Cochin (as its inhabitants prefer to call it) is a collection of islands and peninsulars jammed along the shores of tranquil Vembanad Lake and the Arabian Sea. Each district has a distinct personality, from the colonial trading post of Fort Cochin and concrete towers of Ernakulam, to the sandy beaches of Vypeen Island. A multicultural bubbling hotpot of humanity, Cochin has a place for everyone. Put on your walking boots and jump on the ferry for a flavour of Kerala’s biggest city.
1. Pretty Fort Cochin
Packed with old European buildings and pickled charm, Fort Cochin is the area most familiar to tourists, and a gentle way of easing yourself into the sometimes medieval comforts of India. Strolling through the flower-bordered lanes around the parade ground—where there is almost always a game of cricket in progress—you could be forgiven for thinking you were in Sussex, if it weren’t for the topical heat.
Take your shoes off and enjoy some cool tranquillity among the simple white-washed walls, smooth flagstone floor and elegant woodwork of sixteenth century St Francis Church.
Shaded by ancient rain trees you’ll find Kerala’s most notable landmark here too. The Chinese fishing nets, like aliens from a Ridley Scott sci-fi film, have been working continuously for six hundred years. These primitive contraptions and are found throughout Kerala’s famous backwaters.
2. Very Mattancherry
For a glimpse into the daily grind, head due east from Fort Cochin and follow the waterfront towards the customs jetty, then down congested Bazaar Road. Buildings line the road on either side, so you won’t see the waterway unless you drop into one of the hotels along the river front. Head for the family-run Hotel Fort House, for a cup of thirst busting ginger tea. Famous Mattancherry Palace (also known as the Dutch Palace) is a little further south along the road.
Keep walking and Mattancherry seamlessly turns into ‘Jew Town’. This is not meant as a derogative term, but is the real name of the district. Jewish settlers—along with their Chinese, European and African counterparts—left their mark on Cochin over hundreds of years of trading. The sixteenth century Pardesi Synagogue, the first in India, is worth fighting through the ‘antique’ shops to visit.
3. Follow the ferry
With all this water, Kochi has put in place an excellent ferry system that runs between its districts. You’ll be in good company as you stand among the auto-rickshaws on the 2 rupee car ferry to Vypeen Island, or squash together in the separate male and female compartments on the people carrier that runs parallel to it. Ferries are cheap and reliable (unless there is a strike, which happens surprisingly often) and can be a bit of an adventure as you are herded along by the colourful and inquisitive crowd.
4. Meet the people of Ernakulam
If you want a break from the relentless manicured tourism of Fort Cochin, put on your walking boots and hop on a ferry to Ernakalum’s main jetty. Kerala’s commercial hub doesn’t have biscuit-tin photo opportunities, but it’s an energetic city, where Kerala’s well-educated inhabitants (there is 93% literacy here, the highest in India) love having their photos taken. The narrow lanes of the market area are an excellent way to meet the locals.
When you leave the ferry head north along Park Avenue. At a dogleg in the road by the wedding cake Immanuel Church, walk straight ahead to Broadway, where the fun begins. Ignoring the money changers who are there to catch unsuspecting tourists straight off the ferry, walk ahead into the narrow lanes that honeycomb Ernakulam’s market area. Next to the covered market, fruit and veg sellers crowd the pavement along Kuttapayi Road in front of the canal. There are no touts, and you won’t be hassled to buy a carpet or ‘antique’, but there are great little shops selling copperware, Indian sweets, religious paraphernalia and all kinds of knick knacks.
The fella coming up and asking your name simply wants to welcome you to Kerala and talk to a foreigner, especially an English speaker. Jew Street, Muslim Street and Convent Road weave together through the market area, illustrating the easy religious tolerance which characterises this enlightened state.
5. The best veg thali in Kochi?
There are plenty of tourist restaurants in the chi-chi streets of Fort Cochin and Mattancherry, some listed in the guide books, all expensive (by Kochi standards) and most serving up pretty good food. It’s fun to pick a fish from the Chinese nets and to have it cooked in front of you, but for a flavour of authentic local food, at a local price, go to Ernakulam.
When you have finished your rummage around the market head north and turn right onto Banerji Road where you can pop into the Hotel Saravana Bhavan for the best vegetable thali in the whole of Kochi. (Like many restaurants in India it is called a ‘hotel’ when all it does is serve food, which can be a bit misleading as the hotels are usually called hotels too.) The non A/C section is always packed with local workers. For less than £1 they’ll serve your meal on an ela (Malayalam for banana leaf) and keep re-filling it until you burst. There’s an A/C section for posh people who like a bit of space, and cutlery.
Hotel Saravana Bhavan, Banerji Road, Ernakulam Bazaar, Near Sritha Theatre, Kochi, Kerala 682031, India +91 484 237 0153
6. Sleepy Bolgatty Island
Easily accessible by ferry from the High Court jetty at the bottom of Banerji Road in Ernakulam (the tiny boat runs every half hour) this pretty island is often overlooked by visitors, but is worth seeking out. Turn left off the ferry for a short walk to the Bolgatty Palace Hotel, which has a nine hole golf course, a garden full of specimen trees, the oldest Dutch Palace in India, and the only marina in the country. If the restaurant has put on a buffet (most days) the typically spicy Keralan food is well worth trying (don’t miss the spectacular fish curry), although don’t expect razor-sharp service.
If you turn right off the ferry follow the chessboard of tiny roads through the village. Catch the flash of a kingfisher, butterflies the size of your hand and egrets daintily perching on buffalo under the shady tropical trees. You may feel like you are walking through people’s gardens, but no-one will mind and they’ll probably invite you in for a tea if you stop and chat. Under the bridge on the eastern shore of the island lives an extended family of Harijans (Untouchables) from Mysore. They make their meagre living by fishing from saucer-shaped woven coracles.
7. Vypeen and beyond
Vypeen is a long thin island which follows the coast from Kochi northwards. It is laced with waterways and lakes, groves of palm trees and colourful houses. The scenic bus ride to Cherai beach would be an engaging way of seeing a little further beyond Kochi if the drivers didn’t feel it their duty to get you there faster than the speed of sound. Go there during the week when it is less likely to be rammed with tourists, or take an auto-rickshaw for the day and slowly make your way to much less crowded Kuzhippily beach. The Kuzhippily Beach House has a restaurant worthy of a Michelin star, which they might open to non-residents if you’re lucky. Better still, stay for a few days (try to secure the front upstairs room, overlooking the sea).
8. It’s all about the fish
And the spices. Keralans will tell you they have the best food in India and it is difficult to argue with them. Kochi is an important fishing port, so if fish is on the menu always make it your first choice. Also, the local ‘red’ rice is fatter and fluffier than its northern counterpart, and really worth a try. The fruit is bountiful (go in April for juicy mangoes). There are yellow, orange, green and red bananas, from sweet finger-sized varieties to bitter plantains as big as a cucumber. Buy a pineapple from a roadside cart for 10 INR. Don’t expect to lose weight here, though, as you can’t eat anything that hasn’t had a coconut introduced to it at some point in the cooking process.
Fish curry is the speciality, and meen moilee just about sums up Keralan food: seerfish stakes from the ocean, cooked in coconut milk, green chillies, and curry leaves. Karimeen, a speckled fat fish caught in the backwaters, is a huge delicacy and utterly delicious too.
9. Drinking dilemma
Kerala can’t make its mind up about alcohol. Despite shutting its bars away from public view and handing out liquor licences sparingly, it has the highest level of alcohol dependency in India. Most Kochiites buy their booze from the few liquor stores in town; you can see them queueing up for small, plastic bottles of cheap Indian rum every afternoon. A 650ml bottle of Kingfisher beer will set you back 50 INR, and a bottle of Indian wine (Sula is one of the best) will be around 600 INR.
All the big hotels have bars, with five star prices to match: a bottle of Kingfisher is likely to be 200INR. If you’re in a homestay be polite and ask your host if it is OK to leave your beer in their fridge. Most are pretty relaxed, but some do not approve of alcohol.
The tourist restaurants of Fort Cochin might be persuaded to give you an under-the-table beer, but to experience a locals’ bar, head to Ernakulam again. Look for the white on black diamond sign over blacked-out windows, or just go straight to the best bar in town, the Bar Oberoi on MG Road. It’s not as dark and seedy as most of others, and is cleaner than most. You’ll be the only non-Indian in there, and if you’re a woman you’ll definitely be the only one. Between 5 and 6 most days the proprietor lights a series of incense sticks, each more smoky than the last, finishing with full-on billowing frankincense. The food’s not bad, either.
10. Secret Coffee
Although India is justifiably famous for its tea, the Malabar coast is world famous for its coffee. You won’t find it in any restaurants because the Indians take their coffee weak and prefer to export this Western Ghat grown variety to the world’s coffee enthusiasts. You can find the beans in Ernakulam if you are prepared to hunt for them, just follow these simple directions to Leela Coffee.
Starting from Ernakulam boat jetty turn right onto Park Avenue, then left onto Durbar Hall Road. Cross MG Road and keep walking until you hit Chittoor Road. From here head south to the Ernakulam South bus junction. Now slow down and keep your nose on sniff alert while you walk on the left (east) side of the road. Somewhere before Valanjambalam bus Junction is a single storey shop close to the Kerala Book House. You will smell the thick, chocolaty scent of delicious roasted coffee before you see it. Inside a dark cave-like shop is a large wooden counter, and behind it, taking up all the rest of the room, looms an enormous coffee grinder. Either buy the beans or have them ground to a fine powder. Vacuum packed bags are 240 INR for a kilo. However many bags you buy will not be enough.
Leela coffee, Chittoor road, Valanjambalam District Tel: 0484 2375706
11. Easy shopping
Fort Cochin and Mattancherry have lots of pretty boutiques (Fabindia, the national chain, is one of the best) and antique shops to which your auto-rickshaw driver will inevitably take you. There are plenty of roadside vendors here too, their carts stuffed with jewellery, peacock feather fans and assorted toys. Like everywhere else in India, there is a fella selling postcards and maps printed in startling colours. During the early evening promenade by the side of Fort Cochin’s scrubby beach, there’s a man who sells wooden painted flowers, as well as lots of boys trying to offload flutes, candyfloss and balloons.
Apart from the coffee, one of the best buys here is fabric. Visit Seemati or Chennai Silks on MG road in Ernakulam for floor to ceiling bales of silks and cottons in every colour and shade you can imagine. The prices are one tenth of the UK, so if you know a little about textiles this is a dream place. There are plenty of tailors here too, some better than others. One of the best is Malabar Tailoring, found at the south end of Broadway in Ernakalum.
12. Train it to Thrissur
Beloved by all photographers, Kerala’s elephant temple festivals are world renowned. Thrissur has the Granddaddy of them all in April/May, when they celebrate Pooram. Not a time to visit for the faint-hearted – you will need stamina, sunblock, and feel comfortable in sweaty crowds of excitable worshippers. It’s a short journey from Kochi.
But Thrissur is an interesting day trip for anyone staying in Kochi at any time of the year. It’s a pleasant introduction to Keralan town life, not too busy, dusty or crowded, and small enough to walk round in a day. Start by taking the train from Ernakulam Junction (any visit to India is not complete without a train journey) which lasts around one and half hours, and costs a mere 28 INR for a one-way ticket. Thrissur’s graceful Archaeological Museum, recently closed for refurbishment and scheduled to re-open 1st April 2012, is set on a hill amid landscaped gardens. The town is also famous for its churches. Try the many varieties of roadside food and drink, but watch the amount of sugar they add to the fruit cocktails.
This is a version of the article I wrote for Wanderlust magazine.
All photos by Jamie Furlong