My plane window frames a hazy picture: grey swirls of mist, suffused with a pale afternoon light, which reveal fleeting glimpses of a steely blue sea below. As we descend, slicing through a swathe of thick rain clouds and emerging beneath them, there is a dramatic change of view — a velvety carpet of brilliant green flecked with sloping sun-baked roofs. Then, moments later, a tiny rivulet of water begins to course its way across my pane. It’s joined almost immediately by another stream, and soon the world outside is obscured again, this time by a thick sheet of rain.
This is my first trip to Kochi and my excitement is infused with nervousness and anticipation in equal measure.
I’ve been fed endless stories about this place: its history, its beauty, its culture, its cuisine... and how it’s impossible not to fall in love with it. A place that also, I have been told, is a whole new world in the monsoon. But reality proves to outdo my imagination. The downpour has now slowed to a benign drizzle and underneath the rain-washed skies everything glows clean and bright. The palm-filled countryside is lush in varying shades of green; the air is chilled and redolent with the fragrance of fresh earth; and a smooth unspoiled tarmac offers a wonderfully comfortable car ride to my hotel in Fort Cochin, the main tourist drag in Kochi.
An hour and a half later, having negotiated Ernakulam, the busy city centre, we enter Fort Cochin and all of a sudden life slows down.
It’s quiet, the peace broken only by the mild chatter of locals calling it a day; the rain-stung breeze carries a strong smell of the sea and in the fading evening light, the narrow winding streets with their gabled, colonial-era bungalows look like something out of a Victorian novel.
Over the centuries, successive cultures have left their stamp on this place, giving Fort Cochin its inimitable character. Jewish and Christian traders came, settled and grew into thriving communities. The Arabs exploited its geographical advantage by establishing lucrative spice-trading routes between India and the Middle East. Then came the Portuguese who colonised it in the early 16th century — a highlight from their 160-year rule is the St Francis Church, where Vasco da Gama was originally buried — before the Dutch took over in 1683, controlling Kochi for a little over a century. The British were the last of the foreign rulers. However, Fort Cochin still clings to its colonial past, its history whispered at every corner you turn through its centuries-old houses, churches, synagogues, museums and even its cuisine.
We head to The Tower House, the Neemrana Group’s newest offering and my address for the night. Occupying the spot where a 17th-century lighthouse once stood, the property benefits from its location — barely 100m from Fort Cochin’s harbour and opposite the famous Chinese fishing nets. The Tower House achieves a blend of luxury and informality that makes you feel right at home. A rambling bungalow with a roof of red tiles and a soothing whitewashed façade that conceals a well-tended lawn, a leafy courtyard and tasteful interiors — this place looks and feels like a grand old house, rather than a hotel.
I’m received by gracious staff, and being the sole occupant of the property on account of the lean season, I’m led to a suite and the swankiest of them at that. To say that it’s large is an understatement; it’s so massive it’s hard to hear when people knock at your door. There’s a view of the pool, or rather the neighbouring, spectacularly luxurious, Old Harbour Hotel’s pool. Tall, white arched windows overlook the pristine lawn of this heritage hotel, where its pool shimmers softly in the glow of tactical lighting. Back in the suite, there’s also polished wooden flooring, a high vaulted ceiling, an antique four-poster bed, rosewood-and-rattan easy chairs...
I’m informed by the kitchen that their chef is on leave, but there are plenty of dining options within easy walking distance. I decide on one that has been repeatedly recommended: the restaurant at The Malabar House, a five-minute walk from where I am. It’s 9pm and the streets are deserted. The rains have left behind a refreshingly cool breeze. I’m already loving being here.
No more than 20 minutes later, I’m at Malabar House’s new bar, Divine, sampling a glass of wine with platters of bite-sized prawn samosas (Rs 120), mushroom-filled jalapeño chillies (Rs 95) and a roulade of poached snapper fillet with mango and herbs (Rs 140). All brilliantly executed, but this is not what I’m here for. No, no. I’m here for the delights of the restaurant downstairs: traditional fare with a contemporary Mediterranean twist. There, I have what will easily become the highlight of all my meals in Fort Cochin: Kuttanad roast duck, or shredded duck bathed in gently spiced coconut cream with fennel and pineapple for an excellent contrast in flavour, accompanied by fragile, crispy appams (Rs 420). I’m in heaven. The rest of my meal consists of a peppery Kerala-style lamb cooked with curry leaves, coconut and shallots, served with upma (Rs 420) and an inventive crumble of caramelised pineapple with green and black pepper (Rs 150). I’m now ready to hit the sack.
The next morning, I wake to the sound of rain. It’s only 7.30am, and by the time I’ve breakfasted — a homey spread of fresh grape juice, cereal, eggs, toast, marmalade and coffee — and bathed, there’s a watery sun out. The ubiquitous ‘You buy, I cook’ stalls that line the waterfront are slowly stirring to life, as vendors call out, urging you to pick your choice of freshly caught fish/shellfish, which they will prepare to your palate. The Chinese fishing nets loom large before me like gigantic hammocks, their undersides submerged in the water to ensnare those unlucky creatures of the sea.
The best way to explore Fort Cochin is on foot; go any faster and you’ll miss it — that’s how compact it is. It’s also one of the most effortlessly quaint places I’ve ever visited. As I wander through lanes with endearing names like Princess Street and Lilly Street, several things strike me. How literally every second ancestral house has been converted either into a hotel or a homestay. (In fact, a rising number of homestays are being rented from the owners by enterprising auto-rickshaw-walas, who then sublease them at a profit.) How every second souvenir shop is owned by a Kashmiri, who will try and beguile you with everything from carpets and silver jewellery to Rajasthani wood carvings. How reassuringly safe and familiar the area feels, the latter probably a result of the fact that everybody knows everybody here. And finally, how peaceful it is. The rains have forced several cafés to temporarily abandon business, as well as kept the tourists away. ‘Closed for renovation’ signs are displayed on every other hotel/homestay, and those that offer availability do so at heavily discounted rates. Fort Cochin is virtually empty. Vacationers looking for some serious downtime couldn’t have it better.
Lunchtime finds me under a fine drizzle at the end of a broad pier, with the sound of water lapping against its edges and a pleasant wind across my face for company. I’m at the Fort House hotel, a happy discovery, where the alfresco dining area extends well into the water and the menu represents the cultural diversity of Fort Cochin. I’m rewarded by some seerfish braised in banana leaf and served with appams (Rs 270); spicy shrimp Mozambique on a bed of rice (Rs 260); and a vegetable thoran (Rs 70). The feast over, I have to force myself away from this charming spot to find a way to transport myself to the bordering quarter of Mattancherry.
Mattancherry is just as picturesque as Fort Cochin, though not as quiet. Even in low season, the main market — essentially a long shopping street that curves in the shape of a giant U, at the end of which lies India’s oldest synagogue—is alive with people like myself drawn to the dozens of antique shops that have made this area hugely popular among tourists, especially those from overseas. A few months ago, the only way around was to walk from end to end. Today, a long upscale shopping arcade, in contrast to the clutter of shop fronts around, serves as a connecting corridor between the market’s entrance and the synagogue end. My eyes rest on a dusty, unassuming entrance hung with an assortment of brass and copper artefacts. I step inside and I’m amazed. I’m greeted by astonishingly cavernous interiors, which seem to hold an infinite amount of antique furniture, pottery, local art and so much more. As I walk down, following the curve of the road, I notice that every other shop is exactly like this one. Further ahead, a small bylane gets my attention and I allow it to guide me deeper into the maze. More shops and some lovely old homes later, I arrive at the spice market, a string of shops selling every conceivable spice at its freshest. There’s tea and dried fruit too and I’m content to spend a while here, investigating my options. It’s probably a good thing that the rain started to beat down hard when it did; I would never have left Mattancherry and its shopping otherwise.
Back in Fort Cochin, I’ve found myself a delightful lodging for the night — Walton’s Home Stay — run by the endlessly helpful Mr Walton. I glance through the visitor’s book, which divulges praise, page after page. “The Walton family has refined hospitality to an art form,” writes Aldous Huxley’s biographer, Dana Sawyer. I’m placed in a smart, clean room with a private sit-out that overlooks the greenery of the courtyard. A hot shower, crisp white towels and a comfortable bed awaits. Once again, I’ve got the place pretty much to myself. But then, I’ve pretty much had all of Fort Cochin to myself these last few days. Sometimes, it’s not just the place that makes a getaway special. It’s also the timing that makes it so.