A return visit to the northeast corner of Indiaâ€™s smallest state reveals a place ripe for rediscovery, even if the roads remain a challenge to navigate
By Claire Scobie
Assagaoâ€™s palatial Indo-Portuguese villas are set back in trim gardens with sprays of hot-pink bougainvillea climbing whitewashed walls. Tucked inland from the rocky outcrops of Vagator on the Arabian Sea, this village is becoming a byword for laid-back chic; the locals call itÂ â€śthe Beverly Hills of Goa.â€ť Itâ€™s where visitors such as Bollywood star Abhay Deol, whoâ€™s building an eco-friendly mansion there, come on holiday and never leave.
Iâ€™m pleased that Assagao doesnâ€™t merit a mention in my guidebook. Indeed, the only reason weâ€™re here is because an old Goa hand insisted we dine at Gunpowder. But with the daylight fading and the streets poorly marked, we find ourselves doubling back in search of the restaurant. In India nighttime unfurls like a curtain, swift and sudden, and I hate to admit it, but weâ€™re lost.
Itâ€™s been a decade since I was last in North Goa, and long gone are the days of speeding around on mopeds to all-night beach parties; for more than a decade, the Goan government has banned amplified-music after 10 p.m. and encouraged mid- to high-end tourism over tribes of younger revelers. Still, pockets of the alternative scene survive in beachside Anjuna and at Arporaâ€™s teeming Saturday-night markets, where gypsy bands play amid an eclectic mix of stalls selling everything from rotisserie chicken to fluorescent designer ware.
Knowing enough to avoid the condo-lined Candolim-Calangute-Baga beach strip, Iâ€™ve rented a modest villa in Sangolda, a hamlet south of the bustling market town Mapusa.
Set among fields and boasting a crisp white colonial churchâ€”a reminder of 450 years of Portuguese ruleâ€“â€“Sangolda hums to the rhythm of rural Goa. Church bells peel on Sunday mornings; evenings are punctuated by the mournful call of the Indian cuckoo.
Iâ€™m here with my husband and mother, who, at 75 years old, doesnâ€™t fancy riding pillion on a motorbike, the conveyance of choice for most tourists. We assumed weâ€™d hire a car with a driver, but when a new acquaintance offered to rent us his friendâ€™s Suzuki jeep at a ridiculously low rate, we accepted. â€śYouâ€™ll be fine,â€ť he assured us. â€śEveryone drives slowly. Here is shanti.â€ť
Setting off to Assagao for dinner, we soon realize that every destination in the Bardez district has at least a dozen rural lanes leading to it. Thankfully, Goan roadsâ€”like the stateâ€™s easygoing Konkani-speaking peopleâ€”are less chaotic than elsewhere in India, though you do need to keep an eye out at intersections. â€śEveryone has right of way and no one has right of way,â€ť my husband quips as he overtakes a tuk-tuk. Finally, after stopping to ask a sleepy security guard for directions, Gunpowder appears. Owned by chef and former journalist Satish Warier, who opened the original Gunpowder restaurant in Delhiâ€™s Hauz Khas neighborhood in 2009, this terraced alfresco restaurant specializes in dishes from Indiaâ€™s southern statesâ€”Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and Andhra Pradesh.
The waiters are efficient and the food is exceptional. Sweet-and-sour pumpkin cooked in tamarind and jiggery contrasts with a refreshingly tart dish made from maroon spinach. Flaky Malabar parottas soak up the eateryâ€™s namesake â€śgunpowderâ€ť chutney, a nutty-flavored dry-roasted dal powder mixed with spices and sesame oil. After taking a break to browse the goods at the People Tree fair-trade boutique next door, we finish our meal with creamy, cashew-rich payasam pudding.
Crouched in a calm valley of rice paddies between two ridges, Assagaoâ€™s leafy streets lure us back the next day. The village has three yoga schools (including the well-established Purple Valley Yoga Retreat), dozens of terra-cotta-tiled mansions, and an 18th-century chapel dedicated to St. Cajetan, the patron saint of gamblers and the unemployed. Our first stop, however, is Indian Story, a lifestyle store run by Pooja and Ayesha Swaika, sisters who first came to the town on a family holiday from Kolkata and decided to stay. A similar story holds for Karen Peace and Cornelis van Andel, owners of nearby bespoke jewelry gallery Cheshire Cat. Since 1999 when the couple fell in love with the place, they have trained a team of goldsmiths to create stunning maharani-meets-Baroque jewelry, featuring precious and semi-precious gems. Next door, we order fresh bagels at Villa Blanche Bistro, a garden cafĂ© that for years was kept sign-less by its German owner who preferred word-of-mouth recommendations. It seems to be this approach that has kept Assagao such a hidden secret.