Unlocking Kochi’s secrets | In many ways this city is Kerala’s beating heart – though Thiruvananthapuram has the title of state capital – for most travellers Kochi is the gateway to this verdant, vibrant land (be it hiking in the hill stations and tea plantations or cruising through the backwaters). It is also a great place to set up camp for a few days before heading off in search of adventure. There’s plenty of choices for five star hotels and restaurants to street stalls and home stays – but the golden rule for this South West Indian gem is to get out and explore.
The city’s fading colonial quarter is the biggest draw:
Head over to Fort Kochi, and either by foot or by tuk-tuk and wander through the past. The area sums up the melting pot of Kerala’s trading heritage with historic Portuguese, Dutch, English, Jewish, and Arabic elements all jostling with modern India for your attention.
In the hotter months dusk and dawn are your best times to explore on foot – head to Vasco de Gama Square and the Chinese Fishing nets and soak up the heritage. Such nets have been a sight on the Kochi shoreline for around 1,000 years, first established to trade with the court of Kublai Khan. Head over early in the morning to see the first hauls of the day, but sunset is the busiest time – for tourists wanting to snap those iconic silhouette on sun photographs, but also those wanting to pick out their fish supper from the various daily catches, either to take home or for the nearby stalls to cook up a storm.
Fort Emmanuel, a disintegrating nod to the 16th century alliance between the Maharaja and the then reigning powers in Portugal, is worth a visit. David Hall, built by the Dutch East India Company, in 1695 is another colonial monolith. Now a trendy art gallery, it’s a delightful mix of old and new. Stroll through past the Parade Ground where various colonial forces displayed their military might, before pausing for thought St. Francis Church, the oldest European church in India. Then take in the fresh cut flowers on Princess Street, also one of the oldest in Fort Kochi, stop for a fresh coconut and watch the street scene at Loafers’ Corner. Santa Cruz Basilica is also worth a stop on your tour of the area.
From tender coconut and juicy mangoes to abundant seafood and lush greens, this is the land of plenty. Plus its vibrant history as a trading port means the cuisine has influences from East Asia, Europe, and Arabia.
Keralans eat often and they eat well, taking such great pleasure in feeding visitors that refusing even a third or fourth portion can disappoint your hosts. There are plenty of street stalls and local canteens to experiment with dosas, pallapum, and idlis (pancakes made from fermented rise and lentils), chapattis (flat breads), as well as an array of curries that could rival an artist’s palette and with ingredients as wide-ranging as fish and shrimp to green mango. Head to ‘Adipoli Thattukada’ near the Medical Trust Hospital on Mahatma Gandhi Road – this street shack, tried and loved by chef Anthony Bourdain as much as it is my local labourers, – for an exceptional parotta and beef fried curry.
Fort Kochi has by far the best range of places to eat: head to the hip Kashi Art Cafe or the equally chic David Hall Gallery Cafe, both offering a cool respite from the noise and heat, as well as the chance to see beautiful art and interiors. Solar Cafe does excellent breakfasts while Fusion Cafe is beloved by both tourists and affluent locals where the food tastes just like grandma makes it, but the style is fresh and accessible. Dosas and Pancakes is another excellent choice to test out the Keralan classics, the venue also offers cooking classes. Wherever you go – must order dishes are: Masala Dosa with sambar, the spicy red Meen & Tamarind Curry and rice, Coconut Meen Molly, and the Kerala style beef and fish or shrimp fry. For those that like a hint of sharp – make sure you sample the pachadi, and lemon & mango pickles.
Homestays are a popular choice in Kerala, offering a chance to stay in family homes, often with considerable heritage and steeped in history, and get a chance to experience the famed Malaylee welcome. Mary and Patrick of Heavenly Home Stay http://www.homestayfortcochin.com/are perennial favourites.
But if your budget allows then it’s worth spending at least a night in one of Kerala’s stunning boutique hotels. Usually set in or at the site of old colonial properties, they offer a peaceful retreat from the beautiful chaos. A tribute to a bygone age, Brunton Boatyard Hotel was built on the site of a Victorian shipbuilding yard and has been designed and decorated in that style (www.cghearth.com/brunton-boatyard). The Old Harbour Hotel is a restoration masterpiece – more than 300 years old – it was the first such hotel in Kochi before falling out of use. It has been returned to former glory but with modern facilities including a pool. It’s worth opting for rooms over-looking the waterfront if you can (www.oldharbourhotel.com). A favourite from the Relais & Chateaux group, Malabar House is part of Kochi history. The building – just opposite St. Francis Church – was owned by key colonial families in the 18th century: spice traders, tea traders, bankers have all made their homes here. The city’s first luxury boutique hotel, it also boasts an impressive art collection, showcasing local and national talents (www.malabarhouse.com)
Kerala is aiming for total prohibition by 2024 in a bid to curb the state’s high alcoholism rate and has already brought in a partial ban. You can still buy cocktails and beers at a select group of five star hotels, and no doubt sellers of the local tipple – known as ‘cull’ or ‘toddy’ – will still find away, but just be aware that sundowners by the beach will be hard to come by.
Beyond Fort Kochi, it is also worth making time to see Mattancherry.
Once the district where the state’s wondrous mix of spices, chilli, cardamom, nutmeg, and cinammon, as well as rice and tea, were stored before being shipped for export is well worth a visit. The vast warehouses are now shops, but occasionally you’ll get a delicious whiff of the spice trail, or spy sacks filled with exotic offerings, en route to the wider world. Make sure you visit Mattancherry Palace, which was built in the 16th century – look out for some remarkable paintings of the classic Indian Ramayana story.
The Jewish quarter – prosaically known as Jew Town – is another must visit. The synagogue, built in 1568, is the oldest still in use in India. A small Jewish community remains living in the area, but in testament to quite how multi-cultural this city still is, Kashmiri migrants are also setting up shop here too. Take time to amble through the side streets, where fabrics, jewellery, furniture and collectables are all on sale. Though take any talk of antiques (and the corresponding prices) with a pinch of salt.
For those craving a taste of unique Keralan culture, then the extraordinary Kathkali performances are a must. The literal translation is “story-play”, it is a type of dramatic dance where the cast done elaborate costumes and make-up and perform to a classical tale to traditional music (www.kathakalicentre.com)
If you aren’t heading off for a backwaters trip on a houseboat (rethink that choice) then at least try to take an afternoon trip out on the water, within 20 minutes of leaving Kochi you can catch a glimpse of village life on the waterways. Carnival Tours are an excellent choice to arrange an afternoon boat trip — they also do longer excursions and city walking tours (www.carnivaltourskochi.com).
Take time to have an Ayurvedic massage as Kerala is the home of this ancient holistic approach to well being. According to Ayurvedic theory – everything in the universe is connected – and wellbeing can only be achieved if mind, body and spirit are in balance. The massages utilise a range of wondrous essential oils and herbal pastes and if done well can leave you feeling relaxed and refreshed – Ayurville is a popular, affordable option in the city (www.ayurville.com).