A few months ago, my younger brother sent me a message with two words. “Google Fontainhas.”
Curiously, I followed his instructions – and that’s when a miracle happened. My laptop was invaded by hundreds of photographs of a charming neighbourhood filled with quaint, colourful houses from a different world.
And that’s how my love affair with Fontainhas began.
Nestled in the heart of Panjim, Fontainhas is unlike the Goa you’ve always imagined. No sweeping beaches, no tanned tourists whizzing about on scooties. Heck, not even a half decent shack in sight! And yet, Fontainhas is as authentically Goa as it gets.
Fontainhas is the old Latin Quarter in Panjim, a delightful reminder of a time that once was. Author William Dalrymple described it as a “small chunk of Portugal washed up on the shores of the Indian Ocean,” a charming and accurate description.
Squeezed between the hillside of Altinho and the banks of Ourem Creek, Foutainhas retains a heavy Portuguese influence with beautiful European-style heritage villas lining its narrow streets. These charming homes are painted in the brightest pastel colours. The air is thick with nostalgia, as ladies scurry about the streets in long, flowery dresses. It is not unusual to see a man in a suit and hat, especially on Sunday mornings.
The evenings will see the locals settle down in their verandahs, chatting in Portuguese or reading books. Most likely, they will be sipping on a glass of tea (early evening) or wine (late evening).
The car wound through the beautiful coastal roads of Goa, and soon we entered the city of Panjim. I had instructed the driver to drop me at Fontainhas, but despite pronouncing the word four times over in four different ways, I wasn’t quite sure if he had understood.
A few moments later, the car squeaked to a halt on top of a hill. We were outside a beautiful yellow and white building– The Panjim High Court. After admiring the structure for a few seconds, we stepped ahead to the edge of the hilltop. A spectacular view spread out below, as dozens of homes in the brightest of colours painted the landscape. Our hearts skipped a beat – we had reached Fontainhas.
Excitedly, we ran down a stairway carved into the hillside, as bemused locals looked on. In no time, we were in the heart of Fontainhas. Staring at us was a bright maroon house with white trimmings, curved windows and ornate metal railings. A huge mango tree filled up the courtyard, with a single green bench looking on invitingly. What a heartwarmingly charming sight!
I am a non-believer in maps, so we set about exploring Fontainhas by way of serendipity – whimsically walking its streets, not knowing what surprise the next corner will hold. We bumped into a diminutive elderly lady wearing a long dress of lace. She was struggling with a heavy bag of groceries. My husband ran over to offer her help, but she simply grinned at us through her wrinkles and spoke to us in the lilting tones of a foreign tongue (presumably Portuguese).
From an architectural standpoint, there is just so much to see in Fontainhas. Most homes are exquisitely preserved and seem to be freshly painted. Our observation proved to be correct when a friendly local Mr. Affonso explained to us from his seat outside his bright blue home. An ancient Portuguese law dictated that all houses had to be painted once in two years, after the monsoons. The law lives on as a tradition in Fontainhas even today.
Most homes have sweeping, overhanging balconies. Women in long dresses leaning onto the ornamental balcony railings, occasionally waving at passersby. Outside each of the majestic homes is an elaborate Azulejo tile work on the doors, announcing the occupants’ surname—Andrade, Vaz, Botelho, Pires. While passing by one particularly beautiful home, we happened to catch a glimpse of a laughing family, happily decorating a giant Christmas tree in a living room filled with antique wooden furniture.
The atmospheric streets led us to Panjim Inn, an imposing maroon mansion with a sloping roof. A few tables lay interspaced with flowering bushes in its courtyard restaurant. We climbed the little wooden staircase to the first floor and settled into a corner table with ornate wooden chairs. The smiling waiter recommended that we try the Goan curry and ‘dulce de leche,’ a Portuguese specialty of sweetened milk (we did, and it was delicious). Of course, some chilled beer to go was mandatory!
Sea food lovers can also dine at the much acclaimed Viva Panjim restaurant, housed in an ancestral home. As you wait for your food, do chat with the owner, Mrs. Linda, who will tell you how she buys fresh fish and vegetables for the restaurant every morning. The quaint Horse Shoe café is a hidden treasure; say a big hello to the owner and chef, Mr. Silva.
If you are one of those people who gets frustrated by aimless exploring, Fontainhas has much to offer. Located opposite the Panjim Inn, the Gallery Gitanjali is a good visit for lovers of art. The majestic white Church of Our Lady of Immaculate Conception is a marvelous visit (you will definitely recognize it from Bollywood movies). At night, the entire church is lit up and looks ethereal.
The area around the main post office, known as Sao Tome, is rich with history. The post office was once the tobacco-trading house for Panaji and beside it stood the state mint. The square outside it was the site of public executions during the Portuguese rule. If you happen to be in Fontainhas on a Sunday morning, don’t miss mass at the Sao Tome Church. The atmosphere in the tiny church is unbelievable as the pastor sings hymns in Latin, and the people of Fontainhas sing along joyously.
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