Exploring Old Goa

The once-bustling Goan capital is said to have been the richest and most splendid city in Asia during the late 16th and early 17th centuries, before a spate of cholera and malaria epidemics forced a move in 1759. Today, this World Heritage Site is tepid testament to the splendor it once enjoyed. The tranquility behind this well-preserved tourist site (barring the grubby stands selling refreshments and tacky souvenirs) belies the fact that it was built on plunder and forced conversions, though you'll see little evidence (like the basalt architraves) of the mass destruction of the Hindu temples initiated by fervent colonialists. Besides, it's remarkable to witness the scores of Catholic Indians who turn up to worship in some of the country's most venerated cathedrals.

The entire area can easily be explored on foot because the most interesting buildings are clustered together. To the northwest is the Arch of the Viceroys, built in 1597 in commemoration of the arrival of Vasco da Gama in India. Nearby, the Corinthian-styled Church of St. Cajetan (daily 9am-5:30pm) was built in 1651 by Italian friars of the Theatine order, who modeled it after St. Peter's in Rome. Under the church is a crypt in which embalmed Portuguese governors were kept before being shipped back to Lisbon -- in 1992, three forgotten cadavers were removed. St. Cajetan's is a short walk down the road from Adil Shah's Gate, a simple lintel supported by two black basalt columns.

Southwest of St. Cajetan's are the highlights of Old Goa: splendid, behemoth Sé Cathedral (Mon-Sat 9am-6:30pm; Sun 11:30am-6:30pm), which took nearly 80 years to build (in local laterite stone) and is said to be larger than any church in Portugal; and the Basilica of Bom Jesus. The so-called Miraculous Cross, housed in a box in a chapel behind a decorative screen, was brought here from a Goan village after a vision of Christ was seen on it -- apparently a single touch (there is a hole in the glass for just this purpose) will cure the sick. The surviving tower of the Sé's whitewashed Tuscan exterior houses the Golden Bell, whose tolling indicated commencement of the auto da fés, brutal public spectacles in which suspected heretics were tortured and burnt at the stake. Nearby, the Convent and Church of St. Francis of Assisi (now an archaeological museum: Rs 5; Sat-Thurs 10am-5pm) has a floor of gravestones and coats of arms; notice that the images of Mary and Christ are unusually dark-skinned.

The Central Coast

A Trip Down Goa's Architectural Memory Lane -- Goa's unique architecture has to some extent been well preserved, so much so that -- away from the coastal belt, toward the interiors as well as in Panjim, Mapusa, and Margao -- you'll find entire lanes and villages of beautiful old houses, some crumbling, others restored but all offering great insights into the original inhabitants and their status in society. To prove that Goa isn't just about lounging on beaches and stomping on the dance floor, there are a couple of ways to get a close-up look at some colonial-era architecture. If you're interested in decoding buildings, or in exploring some of Goa's historic neighborhoods and villages, contact Heta Pandit of The Heritage Network (tel. 98-2212-8022; www.heritagenetworkindia.com) or pick up a copy of Walking in Goa (Eminence Designs Pvt. Ltd.) or Houses of Goa (Architecture Autonomous). The network also organizes events in historic homes, including festive dinners with traditional entertainment. In Loutolim (10km/6 1/4 miles north of Margao), you can tour the Araujo Alvares family home Casa Araujo Alvares (www.casaaraujoalvares.com; arrangements through Loutolim's Ancestral Goa Museum; tel. 0832/277-7034; Tues-Sun 9am-1pm and 2-6pm), while 13km (8 miles) west lies the old Portuguese village of Chandor and the impressive Casa de Braganza, Goa's largest residence. The two-story facade of this Indo-Portuguese mansion -- which practically takes up an entire street -- features 28 balconies fronted by a lush, narrow garden. The land-owning Braganzas rose to prominence during the 17th century and today are divided into two clans, the Pereira-Braganzas and the Menezes-Braganzas, who occupy separate wings of the house. The large, high-ceilinged rooms (including a 250-year-old library) are filled with original antiques, rosewood four-poster beds, mosaic floors, and Belgian glass chandeliers. Sun-lit galleries and parlors are filled with bric-a-brac, and French windows open onto an interior garden. You can arrange to have a private tour conducted by Mrs. Braganza (tel. 0832/278-4201; Rs 100 per visitor); concentrate on the west wing, which is in the best condition.

Lights! Camera! Carnival!

Each year in February, during the festivities leading up to Lent (a 40-day period of fasting that's carefully observed by Goa's large Catholic community), the people of Goa get down for 3 days and nights of hedonistic revelry as King Momo commands them to party hard. Carnival, Goa's most famous festival, is a Latin-inspired extravaganza of drinking and dancing that traces its roots from ancient Roman and Grecian ritual feasts. Cities and towns come under the spell of colorful parades, dances, floats, balls, and bands, concluding with the red-and-black dance at Panjim's Club National. Celebrations of a different sort happen much later in the year when filmmakers and stars congregate for the annual International Film Festival of India (http://iffi.nic.in), held in Panjim, for 10 great days of film-frenzied action. The 40th annual festival happened in 2009 from late November through early December. And if you are in Goa over the hectic New Year period, you might want to at least check out some part of Sunburn, the massive music festival that started here in 2007 and keeps revelers supplied with 3 days of international standard dance music (www.sunburn-festival.com).

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.