Up, up and away at 6.00 am from Costa Malabari in order to catch the train from Kannur to Kochi. Rajesh shepards us onto the platform and into the carriage like an anxious mother taking her child to school for the first time. Do we have enough water? Do we have our packed breakfast? Do we know which stop to get off? He repeats the instructions once more, and gives Pete his personal mobile phone so we can call him in case we run into trouble. He will bring our luggage in the car and meet us later in the day at the hotel. Bless him.
We are on the Express Train, but by express I don’t mean the non stop train. I mean the train that doesn’t stop at every station. We depart Kannur at 7.15 am and arrive at Ernakulam Town station at 1.45 pm. We have travelled about 260 kms. But, the time goes relatively quickly. And, hurrah, hurrah, by abstaining from liquids of any sort and skipping the packed breakfast (lucky Rajesh doesn’t know this), Kitta and I manage to avoid having to use the train loo. A feat we were determined to achieve, and reinforced when we saw the station cleaners hosing the toilets out at the midway point in the journey!
The Indian Government obviously hasn’t been spending any money on new rolling stock as the train appears to be very vintage shall we say, but it runs on time so can’t complain. We were kept entertained by the constant stream of food, coffee and chai wallahs plying their trade up and down the carriages.
A representative from the travel agency was there to meet us and we were whisked off to the beautiful Old Harbour Hotel in Fort Cochin. Kitta and I breathe a sigh of relief; acknowledging that we are in truth boutique hotel kinda gals more than homestay kinda gals. Oh the sheet count, and the plush towels and the comfy, comfy bed. Oh happy happy days.
We are dying of thirst and very hungry, so hightail it around the corner to the Kashi Art Gallery & Cafe for a much needed coffee and lunch. And, both the coffee and food are excellent, in lovely surroundings (turns out the cafe/gallery has the same owner as our hotel).
Revived, we wander the streets of charming Fort Cochin, admiring the remnants of the Portuguese, Dutch and British influenced architecture. The Portuguese have left a wonderful legacy in avenues of magnificent trees, which the locals call Rain trees as the leaves close up in the rain, and the ferns that have colonised each of the trees retain the rainwater, creating a waterfall effect underneath.
The old houses are slowly being restored, and almost every one is being turned into a boutique hotel or homestay. The hotch potch of colours, the shutters, the patina of mould, the fret work, all make for a wonderful ambience. And, the streets are largely rubbish free. It is a delightful spot to wander.
In some ways the area reminds me of Georgetown Penang, but it also incorporates the trees and wider streets of Pondicherry. The Georgetown connection is reinforced by some of the excellent street art I spot – one or two I am sure are by an artist we saw in Georgetown.
There are also plenty of shops, so a bit of retail therapy is undertaken, whilst beating off the tuk tuk drivers who plead with you to ride with them to a shop as they are given commissions by the bigger retailers. One driver gives us a sad tale about receiving a rice coupon which allows him to feed his family; all we have to do is ride with him and go into the shop. We decline, and that evening bump into him playing some sort of marble game with his mates – so much for feeding his family. He roars with laughter when he recognises us.
Next morning we tour the main highlights of Fort Cochin and Mattancherry, starting with the beach near the Dutch Cemetery. Workers are in the process of repairing the pathway along the beachfront, damaged during the monsoon. The beach is in pristine condition, and the guide tells us that there is a big push from the tourist industry to get Kochi, especially Fort Cochin as the main tourist area, clean of rubbish. So, the beach has been swept clean – problem is that there is obviously then a delay in disposing of the rubbish, and a huge mound of rubbish waiting to be cleared away (to who knows where) sits nearby. He also tells us that they are starting to teach kids in the schools about the importance of not littering, so hopefully cultural change will slowly infiltrate the community.
From here we move on to St Francis Church, which has in turn been a Portuguese, then a Dutch and finally a British place of worship. On one side are Portuguese gravestones, on the other Dutch. But the British won in the end, turning it from a Catholic Church into high Anglican. Talk about confused deities. Vasco de Gama was buried here after his death in Cochin from malaria, but his remains were then dug up and taken back to Lisbon.
We particularly like the British introduction of fans into the church, which were operated by local serfs pulling on the ropes to swing the fabric and wood structures back and forth. Ingenious and decorative.
On then to the famous Chinese fishing nets – huge nets that are operated by a cantilever device using multiple blocks of granite, like a stone mobile. A lone porpoise is spotted loitering around the nets in the hope of snaffling some fish for himself. I gather the nets are more a tourist attraction these days than a serious fishing enterprise.
We then cross to the east side of the peninsula to visit Jew Town and Mattancherry. Side by side sit an old palace, a Hindu temple and a synagogue. The acceptance of religious diversity has been on show in Kerala, particularly between Muslims and Hindus – if only this could be said forthe rest of the world, what a different world it would be.
The Mattancherry, or Dutch, Palace was built by the Portuguese in 1555 for the Maharaja of Cochin, but was later renovated by the Dutch so has become known as the Dutch Palace. Photography is not allowed inside alas as there are absolutely stunning murals depicting scenes from the Ramayana.
Abutting the Palace is Jew Town. India’s Jewish population dates back to the 900s, when they arrived seeking refuge from purges in Europe. In the 14th Century they moved into the Cochin area and were known as Paradesi (Foreign) Jews. By the 1950s they had reached their peak number of some 250 in the area known as Jew Town but then the population declined as most migrated to the newly founded Israel. Today only 5 Paradesi Jews remain in Cochin, and one of them, Sarah, is in her 90’s. But, this doesn’t stop Jew Town from being a tourist attraction, despite the fact it is now wall to wall shops, selling identical items, run by Hindus and Muslims!
The heart of Jew Town is the Synagogue, which was built in 1568, and still functions as a synagogue today, albeit one without a rabbi. Apparently it is the oldest functioning synagogue in the Commonwealth. The interior is beautiful but again no photographs are allowed, however thanks to Mr Google I’m able to give you a little look at what it is like. The floor is covered in 5 different patterns of hand painted blue & white tiles made in China, and the ceiling is festooned with elaborate 19th century chandeliers from Belgium and Italy. It really is a lovely and eclectic space.
We imbibe in a reviving ginger lassi in the approriately named Ginger House Restaurant, snuggled behind a massive antiques warehouse beside the estuary, before returning to the hotel, and more of our own wandering of the streets.
I manage to find a tailor, the lovely Thomas, who can rescue the outfits I bought in Madurai without trying on. Note to self, always try on, even though that means over the top of what you are wearing , in the sweltering heat. What I had bought was made for tiny young Indian arms, not senior citizen Australian arms! Thomas says no problem, he’ll make one sleeveless and enlarge the arm holes on the already sleeveless one. Come back in 2 hours. So, they end up not quite the bargain they were originally but at least they no longer resemble a straight jacket .
There is no doubt that the Fort Cochin enclave is a charming and quaint spot to while away your time:
We have enjoyed our time immensely, admittedly cocooned in only a tiny portion of what is a thriving and bustling metropolis – I can’t say we have experienced Kochi, but we have definitely given Fort Cochin our best shot. We end our stay with a bottle of Indian Chenin Blanc (drinkable), followed by an excellent meal in the hotel’s gardens. Only 3 more days before we must face the reality of home.