Fort Kochi is called the ‘Queen of the Arabian Sea’. It gets its name from Fort Manuel of Cochin, the first European fort on Indian soil controlled by the Portuguese. I’d been to Fort Kochi in 1995, a long time ago, with my parents. I remember we had lunch there- a fresh catch of fish grilled. Dad and I had loved it and that in some way had determined that I do my further studies in the coastal town. That, and the fact that it was close to my own hometown.
I wanted to experience the magic of Fort Kochi again for old time’s sake. So, we decided to spend three nights and four days on Willingdon Island, which is half an hour from Cochin city and the most comfortable place to stay in if you want to explore Fort Kochi. We booked The Trident which belongs to the Oberoi group of hotels.
I would recommend the hotel to anyone who plans to visit: the rooms are comfortable, the service excellent (helpful, courteous staff) and the food served is delicious and the spread at the buffet includes continental, North Indian and South Indian cuisine ( the cakes, doughnuts, waffles, pancakes and french toast are a treat for those with a sweet tooth and for children).
There are a number of homestays on Fort Kochi as well but I’m not sure how good they are as I haven’t tried any. I hope to try it out next time.
Willingdon Island, once a bustling island because of the Cochin Port and the Indian Naval base, has become a ghost town since the port moved to Vallapadam in 2011. I would visit the island often during the two years I studied there – it was where I escaped to when I needed a break from college and studies- sitting on the stone bench overlooking the backwaters and watching the ships while enjoying a warm boiled egg and a glass of tea from a roadside eatery was my idea of a perfect afternoon. The island now looks like a blurred memory- a fading photograph of deserted homes, untended gardens and empty warehouses. There is still a fire station and a few offices involved in freight, shipping etc.
The Indian Naval base is still on the island and its activities are cordoned from the general public by gigantic stone walls and overwhelming gates, so, if one were to take a walk around the island, all you would see is creepers growing every structure giving it an eerie look, the Navy clubhouse, the Detachment Centre for those who wish to sign up for the Navy, a grocery that sells essentials, a pharmacy that sells basic medicines, roadside eateries where truck drivers stop by to eat, three upmarket hotels which have survived the port’s moving because they cater to the Navy; and the now-dead Cochin Harbor Terminus Railway station which was earlier used to transport tea, coffee, coir and other exports from the harbour to distant destinations in India. On the first day, we simply went on a stroll around the island and went to bed early.
We started early the next day exploring Fort Kochi. Sadly, we hadn’t accounted for Mother Nature and just as we got out of the car we had hired for the day, she poured down on us in all fury. The umbrellas provided by the hotel were no match for her and we had to escape to the nearest cafe in sight, hoping it would be a matter of time before the rains stopped.
Qissa cafe proved to be a delightful little place with wooden tables, colourful chairs to sit on, books to read and showed off an attractive menu. However, having had a sumptuous breakfast at the hotel, we just ordered coffee for ourselves and milkshakes for the girls. The drinks were good. After spending around two hours or so, sipping on coffee, taking pictures and going through books there, when the rains refused to relent, we decided to change plans and head to Lulu Mall and watch a movie.
From Fort Kochi, it takes an hour to get to the mall. But, it’s worth visiting if you haven’t visited it earlier- you can enjoy a great meal, watch a movie like we did and shop. We had lunch at Galitos, a South African restaurant which specializes in flame-grilled peri-peri chicken, watched a recently released Hindi movie which is not worthy of mention and then had dinner at Paragon, a Keralite restaurant, famous for its mango-fish gravy (if you’re wondering about our appetite, know that it balloons when we are on holiday).
The next day it rained again. So, we used the time to visit extended family in Cochin and visit a famous temple, Chottanikkara temple which is dedicated to Shakthi, the female energy.
After lunch, we went back to Fort Kochi again. Thankfully, it was sunny and we could explore the place.
At Fort Kochi, autorickshaw drivers will generally come to you and offer to take you to the main places: the Dutch palace, St Francis Church, Santa Cruz Cathedral Basilica, Chinese fishing nets, Jews Town and a few others. It’s a good option but once you’re done visiting the main sights, then you must walk around to get a feel of the place.
Our first stop was St Francis Church. It’s where the Portuguese explorer, Vasco Da Gama’s tomb is. He was the first European to reach India by sea and his voyage by way of the Cape of Good Hope was the first to link India with Europe.
From the Church, we walked up to the Chinese Fishing Nets. It’s a 4-minute walk away. The nets installed in the 14th century look like huge hammocks. While the catch is not much and is no longer profitable for the fishermen, they make a pretty silhouette against the waters and tourists love taking pictures of them.
These nets are also called dip-nets as they are dipped into the water before lifting the nets again. The catch from the net is sold to nearby restaurants or roadside eateries. At least, six fishermen are needed to operate a net and the net itself needs to be replaced every six months. The high maintenance costs and the poor catch have resulted in the number of nets reducing to 20.
The road adjacent to the Nets is Princess Street. It’s a touristy road with restaurants, homestays and a number of stores selling printed, cotton clothing: the kind you find in places frequented by tourists.
We walked down Princess Street and then took the car to the Dutch Palace. The palace was closed as it was a Tuesday. I believe there’s not much to see in the palace but, I cannot say for myself as I have not gone in. The temple alongside the palace was closed too. I’m not sure if it’s in use ( our Uber driver was clueless).
From the Dutch palace, we asked the driver to drop us at Jew Town and leave, so, we could walk around. The car cost Rs 1600 for 6 hours or 80 km.
Jew Town is a narrow street which was once inhabited by Jews. Now, the smell of spices and perfume assaults the nostrils as one walks past. There are art galleries, and stores selling fresh spices and perfume oils: sandalwood, cinnamon, frangipani, white lotus, rosemary, lavender- you name it, it’s there. A 10 gm bottle of concentrated oil costs Rs 400.00. It needs to be mixed with any moisturizing cream and used.
We stopped by an artistic-looking cafe, called ‘Classic Art Cafe’ after a visit to the gallery. And though the food is not great, the cafe is worthy of a visit for the beautiful decor.
After a glass of cold coffee which was mostly coffee ice cream melted and french fries, we walked to the wharf. It’s where daily ferries go from Fort Kochi to Marine Drive in Cochin and other nearby islands like Bolgatty and Vypin, which we’ll cover during our next visit to the place.
It was 7.00 p.m. by the time we walked down Jew Town road. A slight drizzle had started leaving us no choice but to return to our hotel.
The beauty of Fort Kochi made us return to the island the next day if only to have lunch before we headed to the airport. Despite the rain and just one umbrella between us (since all the other umbrellas at the hotel had been taken), we managed to check out the Basilica, Kashi Art Cafe and have grilled fish at the roadside eaterie. I’m so glad we did it all – leaving without tasting the freshly caught red snapper would have been a shame.
We still had the synagogue and the Dutch cemetery to go to and I’m sure there are still a host of treasures waiting to be unearthed by us, but that’s for next time.
And with this ended our four-day holiday in and around Fort Kochi. I hope it makes you want to pack your bags and travel or take a second look at the place around you- who knows what you might find – something you never saw earlier?
And if you cannot travel for whatever reason, I hope you enjoyed travelling with us.
Until next time,
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