Fontainhas, Goa

Touching nostalgia in ‘Bairro das Fontainhas’

All this started while planning for a class reunion in Goa. The thought was to extend the trip on the back of this reunion, and indulge my amateur hobby of being behind the lens. Goa is overrun with tourists and photographers and there isn’t really anything new to shoot. But, just a little bit of research revealed this old Portuguese quarter of Fontainhas in Panjim. It is visited enough, but not enough. It is somewhat touristy, but quiet. If you see what I mean.

The visit was in last April, and quite out of the tourist season. Booking a hotel is easy if you do it early enough. In-season rates are obscene, but quite reasonable in April. Because I wanted to shoot in Fontainhas, I chose La Maison Fontainhas, right inside the quarter. It all started very unpleasantly (read review based on this experience), but the hotel itself is nice and some of the staff are nice. Temper your expectations down a bit, compared to the Tripadvisor reviews you read, and you will be alright. Don’t go by the response (from the hotel) to adverse feedback. But, this post isn’t about the hotel.

The once Latin quarter, is borderd by the Ourem creek on one side and the Altinho hill on the other. It has a relaxed old world feel, bordering on 19th century Mediterranean Europe muddled with (perhaps) a Konkani way of life. The Fountain of Phoenix, from which Fontainhas takes its name, can still be seen near the Maruti Temple in the Mala area. The settlement came to being somewhere early 18th Century, and was caused by a Goan expat (read its history). Most of the houses here are more than a hundred years old; some of them have been converted to galleries, cafes, and boutique hotels.

The place has somewhat been frozen in time in the way it appears, but tries to meld into the 21st century. The houses are still painted brightly (mostly) and add a splash of colour whichever way you look. But, you step out of this enclave, and you have the usual hustle bustle of the rest of Panaji.

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Imagine my surprise when I peeped in through the broken pane of a decrepit old house and and old lady peered back at me. Surprised, I could just mumble “Good Morning, Ma’am” and step back.

By the time I started walking about to shoot at at seven in morning, the sun was already up and it was warm and humid. The neighbourhood had just started waking up. The pav-wallah, had just started their early morning round going to designated houses, selling pav from their blue plastic sheet covered baskets on the back of their bicycles. The pav-wallah seemed like a morning alarm for the neighbourhood. He goes (as is the tradition in Goa) from house to house and rings is bicycle bell. Momentarily the door of the house is opened, by the residents, morning pleasantries exchanged and some pav handed over.

People just about had started opening the windows of their homes. But, few had yet stepped out. Some had started cleaning up the front sitouts, and washing them.

Fontainhas is a  beguiling neighbourhood with colonial quirks, throwing up pleasant surprises in every corner. As I walked around, I chanced up Anita Tea house and ventured in. Place has maybe eight tables, and able to seat may be 20 people at the most. It might have been, say eight in the morning and the tea house was busy serving tea, pav and bhaji. The bhaji looked and tasted something like usal. I sat around stuffing my face and drinking tea. Person sitting next to me got interested in my camera equipment and we got chatting. He was one of the local newspaper delivery people, who had stopped by for tea after his morning rounds.

The winding streets are an invitation to walk around and explore. I dipped into alleyways which looped back into themselves and chanced upon little shrines with candles or little LED lights. The names of the streets, most of them, are still in Portuguese. The arterial street is called Rua de 31 Janeira signifies the Portugese day of independence from Spain, in 1640. Then there is this 18th June road named after day, the civil disobedience movement (for freedom from Portuguese rule) was started by Ram Manohar Lohia and Dr Menezes

Little door painted at the bottom of a wall

Little door painted at the bottom of a wall. May be 3″ X 5″ in all.

Fontainhas, being relatively cleaner than rest of Panjim is evident, is a community with an interesting mix of Konkani speaking Hindus, and Portuguese and English speaking Christians. The Maruti (Hanuman) temple flanks the enclave. Right in the middle is the St. Sebastian Chapel (built in 1818), and right next to it is a “Sai Niwas”. The fringes of the quarter seem to blend into other cultures and what is the rest of Panjim.

Reviews and travelogues paint a picture more steeped in yore than Fontainhas is. Mario Miranda’s amazing sketches show scenes of time that isn’t anymore; Dalrymple’s description of streets full of VW Beetles, violinists heard from every other window, senior citizens in linen etc. don’t hold anymore. Faux historian Dalrymple visited Fontainhas in the early nineties, and that is not what the place feels like anymore. But, that doesn’t make it any less interesting. It is a delightful mix of the old world, and Kinetic Hondas, zooming motorcycles, people walking briskly to work, some backpackers frequenting the one cafe and restaurants and sleepy dogs. Yet the place is laid back, and lets you wind down.

Cafe Chodankar

Or find a place which asks you to F***. Not really, that is a local last name that many people carry.

By the time, I was done with my morning shoot I looped back to Anita Tea house for another cup. It was already shut for the day. Given where this place is, even it shutter is coloured bright orange.

The humidity was energy sapping, and after an early lunch I did as the Goans do. siesta. Felt hungry when I woke up late in the afternoon. Asking the receptionist wasn’t much help. Kinda pretty and dumb, at the same time. So, I walked out to Urban Cafe which I did notice in the morning though it wasn’t open at that time. Is a yuppie /backpacker visited cafe with a relaxed (surprise) feel about it. They had an electricity problem and did not have much to offer in terms of eats. After a coffee, I strolled out to the side of Fontainhas away from the creek to find bakeries. Later in the evening and next day I found a bunch of restaurants and cafes within a kilometer or so. Udupi place, Konkani sea food, pizza (decent one, by the way) and good Goan food.

As I walked about in the evening, went up the hill, went out to the water front and trudged back. Lost my way, grabbed some food instead and found my way back. Place is safe, and there are enough people on the streets till fairly late in the night.

I Ate dinner than night at Viva Panjim. There are boards everywhere in and around Fontainhas and you won’t miss the place though it is in an alleyway. It is a restaurant in an old house, with a little sitout. Beer, chicken liver fry, and a fish curry with rice. Generous servings, amazing taste. Heaven.

Go there to feel the world of yore, experience the cafes, the small boutique hotels,  and the warmth of the people. But, also for things which belong to that land, and non-Portuguese. Locate Anita Tea house there. Enjoy the company of locals, local food, warmth for about next to nothing.

Quick Facts

Places to Stay : Three WelcomHeritage Panjim properties, and Le Maison Fontainhas (at your own risk). There are some other hostels, and guest houses which I wouldn’t really recommend.

Food: Anita Tea Stall, Black Sheep Bistro, Viva Panjim, restaurants at the WelcomHeritage properties, Urban Cafe, Vihar (Udupi restaurant), the Caravela Cafe (good pizza)  and various others in and around Panjim.

You can see some of what I shot here, and then on flickr.

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