Kerala (Part 3) – North to Fort Cochin

Having reluctantly said goodbye to our floating home on the backwaters, we plunged back into the hustle and bustle of Alleppey where we boarded a northbound train en route to Fort Cochin.

Fort Cochin  is part of the urban sprawl of Kochi.  It’s the tourist honeypot situated at the northern tip of a fractured isthmus at the point where the giant Vembanad Lake feeds into the Indian Ocean. It was at Fort Cochin that the Portuguese established their first permanent settlement on Indian soil in 1503  until they were in turn superseded by the Dutch in 1663 and then the British in 1814.

They were all here for spices, of course – the ginger, cinnamon, cardamom and, in particular, the black pepper that had drawn traders to the Malabar Coast for thousands of years.

The Dutch capture Cochin in 1663

We jumped off the train at Ernakulam Junction.  Ernakulam is also part of Kochi; it’s the modern city that has grown up on the eastern edge of Vembanad Lake. It’s a noisy bustling place with major traffic issues and numerous new skyscrapers reflecting a newly affluent India.  Our cab took us first across the bridge to Willingdon Island.  This is a largely artificial island constructed from the sand and silt dredged out of Vembanad  in order to make Kochi Harbour deep enough for large ocean-going vessels.  From what we saw as we passed through, most of the island seems to be taken up with a huge Indian Navy Base and a military airfield that used to be Kochi’s airport before the modern version was built  way out to the northeast of the city.

Another bridge takes you from Willingdon Island  across another stretch of Vembanad to the peninsula on which Fort Cochin is built.    Most tourist accommodation is concentrated at the very northern tip of the peninsula and many of the ‘homestays’ here are former colonial residences built by either the Portuguese, the Dutch or the English.

We’d booked into a hard-to-find place called Secret Garden, apparently owned by an Icelandic architect who spends her summers at home and her winters in Kochi. 

Inside Fort Cochin’s ‘Secret Garden’ – another refuge.

In many ways, Secret Garden was very similar to our first hotel in Alleppey.  Though not as large as the Raheem Residency, it was another walled courtyard with a pool and lots of carved wooden verandahs.  We were met by Faizal, the manager, who proved to be both charming and helpful.  He showed us our rooms, which were delightful but had a few noteworthy features.  Firstly, the four-poster bed was cocooned in a giant mosquito net, so we knew that our arsenal of DEET products would need to be deployed here.  The second surprise was what is perhaps best described as a large alcove, fitted with a covered mattress and presumably intended as a kind of ‘day bed’.  Not so extraordinary maybe, unless of course you take into consideration the brightly-coloured and luridly painted walls, featuring (presumably)  a whole pantheon of Hindu deities.  Quite a ‘feature’…..

The ‘Day Bed’ – not so tranquil…

We spent 3 nights at the Secret Garden, venturing out to explore the old colonial streets, then retreating to the sanctum of the courtyard and the pool.  Mosquitos were an issue here, especially in the early morning and at dusk.  All of us picked up more bites here than anywhere else, despite the verandah having quite powerful fans and our liberal use of coils sprays, creams etc.  The ‘Day Bed’ got converted into a card school at nights and we revelled in the fact that we had the Secret Garden to ourselves; there were no other guests.

To be honest, I found some aspects of Fort Cochin mildly underwhelming; certainly it was pleasant to wander the streets and walk along the harbour wall by the famous Chinese fishing nets.  Here we could watch clumps of Vembanad’s ubiquitous water hyacinth being swept out to a salty doom on the outgoing tide, but the beach was a mess of weed and squabbling crows and the battlements of the Portuguese fort seem to have been abandoned to mildew and rust.  In fact the whole place reminds me of films I’ve seen about  antebellum New Orleans; elegant colonial buildings slowly going to seed in the steamy heat,  trees (in this case, banyans) clothed in moss and an atmosphere of sleepy hedonism.

On our second day, we hired a couple of likely lads in auto-rickshaws who took us everywhere all day for an absolute pittance.  They got us into places we’d never have found ourselves – notably a temple compound where the ceremonial elephant was having breakfast – and they also took us to a brilliant place called the Sri Krishna Cafe, where a Thali, five excellent Masala Dosas, chai and two big bottles of water set us back the colossal sum of 280 rupees (£4).

Temple elephant having his breakfast, Fort Cochin

After that excellent lunch, we moved on to the Dutch Palace at Mattancherry, on the other side of the peninsula, which I’ll confess I found fairly humdrum and to the rather more interesting synagogue in the enchantingly-named Jew Town, where the hassle from the shopkeepers was more on the levels I’d experienced in northern India.  We also went to a so-called ‘Spice Bazaar’ which was a real tourist trap and very disappointing in terms of what it could offer and the outrageous prices they were charging.  Upon reflection, I should have made the effort to get over to a real market in Ernakulam, but somehow there never seemed to be the right moment.

The synagogue was beautiful, with hand-painted tiles from China on the floor and a multitude of lamps hanging from the ceiling,  We also visited the local Jain Temple, which I found quietly impressive, though it’s a bit startling to see a building festooned with swastikas.  There again, the Nazis just stole the symbol and perverted it for a brief period, whereas the Jains have been using it in its true context as a symbol of light for thousands of years.  One problem with all of these sites is that you cannot take photographs inside them, which I can understand with places of worship, but not with secular buildings like the Dutch Palace.  I’m sure they have their reasons…..

I’m certainly glad that we saved our trip to Fort Cochin until the end of the trip.  By that point, the Princess in particular was ready for a little retail therapy and Fort Cochin offers some reasonable options for all the Ayurvedic potions and lotions  that Kerala can offer, not to mention “suitings and shirtings” of all kinds.  This meant that we could allow ourselves to invest in some rootsy ethnic garments that might just about have passed muster in the streets of Kochi but look fairly ridiculous in Birmingham.  Oh well, they’ll just have to join the fake bearskin hat from Russia and the curly-toed Turkish slippers at the next car boot sale.

Soon enough, it was time to head for the airport and immerse ourselves in the whole Emirates experience yet again.  The early morning taxi-ride offered a startling reminder of how rapidly India is transforming itself – having negotiated his way through the outskirts of Ernakulam, our driver suddenly swung on to a dead straight six-lane motorway that ran from central Kochi nearly all the way to the airport.  Last time I was in India, there just weren’t any roads like this, not even in Delhi.

The Card School had relocated to the Departure Lounge, but it was too early for me, so I set the iPod on Shuffle and dozed. Last time I’d flown out of India, returning to the West with all its consumerism and hi-tech gloss had been a serious jolt.  This time, the gap between East & West had narrowed appreciably and by the time I go again,  India may look just the same as here…. Now there’s a depressing thought…….

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