So here I was – at the place that sends out orgasmic sounds from people as soon as you mention it on social media. I was in Goa – Goaaaaah! – if I must say it like people do on Facebook. The plan was to explore a more offbeat side of Goa away from the busy beaches of Baga and Anjuna.
The drive from Dabolim Airport to Panaji is quite picturesque and passes by the sea for a while, before moving on to a beautifully paved stretch of road.
And so I arrived in Panaji, or more precisely, Fontainhas (pronounced Fon-tayin-esh). This is the old quarters of Panjim – where people moved after Old Goa started to become a religious centre beset with illness. My hotel here was Panjim Inn – arguably the best heritage hotel in Goa.
As soon as you enter the courtyard of the Panjim Inn, you are charmed by a very welcoming staff member who offers you a glass of water before taking you past a small sitting area to the reception. As you enter, you see an old telephone and you are told it works! You wish the computer could be taken away from the antique table where they do your booking. You almost wish they still did everything on paper, in keeping with the general feel of the place. But don’t get too attached to the place yet, because inside, the hotel is even prettier.
The hotel’s genesis can still be seen in the family insignia or the Brazao of Francis Assis Silveira at the balcaos and verandahs. The rooms themselves are full of restored furniture and the modern items like the mini-fridge, the safe and the tea/coffee makers almost seem incongruous in the sedate old-world charm of the place. But then with the rest of Goa beckoning, how long will you stay indoors? I took off, and my first stop was the nearby Pousada Hotel, also owned by the same family that owns Panjim Inn.
The Pousada was originally a Hindu house owned by a Ghanekar family in the predominantly Catholic part of Fontainhas. Its roots have been lovingly restored, as in evident in the Rajangan with its Tulsi plant. The rooms around the courtyard take you back to the romance and nostalgia of better times, and your walk on the china floors past the earthen pots are true walks down memory lane. It is also the quietest of the three properties, and if your idea of a holiday is not making small talk with other guests of the hotel, pick this one. Next to the unbelievably well-restored verandah on the first floor is an old breadfruit tree representing the times when breadfruit was a staple in the Ghanekar household.
The owner’s son, Jack took me on what’s popular as the Heritage Walk of Fontainhas. It starts near the Old Post Office, a square that was known to the Portuguese as a place to sell and buy tobacco (it is still called Tobacco Square I think).
Diagonally opposite is the Sao Tome Chapel. It was closed that day, but Jack said it was just over 400 years old, and at the time when people moved from Old Goa to Fontainhas, this served as the main chapel.
The walk continued from here to the bylanes of Fontainhas, past the old 31st January Bakery, old stones used for grinding, the tiles shaped like human shinbones to keep the houses cool in summer, homemade sausages drying in the sun outside the houses, and the sidewise glances and smiles from the residents, and then the Sao Sebastian Chapel.
It ended at Fonte Fenix, which provided three taps of potable water to the early settlers here. But Fonte Fenix is now nothing. A petty celebration of nationalism made fanatics chisel off the plaster phoenix head and coat of arms here, and the water is where vagrants take a bath now. A saffron flag hangs limply, marking this as the Hindu ward, and the residents of Fontainhas will tell you, if approached, about the beautiful azulejos that were desecrated and destroyed in the nationalistic surge.
I thanked Jack, and continued on my own after that. The place was a photographer’s dream, and I am afraid I did no justice to it all. Fontainhas is like a child’s painting; you see surprising flourish alongside imperfect lines. Walk around the area, and you will see its houses, some robust, and some going to dust, but still standing proudly, if a little incongruously with their indigo and ochre facades. You are transported to provincial Europe as you make way for church-goers, and the ubiquitous bread man or poder, and then suddenly you glance upon the woman in her green sari sitting outside a red wall, her wicker basket full of bangdas and modxos. The Barbearia Republica still services those in need of a budget shave, the Drogaria Royal sells you a band-aid to cover that little nick you got at the Barbearia.
Fontainhas is a town-within-a-town. Its narrow streets are fringed with houses painted in myriad colours, reminiscent of the times of the Portuguese. Pristine white altars and deep verandahs with overhanging ivy and oyster-shell windows recreate an era long forgotten, one that Panjim has left behind, but Fontainhas clings to.
The Hindu area of Fontainhas, Mala, is as different from the Catholic area as you can imagine. Here you will see more of those saffron flags, and Tulsi altars replace the altars of the cross on the angans. Strangely, you will also find more Gomantak Times newspapers left on the porch or stuck into the rings on the doors than oHeraldos. A desperate attempt to look and sound more Indian than Portuguese-flavoured is also visible in this area. The house of a Shankar Shet also has another nameplate, Xencor Xette, beautifully written on an old Azulejo plate.
Yet, the lines demarcating the two wards are still blurred. On one side of the street, you see women wearing their traditional green bangles putting incense at the base of their Tulsi altar, and on the other, you see a padre talking to people dressed in their Sunday best, talking about the upcoming São Tomé fete. Nearby, old men sit around, beer in hand, doing nothing, and young ones walk towards Pakiza, for arguably the best biryani this side of Goa. A little further, staple eateries Horseshoe and Venite, and boutiques Sosas and Barefoot invite you in. On your way, a resident calls out to you, eager to chat, and tell you more about the history, the heritage, and show you a little of his sala, if he is feeling generous that day.
Fontainhas is a living coffee table book with its colours, sounds, strains of a violin playing somewhere, overhanging ivy, lace curtains, glimpses of black-and-white family photographs, china, azulejos and the smell of incense lit at the base of altars. Each walk adds something to the place, and points at something you had missed earlier, and with each smile you get from its residents, with each mackerel recheado served up, you wonder how long it can really remain the anachronism that it is today.
I walked around for hours, really, and then headed out to the more modern part of Panjim – the Miramar area. The city is very tiny, and I walked along the river promenade and then the lovely Bal Vihar to get to the beach. Panjim’s party boats were just gearing up then to take evening revellers out to the Mandovi river, and then the area around Miramar was bustling with locals. It seemed like the local hangout spot in fact, with little carts selling everything from bhelpuri to Shawarma.
Along the way was the INOX complex, fronted by the old GMC that has now been converted to a cultural area. It was a very pretty city – and didn’t feel like your regular Indian city at all. There was no traffic, no rude honking, and the people seemed nicer than most other places.
I got back to the hotel quite late (and it felt perfectly safe to walk around too) because I had made a stop at the 18th January Road too – the main market area of Panjim. That and neighbouring MG Road were the main places for shopping, but I didn’t find anything I liked. So I got back to the hotel, climbed up the wooden stairs past an old spice grinding stone and asked for a beer, a pork sorpotel and some lovely soft sannas. My Goan holiday had begun well!