Goa’s Latin Quarter – Celebrating the Old World

Most international visitors to Goa come primarily to unwind in many of its superb balmy beaches and to marvel at its graceful whitewashed churches that combines old Portuguese architecture and flavor that somehow manages to exist even after decades India took Goa over.

Panjim or Panaji, whichever term you use, is one of India’s pleasantest state capitals and is ideally stretched out on the south bank of the Mandovi River. This city is an eclectic mix of the Old World Charms that has blended splendidly with the contemporary. Panaji has remarkably preserved much of its Portuguese heritage and one can still explore the narrow meandering streets, Old Houses with overhanging balconies, the signature red-tiled roofs and pulsating bars and cafes. Don’t be surprised if you come across shops and restaurants with signboards in Portuguese.

Last winter, on Christmas eve, I landed up in Panaji, in spite of the fact that I hadn’t booked any hotel room for the weeklong Goan siesta. My friends had warned me about the impending disaster and that I was inviting trouble by visiting Goa at this time of the year, when the world comes to party at Goa. I reconciled myself to finding some kind of a homestay accommodation at least, courtesy my friend Krish who works for Goa Tourism Department as a Tourist Information Officer.

After a safe landing at Dabolim Airport, I hired a car and drove straight to the city center of Panaji. It was 5 in the evening and the Christmas spirit was very palpable with hordes of foreign tourists converging on the streets, many of them doing their last minute shopping and Santa Clauses were gradually getting into their groove.

I stopped the cab at Patto, opposite the Department of Tourism’s office, hoping to meet Krish and seek his advise on locating a decent homestay accommodation at Panaji. I signed on the visitor’s register and was allowed in. I made an inquiry with the receptionist and she politely informed me that Krish was in the cafeteria and would meet me soon.

I waited with bated breath, not knowing what would befall me should Krish fail to arrange an accommodation for me. After half-an-hour, Krish came up to meet me at the lobby and we exchanged pleasantries. At first he was awestruck, not knowing how to proceed, as all the tourist lodges and hotels run by Goa Tourism Development Corporation were packed to the brim and the private hotels were overbooked.

Crestfallen, Krish made one final attempt with Panjim’s Latin Quarter and to his utter surprise, he was informed that a twin sharing Double Room was available, as the guests had abruptly left for UK due to bereavement in their family. Since I was traveling alone, Krish inquired if it was ok with me to bear the cost of the Double Room and I said yes without any hesitation. To me it was like a divine intervention as otherwise there was no way I could have found a place to stay in Goa at this time of the year.

I thanked Krish wholeheartedly and drove straight to the “Fontainhas” – Goa’s Latin Quarter, which was located in close proximity. As I checked into this charming hospitality address, what struck me was the quintessential Old World ambience. Even the lanes and the by lanes leading to the Latin Quarter reminded one of the bygone days.  

The Fontainhas comprise of three impeccably restored Heritage Houses, each one unique in their décor and ambience. The room that I was allocated was absolutely exquisite and the décor dignified. Century’s old antique furniture offered a truly authentic colonial allure. The walls were adorned with classic paintings.

The Panjim Inn, Panjim Pousada and the Panjim People’s together form the classic colonial Fontainhas Mansions.  I was told by the receptionist that the Fontainhas happen to be Asia’s only Latin Quarter, which in itself was a revelation. The Panjim Inn and the Pousada used to serve as typical Goan homes in the days of yore, while the elegant looking Panjim People’s enjoys the rare distinction of being Goa’s first school where the medium of instruction was English. Today this remarkable edifice has been converted into a chic boutique hotel with just four absolutely gorgeous colonial styled rooms that oozes with the quintessential Old World” charm.

For the heritage connoisseurs The Panjim Inn is Goa’s lone heritage hotel to be affiliated to the Indian Heritage Hotels Association that serves as a benchmark in terms of quality in the Indian heritage hotel landscape.

There are many visitors from abroad who come to Goa for longer stays of 6 months or more and they are provided with discreet hospitality at the Panjim Inn Service Apartments that are 2 Bedroom affairs and are the very epitome of Goa’s Old World hospitality.

The significance of The Fontainhas is such that even if one is not staying as honored guests, yet it is highly recommended for the first time visitors to Goa as a “must visit” site because of its rich collection of Period Furniture and for the high quality of craftsmanship that has gone into its restoration. I was flipping through the pages of Rough Guide and found that it recommends a visit to Panjim Inn for a sense of history.

From my half-a-dozen earlier visits to Goa, most of them spent in the beaches of North and South Goa, I had never spent more than a day at Goa’s quaint capital – Panjim. But this time, I made up my mind not to fall in the beach trap and anchored myself for an entire week exploring the sights and sounds of Panjim.

I preferred walking tours of the city and hired the services of a local guide – Albert, who showed me a Goa I never knew existed. Our leisurely city saunterings revealed the hitherto unexplored vistas of Panjim and it was like a veil slipping out from the face of a beautiful woman.

Panjim’s main attractions are the old stone buildings dating back to the 16th and 17th centuries and Portuguese era churches. One of the joys of traveling around Panjim are the ferry services across the rivers. Almost without exception they are combined passenger/car ferries. The Dona Paula – Marmagoa circuit was very special. We also did the Old Goa – Piedade ferries and the Panjim – Aldona circuit.

If you have traveled by buses in some of India’s other states, then you are in for a surprise in Panjim. Most of the buses here are pretty good as far as maintenance and standards of comfort are concerned. There’s not the mad scramble for seats as there are in other states and people will make room for you instead of trying to squeeze you out. The conductors of the buses holler out their destinations and buses go when approximately full.

There are innumerable options by bus and we did the Panjim-Margao, Panjim – Old Goa, Panjim – Calangute, Panjim – Baga Beach as well as the Panjim – Mapusa circuits.

The fact that I was visiting Panjim on Christmas eve, the festive spirit was infectious. Already a record number of visitors from abroad had descended in Goa and on Christmas day, I could see large family gatherings and feasting. This is one time of the year when Goa comes alive with festivity and color to the maximum.

Instead of venturing out in the streets, most guests of Panjim Inn, thought it would be wise to stay put at the hotel and savor all the fun and the razzmatazz from the balcony. Needless to say, the entire Fontainhas” was lit up with neon lights and we all had one whale of a time, courtesy friendly fellow guests, wonderful food and of course endless glasses of Feni”- Goa’s very own local brew.

On the classy backdrop of the Fontainhas – the hotel’s management organized an exclusive Goan music concert for entertaining the discerning guests, a majority of whom were foreigners. A local band was hired and they sang a bewildering variety of songs ranging from Christmas carols to haunting Portuguese love songs. The carnival spirit hit us and we jived till the wee hours of the morning. Jubilantwould be the most appropriate word to sum up the Christmas celebrations at Panjim.

With Christmas madness over!….. but I was told by the local tea stall owner that the hangover lasts for a full week, I thought the city was much saner now and I decided to delve into the history of the Fontainhas. Being a Travel Writer helped, as I was provided with a very resourceful guide who not only showed me all the three properties but often came out with startling revelations about Goa’s famed Latin Quarter”.

We started off our Latin rendezvous with Panjim Inn –

 

Panjim Inn

The Panjim Inn has been an integral part of the Latin Quarter Pantheon and happens to be the original Colonial Mansion of the Fontainhas. This magnificent colonial property was built by Francis Assis D’Silveira in the late 1800’s. He was an upper class gentleman and the Panjim Inn has been in the possession of the D’Silveira family for more than five generations. One can have a glimpse of the family’s insignia on the first floor verandah.

The present owners of Panjim Inn took a lot of pains while restoring this historical edifice. The manner in which this historical building has been restored to its former glory deserves kudos. Both the exterior and interior facades have held on to their classical charm and the architect has taken special care   to preserve and reinforce the 90 cm.  wide walls made of mud, clay and laterite.  Even the quintessential Burma Teak beams and rafters have been specially treated to safeguard them from Termites.

Panjim Inn has all of 24 well appointed bedrooms – 12 in the Old section and the other 12 in the freshly reconstructed section opposite the Rua de Ourem. Each room oozes with its own classical charm and the Period furniture include Four Poster Beds, engraved Rosewood Almirahs, and exceptional works of art that adorn the walls.

For the art connoisseurs, there is also an In-House Art Gallery that provides a romantic setting to the hotel’s discerning guests. As a compliment to Panjim Inn’s Old World charm, each room has been provided with all modern hotel amenities ranging from air-conditioning to electronic safes, all of which makes guests feel truly blessed with the best of both the worlds.

The kitchen is ideally set up in the first floor and offers breathtaking views of the Street Junction. The chefs are well trained with years of culinary experience under their belt and they encourage guests to share their cooking skills or even a new menu to be shared with other guests. There is an air of informality here that makes you feel like being at home.

As a heritage hotel, Panjim Inn has pioneered the concept of eco-friendliness and the hotel offers solar water heating facilities as well as rain water harvesting, concepts that have been hugely appreciated by the hotel’s discerning guests. The hotel’s commitment to Eco-Tourism has meant that in spite of the acute space crunch, all the kitchen wastes are dumped in a compost pit inside the hotel’s premises.

If you are lazy and don’t feel like venturing out, the views from Panjim Inn’s balcony is fabulous. Be comfortably seated in the signature Rosewood Chair and with few sips of your favorite tipple, it is fascinating to watch the unique Goan street life in all its color and vibrancy.

 

Panjim Pousada

As I crossed the threshold and made my entry inside the elegant looking Panjim Pousada, it was as if the “Old Times” were beckoning me to explore an edifice that had history written all over. I meet Steve and Susi Lemlin from far away London who aptly summed up the ambience of Panjim Pousada thus – “Having arrived feeling tired and fairly fed up with travel in India, we leave after a week with only one regret – that we can’t stay longer. Lovely building, beautifully maintained and very clean – a real delight. We found staff and management helpful, friendly. Knowledgeable without even being pushy. Keep up the good work, we look forward to visiting again during the dry season too!”

This classic Latin hospitality property has its own individual character and is ideally located on a by lane in close proximity to the Panjim Inn. Initially what struck me was the sheer quietness of the place and an air of serenity that prevailed. It was difficult to comprehend that here was one place that was immune from the cacophony and the dissonance of Panjim’s busy street life, in spite of being located bang in the heart of the city.

I was told by the well-informed guide that the Pousada was built much later as compared to Panjim Inn and it used to serve as an exclusive Hindu Home, even though located principally in a Catholic area. The Pousada was renovated way back in the 1930’s and for some time also played host to the renowned “Ghanekar” family of Goa. This ancestral home of the Ghanekar’s has witnessed for many generations the pride and prejudice of this distinguished Goan family – marriage, celebrations and periods of mourning at the passing away of near and dear ones.  Old timers still recall the annual Ganesh Utsav, which used to be celebrated with great pomp and grandeur, befitting the Ghanekar family’s elevated status in the Goan society.

The innermost Chowk” or courtyard with its quintessential Tulus” used to be the place where the ladies of the family would gather for their prayers and conduct the ritual of Arati”. Even the Tulsi Plant”, which is revered by the Hindus, has been carefully nurtured and typical of any Hindu home.

In all, there are 9 impeccably appointed bedrooms surrounding the Chowk” and each one of them are a masterpiece of colonial architecture, replete with vintage cupboards, typical four poster beds made of the finest quality of Rose and Teakwood and traditional lamps takes one back to an era where life flowed with ease and grace. I have never ever seen a more harmonious blend of Granite and China mosaic as I saw at the Panjim Pousada.

 

Panjim People’s

Panjim People’s is ideally located just opposite to the elegant Panjim Inn.  This stylish mansion oozes with an air of romanticism. It was built in the 1800’s and till recently housed the People’s High School, which happens to be one of Goa’s leading primary school and alma mater to some of Goa’s well-known citizens who have carved a niche for themselves in today’s competitive world. Presently, this dignified historical edifice has been converted into a heritage hotel and there is also an in-house art gallery.

Through conscientious renovation of the building, the Panjim People’s edifice has been given a new lease of life and much of its former architectural grandeur too has been restored.

The accent of Panjim People’s is its splendid yet simplistic architecture and its total compliance with Latin sensivities, so much so that the age-old Latin architectural heritage have been replicated and embellished extensively both inside and outside this magnificent hotel. All the minute details like the antique wooden furnishings, the curtains and the overall ambience in each room reverberate with a rustic colonial charm, thereby making the entire hotel experience a harmonious one.

The unprejudiced eye of the architect echoes in every nook and corner of the Panjim Peoples. Here the virtually impossible seem graceful and easy and I think that’s what architecture is all about. The hotel is a supreme adjustment to opportunity and local conditions. All attention has been concentrated on, not collecting art, but on creating art, like one beautiful picture.

Surrounded by colonial designs, designs that are unusual and minimalist, designs that celebrate, which do not necessarily conform to any set pattern, finishes that are playful – is the joy that this hotel breathes into her spaces. Be it the floors, walls, ceilings, doors or even the simple framed windows, Panjim People’s manages to evoke in the most mundane things a vibrancy and a happy mood, that reach out to greet you the moment you step inside.

With an exclusive set of 4 impeccably appointed rooms on the first floor, each about 30-40 square meters in size, is replete with Four Poster beds made of the finest quality of Rosewood, vintage Almirahs, cozy Divans, dressing tables, gilded pelmets, unique art pieces, the quintessential Planters chairs as well as Lace Curtains.

 

Gallery Gitanjali

Gallery Gitanjali is the In-house gallery of the Latin Fontainhas consisting of Panjim Inn, the Panjim Pousada and the Panjim People’s. Here in this elegant art gallery, unique and unusual works of art by both local as well as overseas artists are on display. The gallery extends all the way to the public areas and a part of the gallery spills over to the impeccably appointed guest rooms.

The Chowk” in the premises of the Pousada is where the buzz of the gallery is, adorned with paintings of rare quality.  The circuitous Verandah, The traditional Brown Terracotta Double Tiles that forms the Verandah Roof, the exquisite Granite Mosaic Floor as well as a harmonious mix of simulated and natural light that percolates through the open Chowk” has a bizarre effect on the gallery’s art arena.

Some of the renowned artists whose works are on display at the Gitanjali Gallery are a veritable whose who ranging from Gopal Adivrekar, Mohan Naik, Sonia Rodrigues, Jayashree Patankar t0 Robert Geesink, Arya, Dietrich Kerky, Shilpa Pandit Patole and a whole lot more. Most of the art on display here  are conceptual and realistic in terms of color and oil and is inclusive of collage and landscapes.

I feel architects tend to design interiors that are austere – decorators on the other hand produce interiors that are dramatic, often with no sense of discipline. Here though, the synthesis has been perfect, stunning and dignified showcase that exudes an aura of ease.

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