Freeze-frame moments of stately two-storeyed mansions painted in happy colours of bottle green, yellow and mustard, windows made of translucent oyster shells framed by delicate lace curtains, decorative cast iron grills juxtaposed against narrow lanes with women in saris selling greens in baskets, and balconies overflowing with pink and white bougainvilleas. It feels like I have walked into a street in Portugal. Fontainhas—the Latin quarter of Goa’s capital Panaji—is an otherworldly place of sepia memories and nostalgia.
Fontainhas derives its name from a fountain, the Fonte Phoenix, built at the site of a natural spring. Walking down the narrow streets of this neighbourhood, a UNESCO Heritage site since 1984, feels like a journey through time. Winding alleyways are lined by Mangalore tile-roofed houses in spectacular shades of blue, bottle green and reds.
The houses bring alive Goa’s Portuguese past. “Long ago, Panjim was just a fishing village, a marshy land devoid of the architectural wonders of today,” explains my Goan guide Jonas. The city’s oldest heritage building is the riverside Idalcao Palace, built by Yusuf Adil Shah (1450–1511), founder of the Adil Shahi dynasty. It was later taken over by the Portuguese, turned into residences and eventually became the Secratariat Building.
“The neighbourhood developed haphazardly without much attention paid to its layout of streets,” explains Jonas. Most of these houses are at least two to three centuries old; many are still used as family homes, while some have been converted into boutiques, restaurants and heritage hotels.
History whispers from every quarter of this area. The small whitewashed church at the southern end of Fontainhas is the Chapel of St. Sebastian, erected in 1880. It contains one of only a few relics remaining as testament to the Goan Inquisition—a crucifix where the image of Christ has been created with eyes open, as if to create fear among the people to the Inquisitors.
As we walk along Rue de Natal or Christmas street, I see bright red painted wishing wells with statues of roosters. The lively colours, the beautiful number plates that are works of art, a building whose entire wall was covered by Azulejo ceramic tiles typical of the Iberian peninsula. These white ceramic tiles in a style known as Azulejos were adapted by the Portugese from Moroccan and Algerian tile-work. The word azulejo is derived from the Arabic zellige, meaning ‘polished stone’.
“During Portuguese rule, it was compulsory by law for every resident to repaint the façade of his house every year after the rains. This practice continues as a tradition,” explains Jonas. While churches were painted white, residences were permitted to use colour.
We pass Hospedaria Venite on 31st January Road with its graffitied walls and chandeliers, one of the oldest lodging and boarding establishments in Panjim. There are a number of art galleries spread across Fontainhas; some even double up as cafes. There are sketches and cartoons, including some by master cartoonist Mario Miranda, a native of Goa, on display at these galleries.
Fontainhas is home to an annual Art and Heritage festival when it comes alive with live music and dancing in the streets. Private homes turn into art galleries, their balconies and verandas displaying paintings, sculptures and pottery; and heritage home courtyards are converted to beer gardens. Families invite tourists for a tour of their homes with classic wooden and stained-glass interiors and antique artefacts.
Most people who come to Goa come only for the beaches and shacks with chilled beer, but to not explore its interiors would be to miss out on fascinating history. To go against stereotypes is always to discover new worlds. And it’s the same with Fontainhas.