Cochin is in the Indian state of Kerala where the local language of Malayalam is spoken. Cochin has been a port since 1341, when a flood carved out its harbour and opened it to Arab, Chinese and European merchants. Today the city is rapidly modernising with new-fashioned malls, five star hotels and a brand new rail system.
As a tourist in the city of Cochin the place to be is the old Dutch quarter known as Fort Cochin (Fort Kochi). Take a step back to colonial times with place names like Vasco-de-Gama Square, the Dutch Palace and Santa Cruz Basilica, all representing European influences of a bygone era.
We stayed at the Eighth Bastion Hotel, a four star, newly renovated hotel that offered very good value and was centrally located in Fort Cochin. However, if you want to treat yourself to some Indian, colonial luxury, Malabar House, right next door, is also a top choice for tourists.
Fort Cochin is a maze of small uncrowded streets which are safe to wander and discover, day or night.
Our morning explorations took us first to a small team of men lowering huge Chinese fishing nets into the water and then, after ten minutes, they used a five hundred kilo counter weight to raise them back up. During our visit there weren’t many fish caught but we were told in the monsoon season the hauls are prolific.
Around the nets there are small stalls selling fish, all very interesting but the smell and the rubbish nearby can be quite off-putting for unsuspecting visitors.
Visit St Francis Church to see the long fans called punkahs which were pulled by men, known as the punkah wallahs, who sat outside during mass. Inside the church is where Vasco-de-Gama was originally buried. A few metres from St Francis church is a building that was the film set for the hit movie The Best Marigold Hotel, a story about retired English folk living out their twilight days in a hotel in India.
Jew Town is a market area filled with hundreds of fascinating shops selling antiques, silk, old jewellery, woodwork, colourful saris and sarongs and we found several perfume shops with large stacks of vibrant coloured powders used for traditional celebrations. The perfumes were particularly interesting and skilled aroma specialists create recipes which accurately replicate modern designer brands at a fraction of the price. We also explored the famous old Synagogue constructed in 1568, the oldest active synagogue surviving in the Commonwealth of Nations.
Right in the middle of Jew Town we discovered a stunning restaurant called the Ginger House Restaurant. Serving Cochin’s seafood and famous fish curry, the food we chose for lunch was fresh and delicious and complimented by fresh fruit and herb drinks like lime and ginger juice.
Ginger House is India’s first and only museum restaurant combining fragrant Indian cuisine with unique and valuable antiques, offering a rare glimpse of a living culture and its captivating history.
We asked our guide if he could recommend a local barber for a haircut. The hairdresser he drove us to was meticulous and skilful and provided a brilliant haircut for a fraction of the cost of our local stylist back home. It is always such a pleasure to check out services like this when visiting a foreign country as it presents a great opportunity to have an authentic interaction with the community. We learnt so much about local life in such a short time.
We also had an excellent full body massage at Ayushveda Spa. Although a little more expensive than anticipated at 3000 Rupees, the Spa was clean, the masseur well trained and professional and overall the massage was firm, relaxing and rejuvenating.
Looking very sharp and feeling totally refreshed, our next stop was the Kerala Kathakali Centre to see the famous Kathakali dancers. Before the show began we watched the intricate process of character make-up application which was intriguing.
Layers of brightly coloured pigments were applied to create traditional figures which feature in dances representing folk stories that are highly symbolic and somewhat repetitive. For first timers in India this is a ‘must do’.
In the evenings we walked safely around the old town where shopping and bargaining were the main focus. There are a number of good restaurants but our preference was the Old Harbour Hotel where we sat under the stars in the large open garden enjoying live music and sumptuous food, a pleasure after a busy day of sightseeing.
One thing to check before going to a restaurant anywhere in India is whether they sell alcohol, as many do not and some only sell beer. We can highly recommend the warm welcome and friendly service we received at the Old Harbour.
Unfortunately, there is no obvious gay scene in Fort Cochin and the night life is limited to a quiet dinner and a few drinks, if you are lucky enough to find a bar. Most restaurants close about 10:30pm. Fort Cochin was a brief but fascinating stop for us and if in south India it should be high on your list of places to visit. This is a calm and revitalizing sojourn with friendly people, fine food, abundant shopping and a laid back vibe. Drink in this measured pace before moving on to your next frenetic Indian city encounter.