Goa’s reputation for its sprawling beaches and wild parties often precedes the arrival of its tourists. And in the search for the hippie Goa, its capital city of Panaji is often given a miss. But this quaint colonial town has a personality of its own. With narrow, shaded streets and colourful heritage homes vying for attention, Panaji reflects the cultural side of Goa. A fairly unexplored city with a serene waterfront, Panaji sprung many a surprise at me on my recent visit. Here’s what I discovered...
Things to see and do
Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception Church
This surreal white structure has been in existence since 1541. Its magnificence can be judged by the 100 steps you have to walk to get into the church. The interior reflects the architecture of the era it was built in, but it’s simplistic in comparison to the monolithic exterior. The best time to visit is during the three-day celebration of the Feast of Our Lady of Fatima, towards the end of May, where people come to witness the sheer splendour of the church. There are also stalls that sell tiny miniatures, souvenirs, sweets, food and drink.
As you walk into Fontainhas, it’ll seem as though someone came with buckets of colours and splashed them over all the houses. Most of the homes here are painted in ochre, brick red, deep blue and soft lavender reminiscent of the Portuguese era, when locals were asked to paint their homes in different colours, as only the churches could be painted white. Take a nostalgic walk down the narrow streets of this beautiful heritage quarter that is located near River Ourem.
The Kala Academy not only provides a platform to showcase upcoming talent, but also houses a beautiful large space by the seaside, where you simply immerse in the surroundings. In addition to an art gallery, auditorium, library and performance halls, it has a well-maintained garden facing the sea and a large canteen.
The Miramar (Portuguese for viewing the sea) beach is just three kilometres from Panaji. It’s more popular with the locals than tourists since it’s not a very clean beach. Although with soft silvery sand and a string of palm trees providing shade, it’s a nice place to come and watch the sunset.
If in Panaji, you must take the sunset cruise on River Mandovi. There are many boats that offer several cruises through the day. The cruise is filled with cultural song and dance performances, true Goan style. If you’re fond of gambling, step abroad India’s only boat casino, the Caravela.
Where to eat
One of the most popular restaurants in Goa, Mum’s Kitchen—located on the Panaji-Miramar road—was essentially a move to save Goan cuisine. Started over 10 years ago, the menu serves authentic Goan cuisine researched from Goan villages. Dishes such as nalachi kodi, which is a traditional Goan-Hindu refreshing drink made of kokum blended with coconut milk, are truly unique. A must-try is the Crepe Mum, a pancake filled with a mixture of coconut and jaggery and served with vanilla ice-cream topped with chocolate sauce and garnished with cashews. The ambiance exudes an earthy feeling, especially a stone wall adorned with pots and urns from another era.
For Goan cuisine desi-style, go to George restaurant (located near Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception Church) and try the scrumptious chicken xacuti and pork sorpotel. Owned by Eddie, this 55-year-old restaurant is a favourite with the local populace. He specialises in the pork vindaloo, beef cream chops, pork sausages and shark ambiotic.
Don’t leave Panaji without buying local goodies such as bebinca, dodol and pork sausages to name a few. Once in the market area, look for a shop called T-Centre, which is close to the fish market. This is a one-stop shop where you’ll find all local delicacies.