View from my Balcao: A special Christmas in Goa

My dad blogs from Goa…

Goa has always celebrated its Christmas with much gusto, ressurecting the traditional nostalgia with much revelry – read wine, song and a banquet fit for a king, in every home across this tiny, beach-state. Although the population of Goa does not boast of a high percentage of Catholics, Christmas has always been big hereabouts.

You will get to listen to Christmas carols aplenty as you pass by any Catholic home (being painted, decorated and spruced up), as Christmas is in the air, come December 1st !! There are the eternal favourites like “White Christmas” (by American-born Russian Irving Berlin) first performed by Bing Crossby way back in 1941, or Carol of the Drum (Little Drummer Boy) made famous by the Von Trapp singers of Salzburg (Sound of Music, remember) down to the most popular “Silent Night” composed in German by a schoolmaster in Austria in 1818 and declared as an intangible heritage by UNESCO.

Midnight Mass is a well-attended service with devotees spilling out of the many whitewashed Churches of Goa, into the open spaces; Fontainhas, in the Latin quarter boasts of a service held right out in the open with all its predominantly Catholic residents proud to come to the little 400-year-old St Sebastian Chapel – bumped into our neighbour, the legendary architect Charles Correa and his beautiful wife after the service over a piece of cake and coffee, generously served up by the padre !

Retreating to our ancestral-home (now a heritage homestay too), we pour ourselves some hand-made red wine (from my neighbour Pinto, as in Pinsons), something normally associated with Christmas the world over.

Christmas-day is a social affair with a few early visits to neighbours and close friends. otherwise it is a family-lunch that starts at noon and ends whenever you wish it to !

Culinary-wise, the Goan table on Christmas-day recreates a traditional feast handed down the ages with very little modifications. It must include lots of red wine, a pork dish, maybe roast, suckling pig replete with the apple in the mouth or at least sorpotel or cabidela de leitao. Add a roast chicken trussed a la turkey style, a beef assad, a whole fish lathered in reshaad masala and arroz (pullao), to ensure a fitting tribute to the girth of Santa ! Round it off with Christmas plum cake and a sherry … and if you choose to ( well, I did ! ), a fat Cuban cigar – ah ! the world seemed merrier through the blue haze, hic !!

Did I “have yourself a Merry Christmas” ( Frank Sinatra’s rendition is superb) ? The answer is simply – yes I did – and a full “12 days of Christmas” (amusingly calculated by PNC Wealth Mgmt to cost $ 107,300) !!!

 Thank God for our home in Goa, now restored as Mitaroy Goa Heritage HomeStay in the Latin quarter of Fontainhas.

Celebrating Fontainhas, Panjim

View from my Balcao (My dad blogs from Goa)…

Mitaroy Goa Heritage HomeStay is a house set apart, in the quaint, quiet bye-lanes of Mala-Fontainhas, a UNESCO Heritage protected Zone right in the heart of Panjim.

It is a 100+ year-old home, white with red-tiled-roof, a kind of a dak-bunglow seen somewhere in the Portuguese-era of the late 1800 and identified with their invasion and occupation of the Indian territory. It evokes the Portuguese word “saudade” loosely translated to ” a kind of deep longing, nostalgic and heart-rending of something lost, something dearly-loved”. It takes one back in time & space, to the relics of the Portuguese raj, visual signs of history presumably dead and done-with, reminiscing the unfamiliar little enclaves of the Portuguese settlers.

The simplicity & intrigue surrounding these little pockets of history strikes a chord in one’s mind ( heart ?) as a defence against an encroaching and threatening landscape across the Ourem Creek, a way of keeping its distance from the onrushing, almost cruel development by virtue of its lonely, recessed locale. Evolved from rudimentary dwellings into extremely comforting, even elegant guest-houses and home-stays, these bunglows carry the history of the Portoguese sahibs-memsahibs who lived hereabouts and developed the surrounding territory that is Goa today. A WalkAbout in these parts is a special treat for visitors in search of history & culture. A 400-year-old (white-washed) chapel dominates the landscape in hushed, respected silence through the day, as does a bright, domed temple.

The architecture is notably simple and simplified, with the heat-protecting red-tiled roofs, airy red-oxide balcaos for catnapping while passing the time of the (hot) days and (cooler) nights in discussion and repartee, built closely-knit, ostensibly to foster camaraderie and a kind of a protection from any intruders, close to the waters-edge and closer to the source of water (fountain …fontainhas in Porto) and large rooms with high-ceilings.

HomeStays & GuestHouses apart, many of these bunglows have been neatly metamorhed into boutiques, bakeries & cafes promoting the Goan culture in all its hues and tastes – a typical vase or jar, a simple prawn-curry-rice, an original version of bebinca(sweet).

Spot an old lady, elegant in her neatly-groomed white hairdo, prim in her laced-dress or marathi-tied cotton saree, powdered & all, staring vacantly out of her lace-curtained window as dusk gathers its folds and envelopes the surroundings in a kind of an eerie darkness, interrupted by the peal of the Church-bell or the gong of the bright-lit temple nearby. That one moment is a beautiful one that remains etched in one’s memory of a Goa that once was Portuguese territory.

 A holiday with some history tossed about for a pleasant recall about the last remaining vistages of the Portuguese culture.

 Mitaroy Goa Heritage HomeStay offers luxuriously appointed, spacious suites with privacy & silence, breakfast & beer, personalised service and peaceful existence starting at Rs 6,400 per night in a Heritage Suite.

Contact Us Now for a special Package…

Hike in Goa Monsoon Tourism

Photo Credit: http://www.parrikar.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2009/08/chorlaghat.jpg

The jury still seems to be out on whether a Goa Monsoon Holiday is a good idea or not. 

But as Goa Tourism Department statistics show, Goa registered a 6.5% growth in monsoon tourism from June 2012 to September 2012 as compared to the same period last year. While Goa welcomed 3.8 lakh visitors during the Goa Monsoon in 2011, this year Goa received 4.05 lakh tourists – an increase of over 24,000 tourists. Both these figures were for foreign and domestic tourists. But it was the foreign tourists that made the big difference. While  Goa had 5,938 foreign visitors in September 2011, it saw 16,141 foreign tourists visiting Goa in September 2012. That meant a whopping increase of nearly 60%. 

In the type of tourists, MICE tourists were fewer this monsoon season but were replaced by a sizeable increase in FITs (free and independent travelers), families and young couples.

To entice tourists to visit Goa in the monsoon, hoteliers offered special monsoon discounts and discounted monsoon packages that included accommodation as well as  other freebies including airport transfers, free half-day sightseeing tours to Old Goa including the UNESCO Heritage Zone of the Basilica of St Francis Xavier, boat cruises on the Mandovi river and other goodies. 

It is the nature of the monsoon in Goa that makes visiting Goa during this period such a difficult decision to make. The monsoon in Goa is much harsher than in other places, especially the UK and Europe. What the West calls rain is merely a light drizzle for a Goan. When the monsoon comes in all its fury, the rain lashes down for days and months on end. It rains down so hard that the pressure of the raindrops can be quite unnerving sometimes. Hence, for long, tourists avoided Goa in the monsoons like the plague. 

However, soon tourists (both Indian and foreign) realised that one could enjoy the monsoon in Goa if one came prepared. Strong umbrellas, shorts and slippers made the monsoon in Goa much easier to bear. Plus, smart tourists realised that they could get great deals from hotels in the monsoon. However, it was not just the price that attracted more and more tourists to Goa during the monsoon. 

Some tourists like the French had no other choice, with their holidays coinciding exactly with the Goan Monsoon. So they made the best of their time there, walking about coolly under their umbrellas. 

Others, like my Dad, loved the Goan Monsoon because it meant that Goa did not have as many tourists as the rest of the year. The tourists that did come were able to enjoy Goa to the fullest, without being rushed by the usual crowds that Goa sees. 

Another reason was of course, that apart from July and half of August, it did not rain the whole time in Goa. After the showers stopped, Goa showed itself in all its beauty with the green fields greener than ever and all nature basking in a washed, clean look that forced one to stop and watch in awe. 

Goa wants to enter World Heritage list with forest bats

Being included in UNESCO’s World Heritage List is one of the surest ways for destinations to get noticed by tourists and the media alike. 

It was only a few months back, in July 2012 that the Western Ghats (the mountainous region spreading along the Western Coast of India across Maharashtra, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala) was added to the World Heritage Sites list by UNESCO. However, the Goan part of the Western Ghats was not included in the UNESCO’s list.

There was a huge outcry by Goa’s powerful mining lobby when the proposal was brought up and it seems that the powerful mining lobby managed to thwart the Government’s attempts to include Goa in this prestigious World Heritage List. 

That is why it came as quite a surprise to me to read that the Goan Government would like to enter the Goa region of the Western Ghats in the World Heritage Sites list. 

Making its representation, the Goan State Forest Department has claimed that the forests of Goa are the only home on earth for rare species of wild forest bat — The Giant Indian Mastiff.

This small creature looks rather small and weak, unlike its rather pompous sounding name!

The Goan State Forest Department has claimed in a draft letter yet to be submitted to UNESCO that the Great Indian Mastiff (also known in scientific circles as the ‘Wroughton’s free-tailed bat’ has been sighted in the Mhadei Wildlife Sanctuary in the Western Ghats region and steps have already been taken to declare the area a protected region. 

As per protocol, the draft letter must receive the approval of the Chief Minister of Goa, Manohar Parrikar, before being sent to UNESCO. The letter also includes an appeal to declare Goa’s forests as a ‘tiger habitat. 

The increased presence of tigers in the Western Ghats region in recent years shows the potential of these forests to become a protected tiger habitat in the Western Ghats region. 

For Goa to be included in the World Heritage list, the natural heritage must be deemed to be of value to all humanity.

If the proposal is accepted by UNESCO, the forests of Western Ghat will find themselves in the middle of a great amount of attention, from both the media as well as tourists. Not only does a UNESCO Heritage tag ensure a greater number of tourists, it also enables the local State Government to better protect the natural habitat against development pressures. 

Goa has indeed benefited by such a UNESCO Heritage tag in the past, as its Churches and Convents of Goa are already included in the cultural and historical Heritage Sites list of UNESCO. Built during the 16th to the 18th centuries, these historial structures date from Goa’s Portuguese Colonial days and are credited with introducing the Manueline, Mannerist and Baroque styles of art to the Asian peninsula.

Most beach tourists make it a point to at least visit the UNESCO Heritage Site of the Churches and Convents of Goa, known simply as Old Goa, during their stay, usually as part of a half day Old Goa sightseeing tour by bus. 

But as tourists become more discerning, they spend more time visiting and imbibing the cultural heritage of Goa, with repeat visits to both the Churches and Convents of Old Goa as well as the Heritage Conservation Zone of Fontainhas in Panjim.

Viva Panjim Restaurant Goa

Just a 5 minute stroll away from my Mitaroy Goa Hotel in the neighbourhood of Fontainhas is a small restaurant that serves the best prawn curry rice I have ever eaten.

Panjim, the capital of Goa, is known for its amazing restaurants. I know people who stay in North Goa but still come to Panjim every day to try out the restaurants here.

Viva Panjim, located in a Heritage Home in the UNESCO Heritage Zone of Fontainhas in Panjim, is a real treat for sea food lovers. Popularized by the Lonely Planet Guide and the Rough Guide, you can see foreign tourists making a beeline towards the restaurant which is tucked away in a quiet, side street.

Whenever we eat at Viva Panjim, we prefer to sit outside on the portico rather than inside this heritage house. A Goan feni with lime is a great way to start off the meal, with a side order of fried mussels. I then move on to my favourite prawn curry rice accompanied by another round of Goan feni with lime.

The consistency of the prawn curry is just right – not too thick and not too watery. The ingredients in the prawn curry rice are secret but the result is a unique, orangish hue. The portion is really large with a good serving of rice and atleast 6 huge prawns.

The Owner of Viva Panjim and a family friend of ours, Linda sits at her desk every day and keeps a sharp eye on the waiters to see if they are doing their job. Linda’s stern face breaks into a smile when a new guest walks in. She knows most customers who are either old friends or loyal guests and she greets them by name. 

Most first time guests swear by Viva Panjim and quite often, you see familiar faces of guests who religiously visit Viva Panjim for at least one meal every day.

Once we polish off the last of the rice and prawn curry and wash it down with a last Goan feni with lime, it is time to slowly make our way back to our private Suite at my Mitaroy Goa Hotel and partake of a very welcome afternoon Siesta!

Stay Romantic!

Mihir