It is the capital city of everyone’s favourite pandemic destination, Goa. Panaji or Panjim is on most visitors’ itineraries for its majestic church, the colourful houses that populate Fontainhas and Sao Tome, and sometimes for its casinos.
Yet, there’s more to Goa's capital than these obvious attractions. Panjim, including its suburbs, is a thriving, vibrant city that’s digging its way into being ‘smart’. There’s art, culture, good food and entertainment to be found here. And, women-owned businesses and women-centric experiences.
There are women running fashion studios, organising tours and walks, and concerts, creating sculptural jewellery, teaching Portuguese, feeding people, and creating spaces where people can just be.
“I have travelled a fair bit and it is one of the prettiest cities, in terms of planning, in terms of the people who live here and how they shape Goan ethos,” says Maria Victor, and founder of experiential travel company Make it Happen.
Victor grew up in Panjim and the city isn’t just home but the place where she converted her hobby — organising heritage walks — into a business. “I couldn’t have chosen a better location,” she says. “It is close to my heart; I know the city in and out, and I have a lot of local support.”
Make it Happen is headquartered in the city and offers five trails — Fontainhas, Campal, an art saunter, and two food trails — some of which are led by professionals who have lived in the city and are great storytellers. “Sharing and showcasing these people’s stories is how someone can actually experience the true stories of Goa,” says Victor.
The stories of Goa come to life in different ways and in different parts of Panjim. In the colourful lanes of Fontainhas is the Bookworm Trust & Library, where educators Elaine Mendonsa and Sujata Noronha have created a learning space and library for children. A known feature in Goa’s literary landscape, Bookworm can be found at fairs and festivals; they also publish books, organise book fests, and events.
Over in Altinho, Barkha Sharda is living her dream of starting her own bookstore. That Book Store (founded with her husband, Kumar Chitrang) focuses largely on children’s picture books, though there are books for adults too — all of them second-hand. By the side, Sharda organises events for children, and has started a book club for adults.
In St Inez is the home of Child’s Play India Foundation, where founder Dr Luiz Dias, his wife (trustee and freelance journalist) Chryselle D’Silva Dias run a music education trust that teaches classical music to disadvantaged children. Together, they organise classes, organise benefit concerts, curate after-school projects and music camps.
By the Mandovi riverside is a small, tastefully designed room turned concert space, Madra Goa. Every month, the dulcet voice of fadista Sonia Shirsat fills up the room. As a pioneer of the musical genre, Sonia takes participants on a melodious and informative journey, also bringing in another Goan musical tradition, mando.
Eat, work, love
Any good story would have food as one of its characters. There is much choice for those seeking delicious nosh in the city. There are home chefs like Marlene de Noronha Meneses with her Tasty Treats — Portuguese bakes stuff like Pasteis de Nata (custard tarts), Toucinho do Céu (Portuguese almond cake), and pork or chicken empadinhas (pies); Andrea Crizzle offering Anglo-Indian food at Andy’s Khana; and Ati Aier of Oya’s Umami doing Naga food and smoked pickles. For a taste of Goan Saraswat food, there is Shubhra Shankwalker’s catering service, Aai’s or journalist and author Sapna Sardessai’s newly launched Kokum Curry.
Chef Vandana Naik’s café Bodega in the courtyard of the Sunaparanta Centre for the Arts is now a famous spot for visitors to the city. In a cosy space in Fontainhas, tea sommelier Snigdha Manchanda offers people the chance to sample and savour freshly brewed tea, and indulge in a High Tea experience.
Two launches in the last couple of years that are making waves are Larder & Folk and Isabella’s Tapas Bar — both started by women, and both serving delicious food. Arati Naik’s Isabella’s has an extensive tapas menu and a bar with homemade vermouth. In a little corner in Mala is Priyanka Sardessai’s Larder & Folk, a small sit-down space offering sweet treats, breads, and savoury items like noodles and burgers.
Sardessai chose to launch in her home-town because it was convenient and comfortable. “I have hopefully changed eating habits of people who have had limited options within Panjim City. It makes me wonder, am I turning into the new-age Pastry Cottage, because that’s the dream!”
Incidentally, Pastry Cottage, which revolutionised the cakes and pastry world and is still a popular go-to, was started by Gauri Dempo back in 1994, in Panjim. “A lot of us have opened up Panjim so that people put us on their must-visit list,” adds Sardessai.
The beauty of this city lies in the fact that, seek and you shall find the stories of inspiring women. In a quiet corner of Caranzalem is where Charmaine deSouza takes up abode. deSouza is now one of the most recognised faces on Goa’s beaches, being one of the few women lifesavers with Drishti Marine Pvt. Ltd. It’s a job she wanted from childhood, and which came to fruition in 2021. “I love the beach, I love swimming, getting paid to be on the beach is dreamy. I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.”