this event. Another notable church is St Cajetan. It can be found near the old ferry wharf. Built by Italian monks, this church was influenced by St Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

Close to the bank of the Mandovi River stands the Viceroy’s Arch. This was the ceremonial entrance to the city used by the Portuguese governors. By tradition, viceroys’ initiation involved a procession that passed under the arch, where the ceremonial key to the city and the wider territory of Goa was given to the new ruler. The arch was built in 1597 by the Portuguese Viceroy Francisco da Gama, who was the grandson of the great navigator Vasco da Gama. The statue of Vasco da Gama could be seen on top of the arch, on the side that overlooks the river. The road that passes through the arch is known as Rua Direita and leads to the city’s main square, the area where most attractions of Old Goa are concentrated.


1st January Street in Panaji, Goa

Panaji, or Ponn'je in Konkani local dialect, or Panjim, and later Nova Goa, during Portuguese rule.

Nine kilometres away from Old Goa is the state’s capital, Panaji. Because of its central location, it can be reached easily from both the northern and the southern areas of the province. Panaji gradually took over administrative powers from Old Goa, and in 1843 became the capital of Portuguese Goa. This relaxing Indian town is spread along the southern bank of the Mandovi River. The place has a European flavour and is not as big in population as other Indian cities. Because of this, and due to the beaches in its proximity, Panaji is a desirable destination for both Indians and foreign tourists.

It has wide avenues leading to cobbled squares, narrow lanes and tavernas, grand public buildings and residential houses with red-tiled roofs in Portuguese style. The Secretariat Building is among Panaji’s oldest structures. The original building was erceted by the Sultan of Bijipur, early in the 16th century. Its Moorish courtyard was where the Sultan kept horses and elephants. In 1615, the Portuguese turned it into the official residence of the viceroys and generals. Nearby, stands an unusual monument: a monk appearing to levitate a woman. The man is the well known 18th-19th century Goan Catholic priest, Abbot Faria, pioneer of hypnotic studies. The Church Square and the Municipal Garden with the Church of Immaculate Conception are at the heart of the city. Built in Portuguese baroque style, in 1541, this church catered for the religious needs of the sailors and early Portuguese inhabitants.

Not far away, is the Largo do Palacio (Palace Square) that connects to the Panaji’s Quay, a place where the ferry from Mumbai arrives each morning. Beyond, lays the Bairro das Fontainhas area, known locally as the Latin Quarter. The Portuguese name Fontainhas comes from the springs found on the hilltops of this neighbourhood, whilst the quarter itself grew up around a hillside called Altinho, which means “little hill” in Portuguese. This colourful area still maintains the narrow streets and Portuguese architecture of the colonial period. The attractive Phoenix Fountain and its surroundings were renovated recently making this place an interesting tourist spot as it is believed to have been the birthplace of the township. It is located near the Muneti Temple. Fontainhas is a heritage area that still preserves much of the Portuguese style and flavour.

While in Panaji do not miss the 18th June Road (a date connected with the end of Portuguese rule), which is a busy shopping street in the heart of the town, popular with locals and tourists alike; or the Mala area, where Portuguese and Indian cultures mix in complimentary harmony; or the golden sandy Miramar beach lined with palm trees, which is a place frequented by Indian tourists. The beach is just outside of Panaji and has many local eating and entertaining establishments. To appreciate Goan arts and cultural events visit The Kala Academy. The building itself is famous for its design by Charles Correa, a well-known 20th century Indian architect.


Woman at fish market, Margao, Goa

Margao is the second largest city in Goa, after Panaji, and its commercial and transport hub for the South Goa District. It is 33 kilometres from Panaji, the provincial capital, and 27 kilometres from Vasco da Gama, the next largest city in Goa. Margao is an old Indian city that developed as a large Hindu religious centre. The popular deity Damodar is still worshipped here as one of the avatars (manifestations) of the Lord Vishnu. The name Margao, is believed to come from the Portuguese pronunciation of the Sanskrit for Matha-grama, which means literary a village of religious mathas (monasteries). Locally, the city is often called as Magdaon, as displayed in the railway schedules.

Margao’s charm and main attraction comes from its residential neighbourhoods in Indo-Portuguese style, as in the Borda neighbourhood. The most interesting of these is found around Abade Faria Road, The Padre Miranda Road, and around Largo do Igreja at the edge of the Borda district. Largo do Igreja marks the city’s entrance with its Church of the Holy Spirit. The present church was rebuilt in 1645 in Baroque style. Near the church is “the House of Seven Gables”, locally known as “Sat Burzam Ghor”. The house was built in 1790 for the private secretary of the Portuguese Viceroy. Currently, only three out of the seven gables are left, so that visitors have to guess how grand the original building was.

A very popular area to visit for panoramic views is Monte Hill. From the Portuguese-built chapel at its top, you can enjoy breathtaking views of the city below. The name is a joint Portuguese/English fusion that simply means mount. Margao’s geographical position is just off the Goan coast that at this point is blessed by a 30 kilometre stretch of fine sandy beaches going from Sancoale in the north to the Mobor Peninsula in the south. In the middle lies Colva, a well known beach destination, just six kilometres from Margao’s centre. Other easily accessible beaches from Margao are Velsao, Cansaulim, Arossim, Majorda, Betalbatim, Sernabatim, Benaulim, Varca, Fatrade, Mobor, and Cavelossim.

Fort Aguada

Beach at Taj Fort Aguada Resort Goa

Fort Aguada is a luxury beach destination easily accessed by road, 18 kms away from Panaji. The Taj hotel group adopted this place in 1974 to build one of the most exclusive beach resorts, the first of its kind in India. Today it is known as the Forte Aguada – Vivanta by Taj, located next to the fort and facing the warm, azure waters of the Arabian Sea.

The Fort is of historic importance, and the best preserved defensive structure surviving from the Portuguese colonial days. It was built in 1612 mainly to ward off the insistent attacks from the Dutch and the powerful Maratha Empire (an emergent Indian state credited with ending the Mughal rule in the sub-Continent). It was also a watering station for Portuguese trading ships arriving on Goa or sailing to or from other distant Asian Portuguese enclaves. Arched cisterns below the main citadel held 10 million litres of water! They were fed from natural springs running from the hillside. The Fort Aguada remained as one of the Portuguese overseas fortresses that were never taken by force.

It occupies a prominent position covering the full length of the headland along the mouth of the Mandovi River. It was an extensive fortification, at one stage, defended by 200 cannons! It is telling that some buildings that form a small part of what is left over from the original fort have been converted into the largest prison in the State of Goa. The main part of the fort, the citadel, stands on an idyllic beach facing towards beautiful sunsets.

In the 19th century, the Portuguese built a four-storied, 13-meter high lighthouse in the middle of the fort. It was the first to appear in Asia, where, previously, signals to approaching ships were provided by burning fires on the seashore.

Throughout their overseas trading posts in Africa, South America, and Asia the Portuguese, usually, built their churches away from forts, to keep them from enemy fire. A short way from the fort, but safe from danger, is the pretty Church of St Lawrence, the saint of the sailors, to be found before you reach Fort Aguada.