The capital of prosperous Salcete taluka, MARGAO – referred to in railway timetables and on some maps by its official government title, Madgaon – is Goa’s second city, and if you’re arriving in Goa on the Konkan Railway, you’ll almost certainly have to pause here to pick up onward transport by road. The town, surrounded by fertile rice paddy and plantain groves, 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 Margao has retained a cosmopolitan feel due to a huge influx of migrant labour from neighbouring Karnataka and Maharashtra.
The Church of the Holy Spirit is the main landmark in Margoa’s dishevelled colonial enclave, next to Largo de Igreja square. Built by the Portuguese in 1675, it ranks among the finest examples of late-Baroque architecture in Goa, its interior dominated by a huge gilt reredos dedicated to the Virgin. Just northeast of it, overlooking the main Ponda road, stands one of the state’s grandest eighteenth-century palacios, Sat Banzam Ghor (“Seven Gables house”). Only three of its original seven high-pitched roof gables remain, but the mansion is still an impressive sight, its facade decorated with fancy scroll work and huge oyster-shell windows.
For more of Goa’s wonderful vernacular colonial architecture, you’ll have to head inland from Margao, where villages such as Loutolim, Racaim and Rachol are littered with decaying old Portuguese houses, most of them empty – the region’s traditional inheritance laws ensure that old family homes tend to be owned by literally dozens of descendants, none of whom are willing or can afford to maintain them.
Another reason to come here is to shop at the town’s market, whose hub is a labyrinthine covered area. Also worth checking is the little government-run Khadi Gramodyog shop, on the main square, which sells the usual range of hand-spun cottons and raw silk by the metre, as well as ready-made traditional Indian garments.