Suddenly, noise fills the air. A band of dancers and drummers had assembled, and no sooner did we get off the bus than they started beating the drums. After a moment’s hesitation, I breathed in the luxury of the moment. Train journeys are inspiring as they whisk you past landscapes that exist in real and in your mind. I was on the Golden Chariot, a luxury train in South India that runs across the state of Karnataka and ends its journey in Goa. The name of the train conjures up romantic images of historical tales, bejeweled scimitars and ornate thrones. History and heritage are its mainstay, but there are moments in the ‘wild’ in the tiger territory of Nagarhole Park and a relaxed time on a Goan beach with glistening white sands.
A visit to Panjim’s Fontainhas neighbourhood is nothing less than a journey through a postcard from a European city. This small little atmospheric place, squeezed between the hillside of Altinho and the banks of Ourem Creek, with its colonial aesthetics, winding narrow lanes, tilted roofed houses in spectacular shades of red and blue with overhanging balconies and a quaint Mediterranean air, is an open door to Goa’s Portuguese past. Though Fontainhas can be covered in two-three hours, but to do more justice to these alleys, pencil in some more time.
Fontainhas has taken its name from the fountain of Phoenix, which stands near the Maruti temple, leading upto the Altinho hill. Wood framed houses in saturated colours in these haphazardly designed narrow streets predominate this area and the 17th-century Church of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception stands like a jewel in Fontainhas Latin-style crown. Built atop a hill, it stands like a giant torch of faith guarding the aesthetic riches of the neighbourhood. Built in 1541, it is believed to be one of the oldest churches in Goa. The four tiered zigzagging stairway was added three centuries later. The magnificent bell of the church weighing over 2000 kgs is second only to the golden bell of the Monastery of St Augustine (now in ruins) in Old Goa.
Mediterranean culture pervades every street in Fontainhas; houses are painted in bright cheerful colours, beautifully written nameplates outside homes, galleries, neighbourhood bakeries, churches, blue petal curls in white ceramic tiles and residents greeting each other in Portuguese. Fontainhas is full of such delights, to be explored at leisure. Old wooden bakeries trickling the aroma of Goan breads, often doubling up as a work of art of the bygone era; small cafes at the corner of some alley to sit and engage oneself in casual talks with residents over some handmade ham sandwiches, with Goan music in the background and cheer of a world which is unimaginably open to strangers. Sample street food there, everything that is accommodated in carts from sweet beef samosa, prawn cutlets, squid soup to grilled ham sandwiches or pop into some random bar or old taverna with live music, great food, random strangers ready to open up for a talk.
There is a kind of amusing history overflow in the streets – there is a Rua 31 de Janeira (31st January Road) street which relates to the date of Portugal’s independence from Spain in 1640 and Bustling 18th June Road named after the date in 1946 on which Ram Manohar Lohia (an Indian independence activist) called a meeting that led to the end Portuguese rule in India. So if you find a differently sounding street name or a street named on a date, don’t hesitate to know the history behind its naming.
Art Galleries – Undisputedly an obvious reason to be in Fontainhas. One shouldn’t miss the Gallery Gitanjali, adjacent to the Panjim Inn. It has a collection of contemporary art and Scandinavian lithographs, lino prints and etchings from the 1950s and 1960s, plus it often doubles up as a cool venue for poetry readings, art discussions, launches, movie screenings and numerous courses on movie and art. Plus there is a cafe.
Velha Goa Galeria is another beautiful place to stop by to shop for gorgeous traditional hand-painted ceramics, including azueljos (tin-glazed ceramic tiles).
A little towards the main city is the Gallery Attic, where period furniture, pottery and antique glassware are painstakingly restored to their original glory. Here the new sits alongside the old to put to display the rich multi-cultural heritage of Goa.
To eat – Ah! How can I miss this? While the thin, winding streets of Fontainhas are an open invitation to shrug off your beachy itinerary and explore; the aroma from the decades old establishment perched in old buildings, provides the eclectic chronicle of the past and the present of the place. It is said in Fontainhas past and present lives under the same roof. So let your exploratory mind do some more work to find these hideouts.
One must stop should be Hospedaria Venite, marked with its graffitied walls and beer chandeliers and authentic Goan and Portuguese cuisine. On 31st January Road, Venite is one of the oldest lodging and boarding establishments in Panjim. Their sea-food and chicken steak is recommended.
The next on my list is an old ancestral home of Linda D’Souza, converted into a restaurant, tucked away in a rather small, unassuming corner of Fontainhas. The place retains the old world décor, the rich dim interiors, pop music of the 60s and 70s, makes dining so different like taking you back to an era long gone by. Tables are also set on a patio, from where you can see all the activity of the street. And the food is delicious and not heavy on pocket. Try their crab xec-xec and kingfish steak or just any sizzler, and be assured you will not stop with one. A repeat of the order is quite common here.
Confeitaria 31 De Janeiro, anytime for sweets and savouries. The oldest bakery on 18th June Road in Fontainhas is famous for its sweets, pav and traditional Goan cake called bebinca.
Panjim Inn – achingly serene and steeped in history, this is perhaps the best place to immerse yourself in the never ending love with Goan cultural charm. On 31st January Road, overlooking the Ourem Creek, this is undoubtedly the prettiest buildings in Fontainhas. Sit in the verndah restaurant here, soak in the intimate interiors, and take in the seconds and the rich cultural heritage that it stands for. Then think of the food, which is an absolute desire here, no wonder if you feel like taking one of each from the small menu. Kingprawns and Pork is recommended here.
Baba’s wood café – No one can say no to pizzas and Baba wood café brings the Italian taste and intimacy to you. The colonial atmosphere, the earthen appeal of the décor and the furniture, rare Italian wines brought straight from the Mediterranean and above all the enticing aroma of wood oven pizzas – is irresistible. The prices are a little on the higher side but this place offers a rare dining experience.
To stay – Panjim Inn will always be the first name on this list, a heritage property with every room different in style and décor and a promise to take you back by an era.
La Maison, with only eight private heritage rooms, this promises a place all for yourself. The elegant interiors, informal atmosphere and spacious rooms with expressive works of art and gracefully minimalist, makes La Maison a good place to settle in.
Want to ditch the hotels altogether, welcome to the old quarter hostel, light on pocket and eclectically on par with its European counterparts. Set your holidays with lively smiling faces, backpackers from different corners of the world and a refreshingly different experience. And there is a little organic café too and a wide assortment of teas and morning yoga classes too. So, sink in, take a break, sniff the aroma, and share room and smiles with strangers.
The Portuguese arrived in Goa around 500 years ago and left their unique footprints. Their influence can be felt in every corner of the state, in the cuisines, architecture, heritage and lifestyle; but nowhere it is felt more than in Old Goa.
Old Goa’s effect was purely transcendental to me, my pace changing from brisk hops from one point to the other to a more languid, circuitous, absorbing stroll. It seemed my legs clamoured for a long walk in this heritage town where number of tourists at any point of the year can outnumber the number of residents. The town is so steeped in history that it is best to slow down and admire the details.
Once a city of 200,000 (more than the population of London at that time), Old Goa was the epicentre of all trade for the Portuguese. Over the course of a century, Goa became one of the important trade centres outside Europe. One Dutch visitor compared it with Amsterdam for its wealth; and the grand churches won it a sobriquet ‘Rome of the East’. However, its fall was just as swift as its rise, epidemic of plague and cholera led to abandonment of the old town and what remains today of this Portuguese legacy is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Not much of old Goa is left today but you absolutely must take a day to explore the flaking churches and crumbling colonial mansions. Along any winding back road, you will find colonial mansions and villas, painted in vivid primary colors, with bright-red tiled roofs and lacy wooden trim, hidden behind banana or coconut trees. Goa still maintains its cultural exceptionalism, a part of it explained by the fact that it became an official Indian state only in 1987; almost 40 years after greater India coalesced.
The highlight of the trail of Old Goa is the Basilica Bom Jesus, which enshrines the mortal remains of St Francis Xavier. Its towering facade, inlaid marble floor, ornate altars and an otherwise simple interiors, make Basilica Bom Jesus, one of the finest examples of baroque architecture in India. Marty, my guide, detailed out the finer nuances of the church, I pretended to listen, but was more lost in absorbing the astounding beauty and the detailed interiors of the church. Portuguese had lavished their pride and alacrity upon Goa – towering buildings that could shame the giants, richly gilded work, put to show probably by the greatest artists of that time and richness and warmth in designs and patterns; all spoke of the opulence Goa enjoyed in that bygone era. The church also houses the remains of St Francis Xavier, a Portuguese missionary charged with evangelising the Indies, who became Goa’s patron saint. His remains lie in one darkened corner near the altar, in a jewel studded casket. Crowds congregate to catch a glimpse of the Saint’s remains. The face is a rusty shade of orange now, greatly contorted but mysteriously there is still flesh on the body. No doubt, pilgrims flock from around the world to look at this miraculously well preserved body of St. Francis, who died more than 450 years ago. And if you think his body must have been embalmed, the church proclaims that nothing has been done to the body. So what should it be called – miracle, as pilgrims call it or just some unsolved mystery.
Right across the road, is Asia’s largest church, a simple combination of mud stones-straw and the seat of archdiocese of Goa, the Se Cathedral. The huge interiors are surprisingly plain, there are four chapels on either side of the nave, with the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament, which is richly gilded and decorated, quite contrast to the otherwise plain interiors. Every ten years, remains of St. Francis are raised from its home in the Basilica and brought to Se’ and kept here for 44 days. At the back of Se’ is the Church of St Francis of Assisi, which is now an archaeological display.
A short walk from Basilica is the holy hill, a different territory from the much crowded Basilica. It’s a leisurely walk uphill, followed by hypnotic chirps of birds and whiff of coconut oil from the mission. There is Museum of Christian Art, midway on the hill, with a rich display of art works salvaged from the old churches. As you walk further, remains of a vast, ruined bell tower come to sight. This complex dedicated to St Augustine, with broken stones, nameless tombs and probably left with only an outline to speak of, now turned into a large space for wildflowers to blossom and stray dogs to doze, was once a home to a saint; left to crumble, after the Portuguese packed their bags and moved to Panjim.
Another haunting beauty is the St Cajetan’s church (on way to River Mandovi), standing as a lofty imitation of St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. The dome is not as vast as the one in Rome, but it has some exquisite Islamic masonry on the front door to boast of. Standing close to it is a lonely arch propped up in the churchyard, a reminder of Adil Shah’s palace, the ruler of Belgaum, who was defeated by the Portuguese to gain control of Goa. Enroute to the river, you cross the Vasco de Gama arch, built by his grandson, Francis de Gama, the then Viceroy of Goa. Halt a minute there in respect of the great explorer, who told the world about India and brought the Portuguese to our doorstep.
Old Goa can easily be done in a day, but it remains with you forever. It has stories to fascinate you and its slow life and timeless charm binds you. The churches stand as raconteur, eager to share stories of a time when Goa was among the wealthiest cities in the world and the wood-framed row houses in saturated hues in the winding lanes, promise an experience of an organic indo-Portuguese culture.
It’s eight in the morning and I am driving past the misty coastline of Goa into the lush green terrain of Pompurpa, riding past verdant paddy fields, desolate roads and sleepy hamlets. Church services are coming to an end, the congregation would soon aggregate among the palm trees, gossiping and giggling; men in their dark suits and well ironed shirts and women sporting their satin dresses. It’s still early for shops to open except for the local bakery, where the baker has started getting the hot pois (wheat breads) out of the earthen oven. Soon a steady stream of customers will enter the front room to collect their orders. Slightly distracted by these feelings and the silent commotion that is on play, I am following the GPS directions, winding my way into a Goan village called Olaulim.
GPS brings me to my landmark, Mhambre shop, and I can see Savio Fernandes, waving his hands to guide me to his house. “You are too well dressed for Goa” he exclaims looking at the denims I am sporting. I smile, inside cussing myself for looking so ungoan.
His home looks like punctuated between the serene backwaters of Mapusa River and the greens of Goa. Music is flowing in the mountain winds dutifully mixing with the rapture of the calm waters. And Savio and Pirkko aren’t the only ones to welcome me, Richard Parker, their cat, purrs her joy and Max, the silent giant, a cuddly Labrador, welcomes me with his strutted bark. And if you think, two forms a company, this charming little house, has a party waiting for you. There are four dogs to get playful with, three cats wearing an expression of ‘mind your business, I am happy being myself’, a goat to take care of the unruly weeds and an obstinate donkey Mantra, ready to nibble your fingers. And the couple are a great host, ready with their stories, maps and travel books to set your itinerary in Goa, tell-tales of Goa’s best hops and their never-fading, courteous Goan smiles.
“Do you have any plans to increase the number of cottages?” a guest from Mumbai asks Savio.
“Four is good; I don’t want to make it a hotel, anything more than this will make it over-crowded, something Olaulim doesn’t stand for” he answers. And ask him what Olaulim stands for; and with a quaint smile, set on his face, he would say ‘deafeningly quiet and so different you can’t believe it’.
Endless green cover, birds chirping, meandering paths, gushing stream, an infinity pool extending into the stream and an amazing view of hills beyond that, a lone chapel at a distance draped in pure white – this is Olaulim in first look. I set out for my cottage – the Golden Oriole, perched on top, the brilliant view complementing the eco-design of the cottage. There are only four cottages, all named after birds, Golden Oriole, Hornbill, Sun bird and Indian Pitta: easy to guess you can see the birds’ play from these cottages. A staircase takes you to an outdoor wash-room below, from where you can watch the hornbill pair at play.
A cool shower and then off to lunch, something that Savio says, is the most family thing to do in Olaulim. Sitting in an open dining area, overlooking the stream, food gains a whole new epicurean meaning in these settings. And then the food itself: wholesome organic and fresh, cooked over traditional wood fire, typically Goan veneered with fascinating siesta, topped with Pirkko’s smiles and hospitality. In an instant you become a part of the family.
I don’t think I have ever seen Goa look more beautiful, bathed in rain, the countryside is a shade of green, yellow, oranges, bright reds and blues all thrown in, commanding a unison. The roads are inviting, winding and wet and I am out on a bicycle, looking around for activities. Men in their oversized raincoats go about the normal business; women shyly look at me and children giggle, their monsoon plays are on. The rain bathed, beautiful Portuguese styles houses and drizzle dappled cathedrals look more inviting than ever. The lovely winding hilly village streets, oh, I can trade them any day for miles and miles of boring highways.
The entire village is a birder’s paradise, set out with your camera; every corner is a revelation, life reaching out to you with open arms from every branch, the whole village blossoming with colours. Go for a walk along these narrow roads, lined by greens on both sides, with magpies hovering over you and cuckoos announcing your arrival, venture out to nature, to a small hill standing tall, keeping a guard on Olaulim or just relax on a hammock by the backwaters, letting nature to extend its reach upto you – there’s so much you can do here to satiate your longing soul.
I choose the next morning for a kayaking session. Pirkko excitedly instructs me and says “If you reach the extreme end, you might get lucky to spot otters.” Otters, now that excites you. As Pirkko says evenings and mornings are the best time to get your boat and rows and leave out for a spin in the waters, and if lucky enough, with the otters.
Now something from sheer experience – don’t miss the gorgeous evenings here. Back from a village tour, I decide to lounge around in the dining space; the chill wind caressing me and just then Savio comes and says “Should I make a drink for you?” His feni cocktails are a must try. Soon other guests join us for long conversation over drinks and snacks, Max and Shibu are playing in the background, Richard Parker in the distance with her same ‘Mind your business’ look and Mantra, watching us with some classic singer’s warmth on his face. The sun comes down, turning from grey to shades of orange (dominated by grey) to ink black, no trace of moon or stars, a downpour starts; we sit in the shade of ‘Taverna Hama Hama’ or the ‘honesty bar (where you can drink as much as you want and whatever and are expected to honestly note that down in a register), drinking and chatting, before getting down for a sumptuous meal of fresh catch from the fish, fresh vegetables from the farm, Goan rice and warm smiles.
Being in Olaulim, you realize, that it’s not just a bend in river or a creek, there’s more to it. It’s poetry of life, its silence is music to ears, there’s pleasure in losing your way in the winding streets, there’s story in swinging paddy fields and grazing cattle and above all, it’s God’s gift to you to honour your own privacy.
To reach: Olaulim is only 12 kms from Panjim. Riding is the best option otherwise you can take a bus to Mapusa that goes through Pomburpa village and get down at the old ice factory; Olaulim is a walking distance from there.
Know more about the Olaulim homestay.