There’s water everywhere in Kochi so start the afternoon of your first day here with a boat cruise around the harbour. You’ll be able to get the lay of what little land there is and enjoy the tropical air as it loses its steam for the day. Tug boats, small but brightly coloured fishing vessels, tall white cruise liners and massive overseas freight ships vie for passage in the channels of one of the busiest harbours in India.
Along the shores of the inlets and bays Chinese fishing nets catch the rays of the setting sun through their towering webs. Firmly fixed to shore they extend 20 meters across and 10 meters high. Teams of fishermen harness their cantilevered systems of pulleys and weights to heave them into and haul them out of the sea. The catch is usually small. They start again in rhythm with the waves, the tides, the day. On and on into the evening they work.
After you disembark, walk through the fish markets to witness the colourful, fast-paced action there. Language isn’t needed to enjoy the bidding and haggling between the mongers and their customers. Circle once and then circle back to what looked best. You can buy direct and take your catch to any of the little restaurants that line the nearby streets. Order Fish Molee. It is on the menu of everywhere here. White fish cooked in coconut milk with turmeric, onion and tomatoes – it’s a light and lovely meal and perfect introduction to Keralan cuisine.
On your second day, start the morning with a walk through the area known as Jew Town and find your way to the synagogue of the once prominent Jewish families. Shops line this merchant district. Have fun poking through for antiques and deals on clothing.
Traveller’s Tip: If you love gold, visit a Kochi gold shop. Both the designs and the quality of the gold are well-reputed.
While the merchants remain in Jew Town, the once burgeoning Jews of Kerala are all but gone. At last count there were four. Catholicism and Syrian Christianity have held on and Kerala is where most of India’s Christians live. This is why, a few blocks away from Jew Town, you’ll find the famous St. Francis church built by Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama in 1503. St. Francis gleams with a new coat of butter yellow paint. The parishioners take great care of it.
Around another corner you’ll find the Old Dutch Palace. Don’t let the exterior put you off. While the black mould climbing its outer walls threatens to engulf, the interior is a delightful collection of frescos, carvings, paintings as well as artifacts, clothing and jewels from Kerala’s royal families. The history lesson and understanding of Kerala’s heritage is worth the visit, but go early before the crowds and the heat.
Exploring further by foot, walk through the old spice bazaar area to see the brightly painted homes adorned with signs for a multitude of home stays (India’s version of B&Bs) and cooking schools. This area is popular with backpackers who land here to head to the Ayurvedic and yoga retreats that abound in the state. You’ll also see bus loads of sunburned group tours seeking affordable luxury. There are a few cooking schools we can recommend.
Aroma’s Cooking School in the Hotel Casa Linda is conveniently located in this neighbourhood and authentic to the core. Aroma and her husband Deepa run a restaurant by night and teach cooking during the afternoons. You’ll learn to make fish, prawns and classic Keralan vegetable stew.
Nimmy Paul is a famous local cook with a completely elegant school for larger groups a little out of the downtown core. Check out the recipes for Fish Molee, Avial and Chemeen she graciously shared with us.
Dinner can always wait a little in Kochi. Start the evening at the cultural centre for a performance of Kakathali Dance. It’s good to go early. Watching the artists apply their makeup is part of the show. Ornately carved and painted headdresses tower over bright green faces carefully etched with permanently raised eyebrows and widely painted mouths. A crash course on the actors’ eye movements and hand gestures is given to improve your understanding of the show. The plot is always the same: girl meets boy meets demons and good always triumphs over evil. It’s mesmerizing to watch the lively trio of actors while the singer and his drummers let the troupe’s hand and eye gesticulations tell the story.
After the show, circle back to Kochi’s Old Fort district. Evenings bring out the street food wallahs (vendors). You can walk the sea wall promenade out to the point where it ends to work up your appetite and come back to where they cluster under the Banyon trees near the fish market. It can be littered here – especially with its proximity to the fish market – but when we visited in 2017 great efforts were being made to lay stone where there was once mud and to add seating and in general, an upgrading for the area. The people are warm and friendly and the street food is hot, plentiful and a great attraction for locals and visitors alike. Cassava chips with chili lime salt, once tasted, turned into a daily quest for us.
Enjoy wine as your nightcap at the secluded bar in The Malabar House. Stay at one of the hotels we recommend in our next post and rise early to launch further into a new day in God’s Own Country – Kerala.
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