8. Mansions of Goa
Goa is exactly what I expected. A ramshackle seaside Portuguese-influenced town full of tourists of all descriptions, dusty footpaths, picturesque old houses covered in green and black mould, rows of date palms leaning in the same direction, tropical green irrigated fields, humid high temperatures, and some of the most beautiful people you could ever meet, all with a typical Indian twist.
Did you realise that Goa didn’t become part of the Indian Republic until as late as 1961? That the Indian army actually took it by force from Portugal in December of that year? Isn’t that remarkable?
This tiny little state on the west coast has only 100km of coastline, and extends about 50km east. Wikipedia says it’s India's richest state with a GDP per capita of two and a half times that of the country as a whole.
Our flight on Wednesday was late in arriving here, so we’ve really only had Thursday and Friday here, and we fly out tomorrow.
I can’t tell you how much I have loved Goa. It's been utterly wonderful.
I have arranged for us to go to Quepem in the south on Thursday, to see two old Portuguese mansions. I booked the car and driver from home. Peter our driver turns out to be the find of the century. Small and dark, he is so reliable I can set my watch by his arrival. He is quiet, shy, and very kind. Not too chatty, not silent, offers information now and then, but is never intrusive. Obliging, solicitous. When I ask him to phone his boss to see if he can take us north to Thalassa restaurant for sunset drinks and dinner, he later gives me a price and says ‘Madam I got you the best price. I told them the price they said first was too much.’ He is for real. I wish I could take him home.
Everywhere in Goa seems to take 45 mins. Whether you are going north or south. Roads are only one lane each way and the going can be slow.
On the way to the mansions on a raised road, we pass market garden vegetable patches and roadside stalls. We stop at one which sells coconut milk in bottles, a local brandy called Honey Bee from local honey, and sweet potatoes.
Although Goa is very dry at this time of year and the earth is dry and dusty, the trees are a lush green.
Plentiful irrigation water flows in concrete channels alongside roads.
There are two rice crops per year in Goa. We see women working in the boiling hot sun planting it.
Bragança House in Chandor is 350 years old and is still owned by members of the same family who built it. It is the biggest mansion in the whole of Goa and has the typical very symmetrical Portuguese facade.
There are amazing oyster shell windows here. I saw them in Panaji too.
I am met by Judith Borges, one of the family, and niece of Aida de Menezes Bragança (also spelled Braganza), one of the 8th generation who died aged 94 a couple of years ago. Judith gives me a tour of one wing of the house.
For services to the crown, the Bragança family were richly rewarded by the Portuguese government in extensive land holdings. Later generations protested against the heavy Portuguese hand ruling the colony. In the Indian land reforms of 1962, everything except the house was confiscated, leaving the family with no income. They tried to acquire the heritage property but failed. Now the family must open it to the public to maintain it, with no help from the government. There is no entry fee, but donations are welcome.
Photography inside the house is not allowed. The contents are so mind-boggling I am struggling to remember them all. Rare and wonderful treasures. A 5000-book library, ivory, mother-of-pearl, Chinese porcelain, ornate silver, photographs, chandeliers, ebony, china, a huge polished double coconut from the Seychelles, marble, pressed tin, heavily carved furniture, the monogram of LXB (Louis Xavier Braganza). Photo credit Ingoa.
We set off for the next mansion, the Palácio do Deão (palace of the dean). It was built in 1789 for a Portuguese aristocrat.
Jose Paulo Almeida was 19 years old when he arrived in Goa in 1779 as part of an Archbishop’s entourage. He died in the house and is buried in the church he built. He modestly described the house as a ‘Farm House’. It’s a very big house with the remains of an extensive garden.
The owners now are Ruben and Celia Vasco da Gama. Ruben nods enthusiastically when I ask if I may take photographs. Oh yes, everywhere. They are both Goans. Ruben is an engineer and Celia, a microbiologist.
They've been working on its conservation and restoration for the past 3 years with a huge task ahead of them.
This is a palanquin which is how natives carried their European masters. It's such a hot day today and I am horrified at the thought of anyone carrying anyone else in this heat.
I have booked lunch at the highly regarded Indo-Portuguese restaurant at the Palacio well in advance - no walk-in bookings are taken. Dining is in the belvedere at the rear of the house which overlooks the Kushavati River. Our table is prettily set.
The numerous courses are absolutely delicious. I am brought a drink made of a fruit from the garden, cucuum (garcinia indica). It is so refreshing - not too sweet, slightly tart, a strange and wonderful taste.
Hors d'oevres of sea crab and cheese, rissos (prawns in crumbs), fofos (toothpick titbits). Ths is typically Indo-Portuguese fare.
This is followed by a spciy tomato soup and croutons. Then a sea perch cooked whole, stuffed with garlic and herbs. I'm not really a big steamed fish eater, but there isn't a morsel left when I had finished.
This is accompanied by many side dishes: salad, pumpkin soufflé, yellow prawn curry, red chicken curry, rice, beans.
I am very full and happy.
That evening we have sunset drinks at Thalassa, a pumping Greek restaurant at Vagator Beach on a cliff high above the ocean.
A bull wanders home along the beach along with the tourists and another tourist takes a photo.
We watch the sun go down over the Arabian Sea.