Monday, March 14, 2011

Panaji & Old Goa 26FEB-02MAR2011

The link to all of my photos is embedded in the title of this post.

Although most people associate Goa with beaches, this is not why we decided to visit the small southwestern state. Having spent two full weeks on Thailand's beaches less than one month ago, we were more interested in the area's history which differs from the rest of the country. The entire region was a Portuguese territory from 1510 until 1961 and thus their influence is still seen in the architecture, food and culture.
Portuguese tiles in Panaji's Menezes Braganza Institute
Upon our arrival at Madgaon train station, via overnight train from Kochi, we took a prepaid taxi to the state capital, Panaji, 33km to the north. There we had reserved a room at the Menino Regency for three nights (which we ended up extending to four). The hotel is conveniently located in the city center, next to the 18th century Jama Masjid. We were quite happy to have A/C and to finally take a hot shower after a week of cold showers in Kochi! A basic, Indian breakfast was included in our room rate.
Greg in front of Jama Masjid
We ended up not doing too much sightseeing for the first few days, as it was quite hot (feels like temp was 36C) and Greg had a bout of stomach trouble, probably from all the spicy Indian food we had been eating. Panaji is compact enough to see everything on foot so we primarily strolled around the fairly quiet streets, always keeping an eye out for internet access and cheap places to eat. One day we walked all the way to the guarded compound that is the Goa Marriott Resort, thinking that they would have a well-staffed travel desk to help us plan a tour of northern India. It turned out that we couldn't get past the guards without a reservation however we did discover an office complex nearby with a travel agency that was open on Sunday (the day we made this little excursion).
a cricket match along the waterfront
Why were we looking for a travel agency? As I referenced in my last post, we quickly discovered that almost all of the Indian trains were fully booked for the coming weeks to any of the destinations we had on our itinerary (Delhi, Agra, Varanasi, Darjeeling). With much assistance from, I had managed to "beat the system" to purchase our last minute tickets from Kochi to Goa. However, in order to do this, you need to have internet access exactly two days prior to the departure of each train, or else use a travel agent who can constantly monitor the availability of seats/berths on your desired trains.

As I also mentioned in my last post, we were surprised to find that very few places had wifi in Kochi. Then, in all of Panaji, we did not find a single internet cafe with wifi although most offered internet access on their computers for around RS35 per hour. We found one boutique hotel, whose room rate was more than double what we were paying at the Menino Regency, that had wifi. When we asked if we could sit in their lobby and use their wifi, they eventually were kind enough to agree (for a fee of RS100 per hour) as long as we didn't tell anyone that we weren't guests. As it turned out, we never got around to using their service as we found a travel agency and tiny internet cafe near our hotel which was more convenient, even without wifi.

Because of this lack of reliable internet access, thus severely limiting our ability to plan & book any further travels in India, we decided to "shop" our itinerary to several travel agents who would put together a customized tour of northern India and hopefully eliminate most of the hassles we were already facing. I will discuss our actual tour in my next post, but suffice it to say that for numerous reasons the itinerary was significantly altered from our original version. Keeping in mind that we had a set budget for India, meaning a specific dollar amount that we were willing to spend no matter what the time frame, we thought that based on our first week or two of traveling on our own in the south we would be able to stretch our dollars to cover at least another two weeks in the north. This turned out not to be the case despite our best efforts to minimize the cost of the tour.
I do want to mention that we ate consistently good Indian food in Goa, although Greg was on a rice & toast diet for a few days due to his upset stomach. We ate two delicious meals at Sher-e-Punjab: lunch one day (2 chicken curries, garlic-cheese naan, beer!), and dinner a few nights later (chicken tikka, palak paneer, garlic-cheese naan, more beer!). We were happy to discover liquor stores were much more abundant than in Kerala and many restaurants also sold alcohol. To mix things up a bit, we even ordered a pizza from a nearby Domino's and ate it in our room one night.
Domino's non-veg extravaganza - but the only meat you can get is chicken
One of my favorite days in Panaji was spent exploring the old Portuguese quarter of Fontainhas. With its narrow streets, typical Portuguese architecture and restaurants serving Portuguese-influenced dishes, you could easily convince yourself you had somehow been transported to Europe.
a quiet street in Fontainhas
On the day of our departure to Delhi, we arranged a taxi for the transfer to Dabolim airport. As it was not out of the way, we paid extra to have the driver take us to Old Goa first, so we could tour a few of its historic churches. This was one of the highlights of our time in the state and I'm glad we were able to squeeze it in at the last minute.
Church of St Francis of Assisi & Se Cathedral

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