#ComeToKerala: Inside Fort Kochi

Kochi was the last stop in our #ComeToKerala tour. After spending a few days cruising the backwaters and relaxing at the highlands, it felt good to be back in the beaches of southern India.

My last room for the trip at Eighth Bastion Hotel.
My last room for the trip at Eighth Bastion Hotel.

Kochi or Cochin is the major financial capital of Kerala and a major port city facing the Arabian Sea. It’s a city that has undergone great transformation in the past centuries, becoming a colony of the Portuguese, the Dutch, and then the British.

We checked in our rooms in Eighth Bastion, a beautiful hotel inside Fort Kochi, and had a hearty lunch in the hotel’s restaurant before went to Bolgatty Palace – halfway across the city – to finally meet the officials of the Kerala Tourism Board.

The dock at Bolgatty Palace gave a beautiful view of city’s shipyard. The hotel used to be a mansion that housed the maharaja of the Kingdom of Kochin before it became a colonial outpost.

This dock in Bolgatty Palace is where the maharaja of Kochi used to view the Arabian Sea. The view now is that of Kochi's shipyard.
This dock in Bolgatty Palace is where the maharaja of Kochi used to view the Arabian Sea. The view now is that of Kochi’s shipyard.

Kochi’s shipyard, where India’s Southern Naval Command headquarters is located, is also noteworthy. Military and commercial ships are made here, making Kochi one of the 440 emerging global cities according to the McKinsey Global Institute. Our tour guide said an aircraft carrier is currently being built in the shipyard when we were there in December.

Our meeting went fast and soon after, we were on our way to dinner.

When in Kochi, eat fish

Being a coastal city, fishing is one of the main livelihoods of the people in Kochi. The best dishes in the city, naturally, are made from fish. There are many seafood varieties in Kochi that would surely satisfy any tourist.

Kochin 2
Our seafood dinner from the Brunton Boatyard

Our dinner during our first day was in the Brunton Boatyard restaurant in Fort Kochi. This was, according to our tour guide, the best fish place in the city. My expectations were raised.

The ambience of the restaurant was great and so was the food. We were served with a 4-course dinner that had tiger prawns, crab, and fish. The tea dusted tiger prawns were particularly superb – the meat was very rich with herbs and spices.

The main dish – roasted shallot fish with saffron sauce – was also good. The Brackish Water fish blended well with the soft potatoes and delectable sauce.

Overall, I think Brunton Boatyard lived up to its reputation of being the best seafood place in town. It had the best fish and prawns I’ve tasted in my stay in Kerala. I’d say this is a must-try restaurant when visiting Kochi.

Inside Fort Kochi

Back to Fort Kochi! This is an area in the city where old colonial and modern day India combine. This used to be a fishing village during pre-colonial Kerala in the Kingdom of Kochi. It was made into a fort by the Portuguese in 1503. Since then, the area has gone various changes as it transitioned to the Dutch, the British and the democratic India.

Most buildings in Fort Kochi still follow the old colonial designs. Many hotels, restaurants, shops, and cultural establishments are also inside the area and they’re all very near each other.

For our morning tour in Kochi, we merely had to walk from one site to another. Here’s our itinerary:

1) Fort Kochi beach walkway

A beautiful view of Fort Kochi beach in the morning.
A beautiful view of Fort Kochi beach in the morning.

Like Kovalam beach, Fort Kochi has a public beach that’s famous to both locals and tourists. The walkway of the beach has some restaurants and bars where people can drink their morning coffee or get their late night booze.

One of the old colonial outposts along the Fort Kochi beach walkway
One of the old colonial outposts along the Fort Kochi beach walkway

We started walking in Fort Kochi beach at around 9am and the stalls were just starting to open. I biked around the area at around 8am and I saw many people exercising and doing yoga by the beach.

Both sides of the walkway are picturesque. On one side, there are the houses with colonial design, and on the other, the strong waves of the Arabian sea and Kochi’s shipyard.

Many locals sell trinkets and souvenirs along the walkway. You can get cool Indian stuff for keeps!

2) Chinese fishing nets

At the end of the walkway are the most iconic sites in Kochi. Whenever you search for Kochi in the internet or look through travel magazines, you will most definitely see the traditional Chinese fishing nets.

These have been a part of Kochi fishermen’s way of life since the time of the Portuguese. According to some researchers, these were introduced by Portuguese settlers who came from Macau.

With the traditional fishing nets in Fort Kochi.
With the traditional fishing nets in Fort Kochi.
Up close a traditional Chinese fishing net!
Up close a traditional Chinese fishing net!

How do the fishing nets work? There are basically beams fixed on land that hold nets that are around 20 meters across. Fishermen lower the nets and pull them up every few minutes to catch fish. They do this around 200 times a day to get their daily catch.

The fishing nets have become a popular tourist attraction in Kochi and local fishermen will eagerly welcome the help of foreigners in pulling the nets. Of course, you’d be expected to give some tip to the fishermen.

Just a few meters from the fishing nets, still along the Fort Kochi beach, is a fish market where you can buy the fishermen’s catch. You can have whatever you buy be brought to your hotel to be cooked.

 

3) St Francis Church

St Francis Church in Fort Kochi
St Francis Church in Fort Kochi
Vasco De Gama's original tomb inside St Francis Church
Vasco De Gama’s original tomb inside St Francis Church

A few meters from the beach is St Francis Church – the oldest European church in India. This infrastructure is a mute onlooker to the European colonial history of India.

The great explorer Vasco De Gama originally built St Francis as a Catholic church in 1503 and it was managed then by Franciscans. But when the Dutch arrived, they made it a protestant church. Currently, St Francis is managed by the Anglicans in India.

When Vasco De Gama died in Kochi in 1524, his remains were initially buried in St Francis Church before it was moved to Lisbon, Portugal a few years after. The church is still used as a place of worship with English and Hindu Christian services scheduled every Sunday.

 

4) Kathakali Theater

This is a must-see for culture lovers! After our walking tour of Fort Kochi, we went shopping for souvenirs in another area. In the afternoon, our tour guide got us tickets for one of the best cultural performances I’ve seen in a long time!

Beautiful cultural performance!
Beautiful cultural performance!
A Kathakali actor demonstrates the facial movements used in this art form.
A Kathakali actor demonstrates the facial movements used in this art form.

Kathakali is a classical Indian drama that originated in Kerala. It involves a lot of hand gestures, facial expressions, and elaborate costumes and makeups. Every play shows a segment of a story usually with a good vs evil plot. Traditionally, Kathakali performances last from evening until morning. But now, full plays usually last only until 3 hours.

The movements are very precise and the artists’ makeups are very elaborate. In the first part of the performance, we actually saw the artists putting on their makeup. They also gave a run through of the various emotions conveyed by the artists’ movements and facial expressions.

It’s a good thing the Kerala government took the initiative to preserve this art form. It shows so much of the beliefs and traditions of the people of Kerala in the past.

 

Jew Town

Of course, how can I forget about shopping? If you’re in Kochi and you’re looking for some good buys, Jew Town is the place to go!

Surprisingly, there are a lot of Jews in Kerala and they date back to the time of King Solomon. Jew town is where one of their synagogues is located. It has also become a very famous shopping district.

Shopping haven! The entrance to Jew town in Kochi
Shopping haven! The entrance to Jew town in Kochi

You can buy everything from small trinkets and wooden carvings to traditional clothes in this area. I got some traditional Indian shirts here for IDR 200 a piece. I also bought some tea and spices from a women’s cooperative there.

As in all street shops and markets in other countries, haggling is a must in Kerala. Shop owners are generally nice. They’d give you a discount if you buy more stuff from their stores. A lot of people will invite you to their shops to “take a look” at their products. Be careful of this since a lot of shop owners will sell their products aggressively.

One thing I couldn’t find in Jew Town though were good quality sarees. I had to ask our tour guide to take me to a place where they sell silk sarees. The ones I bought cost IDR 1,500 a piece but they were worth it given (1) that they’re made of silk and (2) that it’s for my mom and grandmother.

***

When in Kerala, wear Indian clothes!
When in Kerala, wear Indian clothes!

There are more things to do in Kochi. It’s a beautiful city with a colourful history and beautiful people. You should stay at least 3 days here to see all the sites Kochi has to offer. I’d definitely go back here someday to visit the places I missed during our tour.

This is a part of my #ComeToKerala blog series. My trip to “God’s Own Country” was sponsored by the Kerala Tourism Board. I had the time of my life in Kerala and I’m sharing my experiences here:

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