Fishing nets Fort Cochin. Image courtesy of Trekearth

God is in the Small Things – Places to Visit in Cochin

Kerala and Cochin in particular always remind me of the emotional story of “God of Small Things” by Arundhati Roy. The novel takes place in a small village in Kerala, south India and describes the collapse of a local family who are full of charm amongst the tropical rural small town life of Kerala.

There is something about the contrast between the peaceful, tropical paradise of Kerala and the pain of the characters suffering from the darker sides of India’s history and strict social structure that saddens the heart. In a way this is the story of India.

The border line between fiction and reality blurred upon my arrival in Cochin. I try to think about the hard life that was the fate of Rahel, Estha and Ammu and in all the bitter-sweet events and relations they share.  It is a great thing to actually travel in the natural habitat of a beloved story and try to track down the places and views. So my first recommendation before visiting Kerala and Cochin is to read this great book.

In practice, the city of Cochin (Kochi), the second largest city in Kerala, is a beautiful port city steeped in history. For centuries Cochin was considered an important strategic point, and the first place where Europeans settled in the sub-continent primarily the Portuguese. They arrived to Kerala 600 years ago. Since then, the area was also colonialized by the Dutch and the British, who traded the great exotic variety of Keralan spices and while doing so left their mark in the city. Fort Cochin harbour area, which is today the city’s tourist centre, is the highlight of Cochin. The smell of the sea and the fish surrounding the Chinese fishing nets, local fishermen working in the blazing sun and the spectacular orange, purple sunsets at dusk are among Cochin’s best. Jews also have left their mark in Cochin, in what was the oldest Jewish community in India and today the remains of a thriving neighbourhood called Jew Town. There are hardly any Jews left today but their history is still present. Cochin offers a wonderful mix of churches, synagogues and mosques, which only strengthens its diversity and uniqueness. The atmosphere is relaxed and pastoral, picturesque alleys and wonderful food which all make Cochin one of the most popular destinations in South India. It’s also a good place to gear up and go to other destinations in Kerala like Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary, Munnar, Alleppey (for the best backwater boat trip) or to the amazing archipelago of Lakshadweep. Travelling around the city of Cochin is very easy and things are relatively close to one another. There is a lot to do and lots of places to visit in Cochin so let’s go!

Attractions in Cochin:

Chinese Fishing Nets

Chinese fishing netsLocated on the coast of Cochin, the huge nets are a tourist attraction and rightly so. The unique fishing method is based on the Chinese method in which a crew of fishermen raise and lower the large net to and from the water every few minutes by pulling ropes connected to stones. The days catch is sold at the end of each day at the local fish market, located right next to the fishing nets. The fish are weighed and an auction takes place. This is a fascinating in itself and you should try to arrive in the evening to witness it.

Jew Town and Paradesi Synagogue

The inside of the synagogue in Cochin's Jew town. Image courtesy of  Wikipedia

The inside of the synagogue in Cochin’s Jew town. Image courtesy of Wikipedia

The Jewish Quarter of Cochin known as Jew Town (city of the Jews) was once a large Jewish community. This is the oldest of the Indian Jewish communities and the traditional account is that traders from Judea arrived in the city of Cochin in 562 BCE, and that more Jews came as exiles from Israel in the year 70 CE, after the destruction of the Second Temple. The distinct Jewish community was called “Anjuvannam”. The still-functioning synagogue in Mattancherry belongs to the “Paradesi Jews”, the descendants of Sephardim that were expelled from Spain in 1492. Today only a few Jewish families are left here. If you take an afternoon stroll around the small streets you will be confronted with signs in Hebrew, mezuzas (a piece of parchment, often contained in a decorative case, with a blessing inscribed with a specific Hebrew verse from the Torah) on the doorways and Stars of David on the windows of which were Jewish houses. Today most of the houses in the quarter have been transformed into shops selling handicrafts and souvenirs. In the heart of the ancient quarter is located the main Synagogue, built in the 16th century (and partly destroyed by the Portuguese in the 17th). The Synagogue’s beautiful central hall covered with painted Chinese floor tiles (they say that each of them is unique and slightly different from one another), chandeliers and a golden central stage. This magnificent synagogue is a real piece of history and a live testimony of the religious and cultural variety and tolerance of Cochin. A visit is a must.

Address:  Jew Town Rd., Mattancherry, Kochi

Admission: 5 Rs.

Opening hours: 10am – 1pm and 3-5pm Sun-Thu. Closed in Jewish holidays

Dressing codes: shorts and sleeveless tops are not allowed inside

Santa Cruz Basilica and Saint Francis Church

The outside of the Santa Cruz Basilica Church in Fort Cochin

The outside of the Santa Cruz Basilica Church in Fort Cochin

These two churches built by the Portuguese at the beginning of the 16th century make an important part of the history of the city which is another example of Cochin’s rich cultural heritage and a popular tourist sites. Basilica of Santa Cruz is a beautiful Gothic structure, impressive both outside and inside with spectacular Italian paintings.

Address: Parade & KB Jacob RDS, Fort Kochi, Kochi

St. Francis is the oldest European church in India, and is less impressive but with an interesting history. This is the burial place of Vasco da Gama, the famous Portuguese explorer who discovered the sea route from Europe to India.

Address: Bastion Street, Fort Kochi, Kochi

Matancherry Palace

Built in the 16th century by the Portuguese for the Raja of Cochin and renovated by the Dutch and hence nicknamed “Dutch Palace”. There is are impressive well preserved Hindu murals, mostly described scenes of the beloved Hindu god Krishna from his various legends and incarnations. This is a unique art style and definitely worth a visit. And at the price of 5 rupees entrance it’s a bargain!  Above is a nice museum dedicated to the history of Cochin.

Entry fee: 5 Rs.

Photography is prohibited

Open all week except Fridays, 8am – 5pm

Address: Bazaar Road, Mattancherry, Kochi

Mangalavanam Bird Sanctuary

An incredible green spot with an extensive variety of life and an ecologically sensitive area situated at the centre of Cochin and known as the ‘green lung of Cochin’. Primarily a bird refuge, the innate appeal of Mangalavanam is augmented by the Arabian Sea which borders the sanctuary and adds to it a panoramic ambience. Mangalavanam is a paradise for bird watching. It is a great place to soak up some nature and greenery without leaving the city. The place is easy to reach by a taxi or rickshaw from anywhere in town.

Mangalavanam Bird Sanctuary in Cochin. Image courtesy of Mangalavanam.com

Mangalavanam Bird Sanctuary in Cochin. Image courtesy of Mangalavanam.com

Vaipan Island

If you are interested to go to a nice beach, try one at Vaipan Island. Located some 25 km from Cochin, the small island has few beaches. Recommended is Cherai Beach. Overall, not an amazing beach but rather a nice place to visit for a day trip. There are options however to stay over with several guest houses and restaurants on the beach, try Chill out Cafe. You can reach the island by ferry from Cochin and then take a bus or rickshaw to the beach.

Kathakali

The famous dance theatre of South India. The state of Kerala is known for its Kathakali performances of dance drama based on the stories from the Hindu mythology. With

Kathakali

Kathakali performance in Cochin

emphasis on facial expressions (especially incomprehensible control of the eye muscle), heavy makeup and colorful costumes, Kathakali performance is unusual and fascinating. In Fort Cochin, Kathakali performances are held at Kerala Kathakali Centre. You can arrive about an hour before the show to see the actors putting on their makeup. The centre offers 3 programs each evening and you can also enjoy Kalaripayttu (Kerala special martial arts) and India classical music and dance performances. Priced at 250 Rs. per head for a show. The center also offers courses if you interested to learn this beautiful ancient Indian art.  Check out their site: http://www.kathakalicentre.com/

Ayurvedic treatments and massages

Kerala is well known for its famous Ayurveda treatments and Cochin is a great place to have a luxurious Ayurvedic massage. Try Cochin Ayurvedic Centre.

Address: Santa Cruz School Rd, Fort Kochin

Phone: 0484 2217103

Email: fort_hs@yahoo.com

Cooking classes

In lots of the hotels and home stays they will be happy to refer you to a Keralan food cooking class. Cook & eat is Mrs. Leelu’s famous 2 hours cooking classes for small groups at her home. (11am & 6pm, Quiros St., phone – 2215377, E-mail – simonroy@hotmail.com, 550 Rs. For the class).

Sleeping in Cochin:

Fort Cochin is a charming and interesting area, and recommended for some good accommodation. There is much variety and choice to suit every budget and style and some very smart and sophisticated places. Cochin’s home stays are fabulous and a great way to enjoy the hospitality, warmth and laid back atmosphere of the Cochin residents.  Note that prices are getting more and more expensive in recent years, especially in season.

Guesthouses

Princess Inn: located on very central Princess Street in Fort Cochin, close to most attractions. This is a homely guest house with clean and cosy rooms, shared central space and a living room with couches and tables, a great place to meet other tourists or relax and read a book (God of Small Things). There is also a kitchen for the guest to use. Good value in Cochin.

Green House Homestay: one of the most charming places in Fort Cochin and very close to the main street, Princess Street. Although there are only a few rooms they are clean, spacious and beautiful. Here too there is a common living area with TV, Internet and refrigerator. Very relaxed atmosphere, charming owner and a lovely family.

Address: 1/1040 A, Kunnampuram Cross Road, Njaliparambu, Fort Kochi, Kochi

Phone: 919 895 262 296

Email: greenhousehomestay@yahoo.com

Leelu Home Stay: is on a quiet street but close to the centre, in a renovated Victorian house. Mrs Leelu is a lovely Indian woman who rents four rooms in her house. Rooms are clean and comfortable, and in this hospitable, warm and luxurious house there is also a friendly dog. Leelu also offers Indian food cooking classes.

Address: Cheerans Ebenezer 1/630, Quirose Street, Fort Cochin

Phone: 914 842 215 377

Eating in Cochin:

Cochin excels in its tea and coffee houses, and of course in fresh fish and seafood. A great dinner is to go to Fort Cochin harbour area and buy from the catch of the day. You can ask to cook it for you in a restaurant for a nominal fee. Here are some of the recommended cafes and restaurants:

Teapot Café: is the most special coffee shop in Fort Cochin, decorated with lots of antique teapots, thus paying homage to the days of old tea trade of Cochin. It’s an elegant and cool place with good food, wonderful cakes and of course great coffee and tea.

Address: Peter Celli Street, Fort Kochi, Kochi

Solar Café and Kashi Art Café: are the combination of coffee and art work. Solar is a very colorful cafe, whose walls are decorated with paintings by local artists and serves organic food, coffee and excellent juices.

Address: Bazaar Road, Kochi

Cafe Kashi has a gallery, and the cafe is a lovely tropical garden restaurant with art pieces and sculptures. The place serve light and delicious food and again, excellent coffee.

Address: Burgher St., Kochi

Mango Tree: is a pleasant and popular rooftop restaurant in central Fort Kochi. The restaurant, has a large mango tree in the middle, offering Indian and Western food. Good atmosphere, Best Italian dishes and of course fish and seafood.

Address: Princess Street, Fort Kochi, Kochi

Oceanos: is considered by many to the best fish restaurant in Fort Cochin. It belongs to the hotel Elphinstone and managed by a chef who specializes in Mediterranean cuisine (Portuguese influence). It offers fresh fish and seafood in different sauces some are served on a banana leaf. The chef of the restaurant also conducts cooking classes for those who wish to learn the secrets of this excellent cuisine. Reasonable prices (around 200 Rs. for a main course) for such a quality food and place.

Address: Elphinstone Residency, Elphinstone Road, Fort Kochi, Kochi

Shopping and Markets in Cochin:

Arts and Craft in Jew Town. The Jew town of Cochin no longer has too many Jewish residences, but it is full with shops selling antiques, artefacts, souvenirs and various handicrafts.

Fort Cochin Market is near the Chinese fishing nets is the local tourist market with souvenirs, such as jewellery, sculptures, mobiles, lamps and lampshades and bags.

Weather in Cochin:

Cochin climate is tropical and the temperatures are quite high during the whole year. In summer humidity is high, especially during March – April. May is the beginning of the monsoon season and between June and August it’s rainy and windy most of the time. The recommended time to visit is from September to February, when there is nice breeze and low humidity.

Transportation in Cochin:

Flights: Cochin International Airport at Nedumbassery is located 29 km from the town. There is also a domestic flights terminal for destinations in India. A bus of KSRTC – Karnataka State Road Transport Corporation runs every half hour from the airport and arrives in Fort Cochin an hour and a half later. The bus also runs in the opposite direction but is less frequent. The station is near the Chinese fishing nets. There is also a prepaid taxi service at the airport.

Trains: Cochin has a large train station called Ernakulam Junction Station and is located in the Arnkolem part of the city. Most of the trains in Kerala pass through this station, and trains leave and arrive from places all around India like Chennai, Mumbai, Goa, Delhi and more.

Buses: There are local buses and tourist buses that run between major cities in the south, and Cochin is linked to most of them. In general, a train ride is faster and more convenient, and recommended for far destinations. Use buses when travelling within in Kerala to get to the smaller and closer places.

Ferry: is a popular form of transportation in Cochin. The naval Shuttle has fairly frequently routes between Arnkolem and Fort Cochin and at a cheap price.

Hope you will enjoy Cochin!

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