This is the world. Half of it is lit by the sun and the other half remains in darkness. It is the same with life. There is good and bad and it’s our duty to remain in the light, be good.
― Anita Nair
I already wrote about the unexpected side of India, but now I want to tell you more about Kerala, possibly the greenest, modern, diverse, culturally rich and interesting Indian state (in my opinion of course!)
Kerala, also appropriately called God’s Own Country*, is that strip of land in the western tip of the subcontinent, sitting between the Arabic Sea on the west and the state of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka on the east. It was love at first sight between Kerala and I. Not only the lush green all around. Not only the remote white beaches, the peaceful backwaters, the hill stations, the meaningful cocktail of churches, synagogues and mosques. Not only the vertiginous and violent waterfalls. Did I mention the delicious pannu, idli,and dosas? Oh! Gosh, the tapioca! And what about the tea plantations and the towels men use as skirts everywhere? Everything about Kerala is just perfect. Kerala and I are meant for each other. This is going to be a lifelong love relationship.
It’s true, I’m seriously thinking to move to India next year and Kerala is surely on top of my list. The nature is just lushly breathtaking, the green is the greenest and even if you would spend an entire life here, you wouldn’t be able to count all its different shades. There is everything in Kerala: a few nice cities, the hills, the rivers, the woods and the sea. Maybe I loved it so much because it reminds me of home.
Kochi is a peculiar, heritage city that forms the largest urban area in Kerala. It’s composed of many little islands and less-knows parts, of which Ernakulum is the main (modern) town. Fort Cochin instead is only the tiny, but beautiful tip of Cochin island and where the most interesting things are. If you are in a rush, you can see most things in Fort Kochi in a couple of days, but if you are travelling slowly and have no place to be, one or even two weeks are well-spent here, just walking around, browsing the little alleys, visiting all the cafes and talking to the locals is never a waste of time.
In fact, many western have put seasonal or permanent roots here: some for the low cost of living, others for the yoga or Ayurveda retreats, some others just because it’s beautiful. I might be one of the next ones to do the same soon….
#ButFirstCoffee was never as appropriate during my trip as here: Kochi was heaven for my espresso- deprived soul and taste buds, and here is where I spent my days sipping coffee at each and every café I could find. Yeah, I had troubles sleeping that week, but….it was worth it!!
Vasco Home Stay
Great place for a Keralan breakfast. Cute family service and staff. Upstairs is the well-known guesthouse that goes with the same name. Try the Keralan breakfast here, you won’t be disappointed!
No wi-fi (even though the website says the opposite, maybe only available in the guesthouse).
Address: on the corner of Rose Street and Bastion Street, Fort Cochin
A super-cute cafe that serves some delicious cakes and light bites. I was worried coffee wasn’t going to be a safe choice here, but I was wrong, as it was quite good. They obviously have a large selection of teas too. This is a great place to hang out with your friends in the afternoon or simply come with a book and enjoy the peace. Do not come with your laptop or with the intention to work from here as there is no wi-fi.
Address: Peter Celli Street, Fort Cochin
This stunning café is part of an art gallery that had a brilliant photography (what a coincidence!!) show, when I visited! J Great snack and cakes’ options, with good moka coffee (they call it espresso), sandwiches and salads. Great place to hang out and meet other westerns, not many locals where there when I visited, I guess because the prices were higher than average. (no wifi)
Burgher Street, Fort Kochi 682001, Kerala, India
I’ve personally awarded French Toast “THE best cappuccino of India” prize. Not only the froth was of the perfect consistency, but temperature, size and appearance were also top-notch. 4.5 out 5 stars for this cute little café in mailand Kochi, it only needs wi-fi to earn that half point to perfection.
OY’S Cafe & Studio
Lovely little café with loads of books for exchange and to buy. Breakfast was rich and delicious. Service a bit slow, but within Indian standards. Address: 1-390 Burgher Street, Fort Kochi 682001, Kochi, Kerala
A beautiful little bookshop, just next to Vasco where you can find loads of books about India. There are volumes in English, Spanish, Italian, French and many other languages. I had to stop myself at three books, but I would have carried on to 20 probably. They offer a very useful service of packaging and sending to Europe, US and other parts of the world in collaboration with the nearby post office. Unfortunately, the price of delivery has gone up in the last few years, but it is still more convenient than dragging your books for weeks if you, like me, are travelling for a long time.
The God of Small Things is nominally the story of young twins Rahel and Estha and the rest of their family, but the book feels like a million stories spinning out indefinitely; it is the product of a genius child-mind that takes everything in and transforms it in an alchemy of poetry. The God of Small Things is at once exotic and familiar to the Western reader, written in an English that’s completely new and invigorated by the Asian Indian influences of culture and language. (from Amazon review)
Mistress by Anita Nair
The love affair between a traveller and a Keralan woman, all at the rhytm of the ancient art of Kathakali
No, this ain’t a name of a place, but my best suggestion for Fort Cochin (and any other destination as a matter of fact). To be honest, here, you won’t even need a map as it’s impossible to get lost, but just take a walk around and take it all in. Stop in the café and restaurant mentioned above, bring a book, meet locals and expats, this is the best way to really get the vibe of the city.
Mattancherry, Jew Town and the Synagogue
Long time ago, there was large community of Jews here, along the Christian, Muslims and Hindu. Probably the reason why I loved Cochin so much is because it looked to me as the most successful and most beautiful Indian example of peaceful religious cohabitation (maybe I am wrong or not well-informed enough, but this was my impression as a foreigner). This is where Jews set of their trading and commerce and all around the area was the main spice market in the whole state. Make sure to visit the Synagogue at least for its beautiful, hand-painted tiles as the building isn’t particularly worth of notice. Upon entering, you will be addressed to a small “history room”, it’s interesting and it won’t take too long.
While in Cochin, you must arrange a trip to the backwaters. This is one of the best things I’ve done in my three-month travel in India, so I can’t recommend it enough. You will find plenty of tourist offices or agencies offering a day-trip, I personally would recommend the one organized by Happy Camper (see the Dream section below for details). In the backwaters you will be able to enjoy the life of Keralan villages, those little houses tucked away in the jungle and the beautiful Indian women in their colourful saris doing their laundry on the stones on the shore. While you are there, on the boat, enjoy the peace, the slow moving of the boat and life. Don’t fret and leave your switched off phone in your pocket. Everything on this trip was so perfect and so amazing that I actually wandered if it was staged. Where those people outside their little huts actors in fact? Were those gorgeous kids trained to smile so innocently and warmly? I have no answer, but I have a tip for you. Bring pens. Every single kid you will encounter on the way will shout at you for pens. I had about 15 in my backpack back in my room, so I was gutted I didn’t bring them along. (PS: this is a tip that’s pretty much valid anywhere in India, children ask for pens to bring to school. No, not in Delhi or other big cities, but surely in the remote villages if you are going to visit any, so bring some. It will make you feel wonderful.)
Saint Francis Church
This is a very simple but nice white Christian church by the beach in Fort Cochin. A few centuries ago, the Portuguese explorer Vasco De Gama, was buried here. The signs inside can be confusing, as it would appear his remains are still there, when this is not true. Saint Francis Church also became famous as the story says it is the oldest church in India as it was built in 1503.
Santa Cruz Basilica
If St Francis Church is a minimalist church, Santa Cruz is quite the opposite, it its impressive grandeur. It is in fact a pretty young church. Built by the Portuguese in 1506, it was spared by the Dutch who destroyed many Catholic buildings during the take-over but anyway, it was destroyed by the British later on…. Bishop D. João Gomes Ferreira commissioned a new building in 1887 and it was consecrated in 1905. It was only consecrated a proclaimed one of the eight Basilicas in India by Pope John Paul II in 1984.
Indulge on a show of this impressive, different and mesmerising form of art. You need to go there before the start to see how the make-up of the actors (only male) is made. Make-up, facial expression and live music is what makes this 300 years old art form still a hugely acclaimed show for both locals and tourists.
Chinese fishing nets
On top of every Kochi must-see, top-10, top-5 lists you will find a mention of these fishing nets. Personally, I was far from impressed by them. Not only they weren’t particularly interesting or photogenic, but they were also too commercial to my taste. Fishermen have turned into models who jump to your throat offering to pose with a smelly fish in their hands (for money of course!). I refused several times, took a couple of boring sunset shots and moved on. I tried to get a different perspective of them, but I still struggled as the backdrop seemed very industrial and not particularly beautiful.
Note, the smaller fishing nets that you will see on the Cochin backwaters are far more authentic even if smaller.
In Kerala, you must leave all your culinary fears and prejudices behind and try ALL the food you can. For breakfast, go with a puttu, which is a funny-looking roll of coconut flour and steamed rice which is quite dry on its own, but delicious with chickpea or vegetable curry. While you are in this region, if you, like me, LOVE coconut, you will just die with pleasure as it’s their main ingredient.
Food here is not remarkable, but not bad either. It has a nice view over the river and it’s one of the few places that serves alcohol in the city. We had fresh grilled fish, which was good but not outstanding.
With a strong Mughal influence as well as Iranian, Dal Roti serves the cuisine of the heartland India, the States of Madhya Pradesh, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. The restaurant itself is nothing special and its decors is quite insignificant, but its cuisine is mouthwatering and out of this world to be franc. There was always a good number of Indians here and that normally is a sign of authenticity in the food. We went back here three or maybe four times J Must try Kati Roll and one of their Thalis.
Try the fish “Varutharachathu”, it’s the most favourite fish recipe in any Keralan home. It’s basically made of white fish cooked with roasted coconut paste and coconut milk. The grilled tuna with rice and yoghurt sauce was also very nice. Make sure to keep room for desert: honey fig with yoghurt pannacotta and cashew marzipan with chocolate sauce. (No licensed for alcohol).
Tibetan Chef’s Restaurant
Lovely little restaurant where you eat sitting on the floor around low tables surrounded by meaningful quotes by the Dalai Lama. Service is fast and extremely friendly. Food is fresh, tasty and original. Obviously go for the vegetable fried momo to start your adventure among Tibetan delicacies.
Upstairs – Bastion Lane, Fort Cochin
A small Italian-inspired restaurant in front the Santa Cruz basilica. The owner and manager is a cool guy who spoke a little Italian and told me about his time as a sous-chef in Turin, Italy. He said, he brought back all original recipes and decided to open this restaurant. Starting from the name, which isn’t appropriately an Italian name, I think he can upgrade his game a bit. The pizza was very similar to the ones at Pizza Hut or at least I guess so as I never entered one in my life. Spaghetti were overcooked but the sauce, oh the sauce! was (almost) like my mum makes it. The guy imports gorgonzola, prosciutto crudo and many other delicatessen from Italy, so it’s well worth a visit, but there is (lots of) room for improvement.
If I didn’t know that San Francisco was were the “airbnb movement” started, I would have thought that Kerala and Cochin in particular, were was it all began. In fact, in this region there are plenty on option to try and taste homestays (exactly as in the airbnb model)!
We spent some time in Kochin, so we had the time to taste and try different levels and options.
LUX – Old Harbour Hotel
A fabulous 300 year-old building, built in Dutch style with Portugues influence, it was once used as a residential home for employees of English tea-broking firms, before being left unused for some time and then turned into a monument. It is only recently it was turned into a stunning hotel. The change and restoration kept great attention to most of its original details and features like the beautiful façade.
COMFORTABLE – The Pod Homestay
A delightful, simple, extremely clean, A/C homestay in the centre of the fort run by a wonderful couple. She is Japanese and he’s Indian, they have a daughter and they all live downstairs with his parents. We celebrated Diwali with them with fireworks on the rooftop. This is why homestay is better than hotels (#justsaying!)
BUDGET – Happy camper
A very cool hostel right at the center of the main roundabout in Fort Cochin. Beds in dormitories go for Rs500 which considering that some cheap double room go for as little as Rs800 make it look like an akward option or at least only very convenient for the solo traveller. (Note: hostels aren’t very popular in India yet, it’s an up-and-coming slice of the hospitality sector that is growing fast, but perhaps, not fast enough)
Munnar and the Surroundings
As mentioned above, a trip to Kerala wouldn’t be complete without a visit to the tea plantation. So, make sure to arrange your trip there. Ideally, arrange this trip on your own if you have plenty of time in your hands or just arrange it at one of the various kiosk you will find in the fort.
Whatever you decide, make sure to visit/see the followings:
- Eco point on Mattupetty Lake
- Attukkad Waterfalls
- Tea museum, a visit here is necessary to understand the area and also how tea ended up in India.
- Top station (on the walk up, make sure to stop and taste some of the traditional fruits of Kerala especially the tomato of Munnar: a perfect blend of tomato and a strawberry. Then get some passion fruits, guava and maybe some carrots too.)
Top Tip: Don’t stay in Munnar but in one of the beautiful homestay in the middle of the tea plantations.
Varkala & The Coast
To finish off your visit to Kerala, nothing is better than a few days filled with Ayurveda massages and yoga lessons at sunrise and some fresh fish by the seaside in Varkala. Its dramatic red cliff and the surrounding lush green coconut forest make it the perfect holiday spot for local and international tourists as well as a permanent magnet of expact who settle here to train as yoga teacher or Ayurveda practitioners.
While in Varkala, don’t miss your opportunity to have some gorgeous avocado-based dishes and great coffee at Coffee Temple!
* God’s Own Country: as the Kerala Affairs Office explains “According to Hindu mythology, Mahavishnu’s sixth incarnation Parasurama fought back the advancing seas. He threw his axe (paraśu) from Konkan to Kanyakumari and the sea gave way, giving rise to present day Kerala. In recent years the phrase has been adopted as a slogan by the tourism department of the Kerala state government in India as people started to explore more places outside the traditional tourist spots.” (http://www.keralaaffairs.com/gods-own-country-kerala/)
** C(offee)R(ead)E(xplore)E(at)D(ream): everything you need to know in one simple CREED 😉