The first thing you feel when you tighten your seat belts on a flight to Goa is a deep sense of core happiness, especially since no one on a flight to Goa looks unhappy. You know you deserve to be on this flight as the past few weeks have been crazy busy and a weekend in Goa is great for your overall wellbeing.
This time on our visit to Goa, Bhakti (my wife) and I decided not to visit the beach at all, just 6 weeks ago we saw the best beach of the world and we did not want to dilute the memories of those pristine Lakshadweep white sands and clear turquoise waters (A blog on that trip is next on my “things to do before I die”). This trip to Goa was planned to be for driving around in a self-driven car (Yes! You read it right) and traverse as much as distance as you can, soak- in the culture, tastes and old charm of Goa. We were determined to avoid all crowded touristy places and be offbeat. Our holiday last year to a village in Palampur had made us yearn for more village time. As the wheels touched down, we waited with baited breath to start our journey. We had only 50 hours in Goa and we were highly motivated to make each one of them count.
Our first stop on our drive was Panaji! A collection of great Goan cuisines are served in the main streets of the capital. Our first haul was a place called ‘The Blacksheep Bistro’. Being the black sheep of my family, I more than identified with this place.
It was 3pm and half of the state of Goa was in a state of deep feni induced slumber.Luckily we found a lazy waiter and an energised owner to recommend to us some great food options. The Sea food risotto here is highly recommended, it was tasty and sumptuous and the Spanish Paella was flavoured to perfection. The service left nothing much to desire.
We then got on with our journey to find out the destination for our stay. It was called Olaulim Backyards. The drive was a short half an hour but the sites on the way left us mesmerised. My favourites are the churches, chapels and cathedrals that are scattered along the way hiding behind the curtains of coconut trees that do not do a perfect job of covering them. I have not evolved and educated myself enough to find out the difference between the three prayer houses, but I guess the size and sins of humans praying in all remains the same.
As we managed to locate our homestay with help of two beautiful girls with their lovely accents on google maps we were pleasantly tired. But one look at the owners, Savio and Pirkko soothed us. Pirkko is from Finland and married to Savio and lives here with their 2 wonderful kids. She is particularly resourceful and gave us some great suggestions on ‘where to go’ and ‘what to eat’ in Goa. We felt tremendous warmth in their welcome and the location of our stay left me spellbound. So, we had this river facing cottage called “Hornbill” that had hammocks spread around and inviting kayaks for us to take a ride into the glorious sunset. The special Goan slumber chair was enticingly kept outside the cottage to allow me to put my feet on the leg extensions and relax.
I loved the cottage per se. Very rustic and an ‘open to air’ bathroom. While my fantasies were running wild, I got summoned to quickly change, have a cuppa and hop on to the kayak. The river was big with a nip in the air, but the water was calm and as we set sail (okay, slogged and oared and panted) we found ourselves drifting toward the sun that itself was about to bid goodbye to a beautiful day. The serene sunset, a cosy white church on the shore and the nets laid down by fisherman made for a poetic setting. I could hear the music of nature as we allowed ourselves to be still in the middle of the glassy river that reflected the best moments from our past.
We oared ourselves back to the shore and were now looking forward to an evening of Greek food at ‘Thalassa’! As we drove towards little Vagator beach, we found ourselves hungry again. Live performances, music from the 90’s and some exotic dishes with Red Snapper, well “executed”, left us with no space for dessert! We promptly had a chocolate baklava packed for us. We had to sit and have it by our riverside abode. In my opinion the owners of Thalassa have bitten more than they can chew. The service was very slow, tables cramped up in a greedy way and the food was not as ‘up there’ as it was few years back. The moment we reached our rooms and devoured our desserts we crashed and slept like kids who had played all day in the field.
The next morning at 5.30am we got up to a soothing chant coming from the river side. We saw something that exhilarated our soul from within. In the middle of the river seated between a boundary of candles on a small plank of wooden jetty was this Buddhist monk. As he chanted, his vocals had a melody that echoed and enthralled us. He was with a group on a yoga retreat for 8 days as part of a famous program called “conversations in yoga“. That one hour was a photographer’s delight and I never felt so awake ever before in a long time. Just as I felt nothing can better this scene, Savio got some lanterns and lit them and released them in the air. I assumed I had to make a wish and promptly wished for more time in Goa!
The chants ended after the gloriously orchestrated sunrise on the river bank and the candles faded away in the strong sunlight. We sat there as the group came back on the shore, had some fresh fruits with hot tea along with some warm conversations with us. We met these two young interesting girls; both had given up life in Bandra and relocated in Goa! That’s what traffic and the cacophony of city life can do to you!
We were then pampered to a customised breakfast by the Pirkko. She brewed flavoured Finnish coffee, and made caramelised bananas. At breakfast, with great inputs from her, we planned our day. Quick shower was followed by ignition of the car engines and the four of us (2 humans and 2 girls on Google maps whom I fell in love with by end of our trip as they never once shouted at me for taking a wrong turn :)) were on route to see the Reis Margos fort. On the way we found a huge church named Penha De Franca. It was under renovation, but such was the beauty of the church walls that within them we spent some good moments capturing the ruins on camera.
The fort itself was well restored, and had some great views of the shoreline. Looking at all the cannons on the roof, pointing at the beaches, I wondered what type of people wanted wars in Goa. I would have installed Hubble space telescopes to study intricate anatomy of beauties on the beach instead of the cannons. (That’s the reason I think the leaders of my nation don’t put me in responsible positions ever:) Anyway, before I forget, I must mention that all the old jails of the fort are now converted into an exhibition area of the works of Mario Miranda! Looking at the body of work and sheer talent of this man I was awestruck. He is one of the finest artists Goa has produced in a long time and his classic style can be seen visualised, well depicted in the nooks and corners of the state. I particularly loved this depiction of busy street and trains of Mumbai.
Venite, was our destination for lunch. As we drove down the narrow street we got entangled in a massive self-created traffic jam. After getting out of that “chakravhew” we walked to our destination Venite. Louise, the owner gave us a special seat in a room full of colourful graffiti scribbled by people from all over the world. The air was filled with smell of Goan fish curry. We started with baked prawns and progressed to red snapper cafreal. Goan cuisine has by far been my ‘go to’ cuisine for many years and the way we consumed the food and left the plates clean was a testimonial to that.
We then decided to walk on ‘fontainhas’, Goa’s historic Latin Quarter, that was lined on either side with elegant Goan Portugesean architecture in form of old houses. This half hour foot journey culminated in a serene, cosy place called ‘The Verandah’ where we stopped for some dessert. Serra Duca, a creamy milk based marie biscuit topped dessert was so delicious that we ordered and finished three of those before we could remember to take a picture. Next to Verandah is a little shop of portugesean crockery and art work called Velha Goa! We soaked in the colours and craftsmanship for a good half hour before the post prandial desire to have a short nap overcame us. After resting for an hour or so, we headed back for our evening drive.
Goa provides for some great drives that allow you to watch the sunset coloured skies. In some places it felt as if the sun, in its last ditch effort, before martyrdom, decided to spew all its bright colours in the sky minutes before the black ink of night would engulf us all. Whenever I get to see a sunset at leisure and think this, I know my day was swell. A multitude of small little cafes are sprinkled on the roads of Goa. We found a good one called ‘Ruta’s world café’ for our evening coffee next to a spectacularly lit and designed fabindia store.
We then headed to Arpora for the night market. I am not much into shopping, not only that, I hate it if I see people around me shopping and whiling away precious time of their lives trying clothes that don’t fit them and ones they won’t buy. But this night market was something unique. I found the layout of the stalls very colourful and spiced laden and had fun shooting some good pictures of the goods on display. Shopping is tiring and that lead us to the food court where we had some fresh sushi from a stall by Sakana. I don’t understand Japanese food much, but I love the way wasabi hits my frontal sinus.
By the time we got out of the market it was 9pm and we decided to drive to a good place for our last dinner of the trip. After finding a highly recommended place shut at 9.45 we panicked. How can we sleep hungry in Goa? We drove fast, with the two girls frantically telling us the turns to take and reached a beautiful place for dinner called ‘Gun Powder’. The place was in Assagaon, in the middle of nowhere, but was buzzing with people. I like places that are set up in a bungalow and have a nice bookshop that you can browse through while you wait for the table. Sevak, the manager of the place was very kind and agreed to give us a table and serve us food at closing time. The cuisine was coastal South Indian and Goan and my favourite malabar paratha was served with delicious fish gassi. We relished our last dinner date below a colourful ceiling and flowing strings of light. The slow drive back to our Olaulim Backyards made us feel sad that this will be over soon.
The last morning we woke up before sunrise and enjoyed the beautiful mist on the river. The sun gave us a colourful display of oranges and reds on the sky before it lazily emerged from its slumber. Another beautiful day was to unfold in our lives. On the opposite bank of the river was this small cute looking white church, the reflection was which had intrigued me form the moment I arrived at this location. Bhakti and I decided to take a quick drive across to the other side of the river to take a closer look at it. And guess what, it was shut
Our breakfast got more interesting with the wonderful conversations that got going once we met the other fellow residents. We met an old couple in their fifties who had come to India for a 6 week holiday. They had planned the first couple of weeks and then were going to travel across the country to soak-in our culture, we had a young female producer born in France and settled in London who was hauntingly frustrated with grey colours of London weather and we had another couple from France who had travelled all of South India by road and reached Goa! Gosh, some of these people are an inspiration as to how I want to be when I grow up. 6 weeks holiday!! Who takes that in our self-centred, hourly production calculating business world.
Once we bid our goodbyes and promised Pirkko and Savio we will be back, we headed to Quepem, the lesser known part of Goa. A 90 min drive from Olaulim, this took us through the inland of Goa, through the green fields of Margao and through some dense vegetation and lush green fields. There was much more than coconut trees here. Our destination in Quepem was an old house made in 18th century on the banks of Kushavati River. It was called Palácio do Deão. We met Rubén there who has spent his life working on the restoration of the old character of Portugal era and has maintained the gardens beautifully. This place is a must visit next time you are in Goa and they can even arrange a meal for you at the house if you pre-order!
We then headed to Raya where we found a great place called Nostalgia decorated with sweet little things. The cuisine was authentic Goan as we like it and the succulent shark ambotica sounded like exotica to my sea food primed body. We had to kill 2 hours here, before we head to the airport, and that’s never a problem in Goa. The service was leisurely, the crabs, prawns and fish were all devoured at peace and we were now in our state of bliss.
Somewhere in all this I fell off to sleep, suddenly woken up by screeching of tyres on Mumbai runway. A lot more has to be seen and done in Goa. I may need a 100 more trips for that. As I slowly walked out of the ‘arrivals’ gate I saw a sign that said, “Welcome, Wish you a pleasant stay in Mumbai “, I mumbled to myself, “it better be a short one”, as I am eager than ever to take the next flight out and explore more beauty, in some offbeat corner of the world, beauty that nature keeps hidden and tends to unravel only when you seek it.