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Portuguese Alive, Well in India

April 16, 1989|BEVERLY BEYER and ED RABEY | Beyer and Rabey are Los Angeles travel writers .

PANAJI, India — When Vasco da Gama landed here in 1498, he planted seeds of a Portuguese culture that is still flourishing after almost five centuries.

Those seeds included the rural architecture of his country and missionaries who set about building churches that now number more than 400, ministering to a Catholic population representing about 38% of the state's people.

As Goa (pronounced go-a) became part of India in 1961, there was little immediate change: Older Goans still speak fluent Portuguese; the songs, dances and costumes of Iberia are very much a part of today's festivals, and fiery chorizo sausages of Portugal are sold in every village at street markets and stands.

Goa went through a trial of sorts a few years ago when the world's flower children and other non-indigenous fauna descended to loll nude on its beautiful white beaches.

But that, too, ended. Those beaches and resort hotels are now peopled mostly by Europeans from Frankfurt, Paris and Copenhagen who enjoy the magnificent weather and friendly prices that have made Goa a preferred holiday spot.

The visitors fell in love with the many fishing villages of thatch-roof houses, breadfruit and cashew trees, vibrant bougainvillea and the sight of native women in bright saris with huge loads of fruit and vegetables balanced on their heads.

As Goans say: The Portuguese never captured Goa, it was the other way around.

Getting here: Fly British Airways with one stop in London. Pan Am has two stops, other European carriers have home-country changes.

How long/how much? Remaining in Goa for less than a week seems a shame. Prices for lodging and dining are as friendly as the residents.

A few fast facts: The Indian rupee recently traded at about 15 to the dollar. It's impossible to rent a car without a driver anywhere in India ($20 U.S. a day). You might elect a motor scooter at about $6.50 a day. Weather is pleasant, save for the June-through-September monsoon season, when the place is thoroughly drenched.

Getting settled in: Cidade de Goa (Dona Paula Beach; $73 double) is the nearest thing to Lisbon you'll find. A gorgeous beachside spread of varicolored pastel units with spacious bedrooms, balconies, air conditioning and a large pool. There are dramatic trompe l'oeil murals on the walls of the open lobby.

Cidade de Goa has a thatch-roof restaurant, plus the Alfama dining room with decor resembling a town square in Lisbon. Both offer entertainment, friendly and brisk service, and typical Goan and other Indian dishes. We found this hotel totally enchanting.

The Majorda Beach Holiday Inn (Majorda, Salcete; $67 double) is a sprawling building of terra cotta with another open and soaring lobby, several restaurants and bars, indoor and outdoor pools, plus a clutch of two-unit cottages. Also right on a beach.

Hotel Solmar (Miramar, Panjim; $9 double, $17 suite) is a neat but modest place with one of the friendliest owners in all of India.

Air conditioning and private baths are about the extent of amenities, but the indoor-outdoor restaurant is noted for its Goan specialties and, surprisingly, coquille St. Jacques, pate au cognac and lobster thermidor. Solmar is about five minutes from the beach.

Regional food and drink: Giant tiger prawns the size of bananas are, along with lobsters, Goan treats when grilled with a few spices. Delicious kingfish and pomfret (a flounder-like fish) come from the offshore Arabian Sea. Other fresh seafoods are here in abundance.

Goan de galinha is a rich chicken-soup specialty with peas and rice, while peixe recheado appears as a fish stuffed with prawns and a red masala of spices.

With their Portuguese background, Goans are very big on desserts, many of which are made with the plentiful coconut. Most heavenly is bibinca, a firm pudding made with coconut milk, eggs and sugar. One spoonful and you're hooked.

Good dining: O Pescador (Dona Paula Beach) sits on a hill overlooking the harbor. It's a simple restaurant with inside dining during the heat of the day, outside for evenings. The Polynesian-Goan menu offers most of the local seafood, plus chicken, beef and pork satays. Very little decor, but the food is good, there's a great view and value makes up for it. Prawns go for $1.50, a variety of shrimp dishes for $2.25.

O Coqueiro (Porvorim) is famous all over India. It's rather dowdy, but the ambiance is all Goan. It's famous for authentic local food, having the only menu with Portuguese-Goan chorizo. Try the chicken, fish or pork vindaloo, a hot curry sauce that really zaps any dish. They also roast their own piglets. A South Seas bar lends even more color to O Coqueiro.

Both the Cidade de Goa Hotel's Alfama room and Ft. Aguada Beach Resort's Sea Shell restaurant have marvelous food, beautifully served.

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