Goa is known for its beaches, historic churches, flea markets and of course sumptuous seafood. For most a holiday in Goa is about waters sports, sightseeing and making merry at the beaches. But if you are looking for an unconventional experience, then a heritage trail is a great option to explore. On the Fontainhas Heritage Walk in Goa, you can flashback in time and experience the Portugal colonial era.
We have done the ‘Old Blue City Walk’ in Jodhpur, ‘The French Quarters Walk’ in Pondicherry and the heritage walk through Fort Kochi. So, when I get to know about the ‘Fontainhas Heritage Walk’ I know this is what we have to do next. After speaking to a couple of tour operators, we zero in on ‘Make it Happen’ – a travel company that provides several heritage walks and offbeat experiences around Goa. The cherry on the cake is that it is on Christmas Day, 25th December, that we would be exploring the Latin Quarters of Goa. It received a UNESCO Heritage Zone Tag in 1984.
As agreed, we meet our guide Amreen Shaikh outside the Indian Post Office in Panjim. She has a Masters in History, so we know we have an expert who will help us dive deep into Portugal era. During the next two hours, she shares exciting details, stories and anecdotes about Fontainhas Goa, the largest Latin Quarters in Asia.
Fontainhas became the capital of Goa after Old Goa was ravaged by plague. The Carmelite nuns received this land from Jose Antonio Sequeira a wealthy Goan. In turn, the nuns were generous enough to donate portions of the land to the people who moved from Old Goa. Soon charming homes, bylanes or ‘becos’ sprang up here in a haphazard fashion. It is these homes and alleys that we were about to explore.
“Any guesses of how Fontainhas gets its name or how the name is derived?”, quizzes our guide. I blurt out ‘Fountain’, and she nods in agreement. Fontainhas in Portuguese means’ Little Fountain.’ A natural spring at the bottom of Altinoh hill called “Fonte Phoenix” or ‘Fountain of Phoenix’ is where it gets its name.
Our guide tells us that the place where we are standing is the Tobacco square. The red and white Indian Post Office building was originally known as the Tobacco House. It was a warehouse of not letters and parcels like it is today but of tobacco! In the 18th century, when the economy was sinking the Portuguese thought trading in tobacco would help revive it.
We then walk towards a yellow house called Mint House as it was here that the Portuguese currency was printed. Today the Dias family which has several doctors lives here. Our guide then tells us that she will take us across the street to meet the oldest member of the Dias family. We think that meeting this stalwart perhaps is a surprise that is planned for us. We walk in anticipation and Amreen halts in front of a statue. She introduces us to Gen Miguel Caetano Dias, the oldest member of the Dias family and we burst out laughing. He was a surgeon who was the only Goan General in the Portuguese Army.
St Thomas Chapel and Colourful Homes
St Thomas Chapel is what we see next. He is known as the Saint of Carpenters and was one of the 12 apostles. We enter the alleys and soon see colourful homes one after another in red, yellow, green, blue… and many others. Some of these homes are residences while others have been refurbished as shops, restaurants, art galleries and even hotels. This walk reminds us of our Pondicherry walk when we see the yellow houses synonymous with Pondicherry’s French Quarters.
Balcoas or Blaconies
Our guide points to the balcoas or balconies, which served multiple functions. It was here that people smoked or had a cup of tea and exchanged news and views. Also, the balcoas on ground floors ensured that people didn’t enter the homes and could be entertained in the balcos. Many of the balconies have wrought iron grills made with specially conditioned iron that hasn’t rusted for decades.
St Anthony-The Saint of Lost Things
In front of us is a niche in a wall with St Anthony and a garland around it. He is known as the patron ‘Saint of Lost Things’ explains our guide. Every time an individual loses something St Anthony is invoked by the faithful to recover lost items.
The windows in Fontainhas are next brought to our attention. These windows are made not of glass but mother of pearls or oyster shells. Since glass was expensive and there was an abundance of shells, the locals used it as a substitute for glass. This served two purposes explains our guide. Firstly, light could pass through the translucent shells. Secondly, the gaps between shells ensured that cool air could enter the homes.
31st January Bakery
We now head to one of Goa’s oldest bakeries called 31st January. It is a quaint little bakery with a small sit out with tables covered with Azulejos- the blue hand-painted tiles that are unique to Goa. Inside there is a display cabinet with assorted cookies, sweets and other treats. A plateful of ‘Kalkal’ a sweet pastry which will remind you of the Maharashtrian and Gujarati’ Shakarparas’ is served. As we savour it a plateful of another Goan speciality is served. ‘Bebinca’ a seven layered Christmas delicacy that takes 14 hours to make!
Roosters and Soldiers
With our stomachs full, we move on, and our guide points to homes with figurines of roosters on top. Why would there be a rooster on homes? Amreen shares the story with us of a thief who was accused of stealing silver. He was presented in front of a magistrate who was ready to eat a roasted chicken. The magistrate passes a judgement that the thief be taken to the gallows and hanged. The thief pleads for mercy as he is falsely accused. He says that if he is innocent, then the roasted chicken in front of the magistrate will spring back to life!
Viola no sooner was the thief taken to be hanged that the roasted chicken springs back to life. Thus, the rooster became a symbol of honesty and truth and has ever since found a place on the roofs of these Fontainhas homes. Another home has a figurine of a ‘Soldados’ or soldier on the top. It is symbolic that someone from the family had served in the armed forces. We even pass a well that is painted red with roosters on it.
St Sebastian Chapel
We are now in front of St. Sebastian Chapel painted in white. White was reserved for churches and chapels. The homes could have any colour except white which explains why one sees so many colourful homes around. One usually sees Jesus Christ crucified on a cross with his eyes looking down. By contrast at St Sebastian Chapel, one can see an image of Christ with open eyes. The doors of the chapel are closed, and so we are content seeing it from the outside.
Next, we are introduced to Francis, a Goan musician who is waiting for us in one of the homes. He is a septuagenarian who sings English, Konkani and Portuguese songs which have us tapping our feet. He strings his guitar and asks us to join in a chorus, and we gladly sing along. After seeing colourful homes, eating Goan goodies, we are now listening to Goan music. What a sensorial experience this is turning out to be!
We are now on crossroads which has three famous heritage buildings that have been painstakingly conserved. The Panjim Inn which was an original grand house but today is a heritage hotel. Adjacent to it is Panjim People’s which houses an art gallery. The third is Panjim Pousada, a Hindu Brahmin House which we are about to visit. We enter this heritage home and see a courtyard in the centre which is the focal point. There is a passage around it which has beautiful paintings and an impressive Ganesha statue.
We feel like in a jiffy we have magically left Goa and travelled to South India! So stunning and impressive is this heritage Brahmin Home. This just shows that the Hindus and Christians lived peacefully in Goa centuries ago. What distinguishes a Christian home from a Hindu home is that the former will have a cross, while the latter will have a Tulsi plant at the entrance.
Time has ticked, and it’s more than two hours since we began this walk. The St Sebastian Chapel doors have opened, and the faithful have assembled for prayers. We are so glad we can see its interiors. I stand on the road in front of the chapel and watch the proceedings. The alter and inside of the chapels are illuminated in golden light and exude a beautiful aura. I am immediately reminded of my childhood days studying at a convent school surrounded by nuns and attending chapel with my Christian classmates.
Our Fontainhas heritage walk has come to an end. Christmas in Goa and celebrating it in Fontainhas by watching the colourful homes, listening to music and sampling the sweet treats! What an immersive experience this has been. We couldn’t have asked for more! So, the next time you are in Goa, try this offbeat experience that you will cherish for a long time.