If you want to get lost for a few days in the charm of the Colonial period, spend a few days in Fort Kochi. It has seen many rulers from local kings to multiple colonial powers come to trade spices over the centuries. It came under the possession of the Portuguese around 1500 AD when Vasco da Gama came & they called it ‘Little Lisbon’, it was taken over by the Dutch after around 150 years , they called it ‘Homely Holland’ and eventually the British took it over and called it ‘Mini England’, showing how important it was to each one of their reigns. Also, the Jews came in numbers to Kochi & settled there, the Chinese came for trade and some say that the name Kochi came from them. Visiting today’s Fort Kochi is like getting transported into time to a mixture of cultures – Dutch houses, Portuguese churches, Jewish food, Chinese fishing nets, English Villas & of course amazing Kerala arts like Kathakali & Kalaripayattu. The only thing you will not find there is a Fort though!
We visited Fort Kochi during Kochi Beinnale arts festival (there’s a separate post coming up) because of which the town was buzzing – and even if you are not an art lover ,you will still be completely awestruck by the curation of art, installations and venues. Its a bi-annual festival which is a must visit. While the festival was the icing on the cake, Fort Kochi itself has so much to offer than you can just spend weeks getting lost in its quaint lanes.
Here’s my list of must do’s in Fort Kochi:
1.Walk the streets to see the new Wall Art culture : All over town, in its small lanes you will see different expressions that local artists have put up on the walls adding vibrancy & meaning to a lot of its dilapidated walls. Its the new phenomenon in Fort Kochi probably after the Biennale came to the city, and its definitely brining out the creativity of local painters & artists.
2. Explore Fort Kochi’s many Cafe’s : This small little town is spotted with many cafe’s in its quaint lanes, you could spend hours just sitting and chatting or reading over many a cup of some superb tea & coffee. While everyone’s favourite seems to be Kashi Art Cafe (which is really nice – try their breakfast!), I loved spending time two others – Loafers which is really cool and has great food, and Tea Pot Cafe which of course has superb tea & a lot of teapots which decorate the place beautifully.
3. Spend an evening at the Chinese Fishing Nets: Some say these came to Kochi via Chinese traders in the 13-14th Century, while others claim that the Portuguese got them here from China. The interesting bit is that they didn’t survive in China,but this traditional fishing method is still alive in Kochi. Its a part of the fishing cultural heritage here, though due to the lack of fish on the shores, its a dying slowly. These nets work on a simple cantilever system with rocks on ropes on one side and the nets on the other. Right across the nets, you can buy the fresh catch just off the nets, and even taste the catch on one of the many seafood stalls.
Take out an evening and just be at the beach not just to see how the fishing nets work, but also the hustle bustle and life on the busy beachfront – you’ll see fishermen coming back after a full day of fishing, unloading and taking it to the fish auction there and then. There is food and markets right there and if you are lucky you will also catch the most beautiful views of the fishing nets at sunset. I almost felt that I was transported back in time at the nets, when life was simple and about small self sufficient communities.
4. Spend a day in Mattancherry & Jew Town : A small ride from Fort Kochi is the adjoining town of Mattancherry – this is the place where you won’t see remains of the colonial past but experience spice trade which is still in action, see the remains of the Jewish settlers & explore antique shops full with treasures in abundance.
For me this place was really magical – as I was cycling down its lanes, the air was full of aromas of cinnamon, cloves & cardamom coming from the hundreds of spice warehouses & shops dealing with tonnes of fresh spices everyday. I can only imagine what it would have been like many centuries back when traders from Portugal, Italy, Spain, China, Middle East & other countries must be coming here & spending a few days relaxing and trading. It must one of the most cosmopolitan markets in the world for sure. Back to the present, the spice market is very much there, but its lost its old glory and sheen. You can still buy some excellent quality spices from quaint little shops which have probably not been renovated for more than a 100 years. Its sad to see the spice trade is still so old fashioned here and hasn’t caught up with time, but its also a pleasure for the senses to experience old world history which is still preserved here to a large extent.
The other big pull is the Jew Town – the Paradesi (Foreign) Jews as they are called have been settlers of this part of Kochi since the 14th Century but sadly only 6 Jews, all in their 80’s survive today in Jew Town. However, the Jewish culture is kept alive in the Paradesi Synagogue which one of the few Synagogues in the region which is still in use, there are still some authentic Jewish shops selling their embroidery work (Sarah’s Hand Embroidery Shop) & you will see the Star of David in lots of shops around the area.
While you are there, you should also visit the Mattancherry Dutch Palace which was built by the Portuguese & renovated by the Dutch. It has huge murals on the walls depicting the Indian epics of Mahabharat & Ramayan as well as on display are weapons, furniture & clothes of the Kerala royalty. If you love antiques, this is the place to spend time in and explore the huge antique shops with amazing collections. Also explore the hotels & restaurants with beautiful backdrop of the backwaters, a few are The Ginger House & The Waterfront Granary.
5. Watch a Kathakali Performance : Your trip here would be incomplete without watching this. Unlike common belief (including mine), its not strictly a dance form, instead the genre is “story-play” , depicted in a dramatic way with elaborate costumes, make up and face masks. Its usually performed only by men & is an amalgamation of music, vocals and performances which focus on hand and eye movements. There are many Kathakali Centers in Fort Kochi and I’m sure all will be good, however I experienced is at the “Kerala Kathakali Centre” and would recommend it.
Other than this some other things to do are
- Go for an authentic Kerala Ayurvedic Massage & let go of any stresses you may have
- Visit the famous Churches of Fort Kochi (Santa Cruz Basilica & St. Francis Church)
- Take a ferry and go across to the Willingdon Island which houses some of the best hotels of Kochi
- Take a walk on the Fort Kochi beach promenade, its extremely serene & has lots of local food around it.
Where to Eat : Fort Kochi is also a food lovers paradise (especially seafood) , however being a vegetarian, I would limit my recommendations to where I enjoyed the vegetarian food – the pizzas at David Hall are amazing, local Kerala style food at The Fort Ayurveda Hotel is really good and so is the view, Asian food at The Asian Kitchen is a must try. Try the Kerala style Biryani in any local place, its a very different flavour.
Where to Stay: Fort Kochi is all about boutique hotels and homestays. Most of them are heritage bungalows converted to boutique stays. A few that stood out are Old Harbour Hotel , Malabar House, The Fort Ayurveda Hotel & Niyati Guest House. There are hundreds of homestays as well where you live with the owners & experience how locals live and enjoy some amazing meals with them.
How to move around? Fort Kochi is small town which can be easily covered on foot, the better option is to hire bicycles which are easily available and explore the town. There are rickshaws (tuk-tuks) also easily available.
This was my first trip to Fort Kochi and I definitely had a short fling with it, do share your experience with this beautiful place with me!