The bus journey to Panjim from Madgaon was a little over an hour and it unveiled the sleepy Goan villages along the way. The stunning sunrise unfolding right in front of my eyes gave me a glimpse of the visually pleasing landscape that dots the journey. With lots of coconut trees, and few houses interspersed here and there, it reminds me instantly of Kerala with greenery and good roads. The beauty of Goa is that this place hasn’t lost its inviting old world charm. My first impressions; people here are simple and nice.
If not for the workshop, I couldn’t have possibly made the trip, at this point in time. That it was held in Goa this time made it easier for me to decide. It was about 5am on a dark cold wintry January morning that I landed up at Madgaon on my way to Panjim. At the stroke of dawn I got a Kadamba state transport bus that took me to Panjim. A few tourists joined me on this journey and their expectations were writ large on their faces. I asked my co-passengers who were college goers as to what this trip meant for them and pat came the reply, beaches. Getting down at Panjim bus stand, I quietly had my cuppa and walked away. I knew one thing I must not do, in this trip. The touristy beaches are for some other day.
The thing that pushed me to make this journey was the idea of discovering the other face of Goa outside of the beaten to death options of beaches and casinos. I had seen Goa on a temple tour about 10 years ago. This time though I wanted to see another heritage side of Goa, located bang in the middle of Panjim. So it was Fontainhas famed to be Asia’s largest and only remaining Latin quarters that I chose to discover.
Just as I arrived in Panjim, an unexpected cancellation followed me. A few frantic calls later, I got a nod from Basseraa Dormitory (opposite Taj Vivanta), located in a quiet corner behind military hospital. This is a barebones facility but neat and clean. I learn that this is mostly frequented by non-tourists on business visits. The best I liked about this dormitory is that you can trust your belongings to remain untouched. Much to my surprise, the location of the workshop I was to later attend and the Sarovar Udupi Restaurant, were just within a stone’s throw distance. I guess I got doubly lucky since the Panjim market too was within walking distance. I couldn’t have asked for a better deal.
Exploring the Fontainhas by walk and strolling along its streets, I was going round and round the same area, for most part of the time. One lane led to another and it looked like the area had a lot of secret roads, which only the local would know of. Nevertheless the thrill of losing a sense of time emboldened me to make the walk all by myself, immersing in the quiet ambience, the colonial heritage, and the colors.
Greeted by an array of houses painted in fluorescent and pastel shades of red, blue, green and yellow and a piping of white, this instantly reflected a quaint part of Europe with an Indian flavor. I was immediately attracted to the brilliance of this area like no other, and was filled with curiosity as to what tale the colors had to tell. So I asked a longtime resident Christo, on the choice of colors and how they managed to keep the buildings freshly coated. “Thanks to Portuguese making it mandatory to paint houses after every monsoon, this tradition continues even to this day” he said. “Initially it was a choice of vegetable and natural dyes that gave the color choices, but gradually the idea stuck” he added. He signed off saying “The churches and chapels had the right and honor of being painted full white”.
The tiled graffiti on the walls of Old Quarter hostel is an amazing sight. I am unable to take my eyes off it. Adding to this is the charm of Azulejo ceramic tiles for the walls, red tiled roofs, designer window and balcony iron grilles and artistic doors, all tell-tale signs of colonial architecture. The clean narrow streets, quaint little shops, art galleries, guest houses, bakeries and restaurants, all lend character to Fontainhas. Interacting with a few of the residents here I could get that the sense of a community runs deep here.
As the new dawn set in, we knew it was time to hunt for some delicious street food to settle our stomach that morning. Finally found out Café Tato to have Goan Poi and Chai, as I wanted to have local food and it had to be vegetarian too. It was for a change from the usual Idli and Dosa that I am often used to. I was especially fond of the Sarovar Udupi which served amazing food. No wonder whenever you walk into the hotel, it is full of people who are regulars.
The Panjim market place opens as early as 7am and it surprises me by its liveliness at such an early hour. You don’t come across very often a marketplace that opens to thriving business at such early hours. The cashewnut market is very flourishing, and I found my pick at the Bhagyalaxmi Dry fruit store (apparently the largest store in the market). These quality cashews leave quality thoughts about Panjim. Visiting the market in the morning hours gives you another reason to interact with the locals.
If you visit Goa, don’t miss this hidden gem that Fontainhas presents itself to be. Take a walk through the Latin quarters and give yourself a good balanced feel by walking through the Hindu quarters too all the way up to the Maruti temple on the Altinho hill. You will be blessed with a lovely view of Panjim from the hill top. Panjim has other attractions too. Take a walk along the shoreline and also watch how Mandovi River transforms itself during nights with the brightly lit ships being a floating casino.