A Portuguese Indian city
When you are on a cruise to India you just have to take time out to enjoy Madgaon, Goa’s second city.
Surrounded by fertile rice paddy and plantain groves, the town has always been an important agricultural market, and was once a major religious centre, with dozens of wealthy temples and dharamshalas – however, most of these were destroyed when the Portuguese absorbed the area into their Novas Conquistas (“New Conquests”) during the seventeenth century.
Today, Catholic churches still outnumber Hindu shrines, but Madgaon has retained a cosmopolitan feel. A short auto-rickshaw ride north of the centre to Largo de Igreja square at the north end of town, Church of the Holy Spirit is the main landmark of the square, and indeed Madgao’s dishevelled colonial enclave. It was built by the Portuguese in 1675, and ranks among the finest examples of late Baroque architecture in Asia with an interior dominated by a huge gilt reredos dedicated to the Virgin. At one-time a byword for oriental splendour, Portugal’s former capital in India, Old Goa, was virtually abandoned following malaria and cholera epidemics from the seventeenth century onwards.
Today, despite its UNESCO World Heritage Site status, you need considerable imagination to picture the once-great city at its zenith, when it boasted a population of several hundred thousand. The maze of twisting streets, piazzas and ochre-washed villas has vanished, and all that remains is a score of cream-painted churches and convents. Anyway Old Goa city centre is waiting to be enjoyed on an MSC Grand Voyages cruise excursion. Foremost among the surviving monuments is the tomb of St Francis Xavier, the legendary sixteenth-century missionary, whose remains are enshrined in the Basilica of Bom Jesus – the object of veneration for Catholics from across Asia and beyond.