A city of spices and romance, Kochi straddles a series of islands on the Malabar Coast in Kerala. The spice trade attracted the Portuguese, Dutch and British traders to what was then Cochin from the 1500s. For hundreds of years before that, Arab, Syrian and Chinese merchants had sailed to the city, mainly for pepper and spices but also monkeys, tigers and elephants. This all added up to the amazing mix of races and religions inhabiting Kochi today.
There’s a good variety of accommodation in Kochi and we stayed at several interesting spots. My favourite was an old Dutch merchant’s house, now run by Syrian Christians, called The Chiramel Residency in the historic Fort Cochin area. Its listing as a humble three star homestay belies its magnificent interior with teak floors and ceilings, a beautiful dark wood staircase and large rooms furnished with the heavy Portuguese style of furniture to be found all over Kerala and Goa. I’m afraid that, sitting in a huge chair looking around me, gin and tonic in hand, I felt a shudder of colonial guilt as I mentally slipped into the role of memsahib.
Most tourists spend their time in the historic area of Fort Kochi. Here is a myriad of small restaurants, backpacker hostels, and souvenir shops with the salespeople ready to pounce the second you accidentally catch their eye. But why not? You’re on your holidays and they’ve got lots of lovely things for sale. You can visit the Church of St Francis, the first European church to be built in India or just stand outside it watching the boys play cricket on the old military parade ground. Fort Kochi is also awash with great restaurants. For a leisurely dinner, or just a couple of beers at the waterside with plenty to look at, I’d recommend the Hotel Seagull. Another cracker, the Dal Roti is so heavily praised by Tripadviser and the guide books that you will often have to queue to get in. However, it’s worth it, particularly for the biriani.
Along the seafront stand the picturesque Chinese fishing nets depicted on every postcard and tourist literature for Kochi. The tourists gather round as the fishermen operate them in the way they have for hundreds of years. Although this exercise does seem mainly for the onlookers’ benefit as the actual haul is tiny, further down river this type of fishing is done in earnest. A boat trip from the Sealord Jetty can take you past the modern waterfront of Ernakulam and the rusting deep sea cargo ships at the container port through waterways where men and women paddle coracles past the tall frames of fishing nets. Often you can see a Brahminy Kite circling high above the water and an egret or kingfisher perching on a convenient bit of the fishermen’s structure.
You can take a tuk tuk around the edge of Fort Kochi, past the brilliantly ramshackle Communist HQ, to the interestingly named Jewtown. Here are the old spice warehouses, some turned into ‘antique’ emporia or restaurants, and interspersed with many little shops selling spices and oils. There are also, of course, more souvenir shops with their jewellery, hangings, brightly colours paper mache and wooden carvings.
In the heart of Jew Town is the old synagogue, open to the public although there are not enough Jews left in Kochi to hold a service without help from outside the city. Here are the blue and white tiles, featured in Salman Rushdie’s ‘The Moor’s Last Sigh’, in which each illustrated tile tells a different story.
Kochi is an absolutely wonderful place to visit, full of atmosphere and shades of the past. As it has an international airport, it’s a good spot in which to spend a fascinating few days before heading either north or south to the famous Kerala palm clad beaches.
Guest Blogger : Pam Siddons