Fort Kochi and Mattancherry Best for Culture and Architecture – My first port of call at Fort Kochi, as we get off the ferry, is ‘my house’. There it is, sitting on a grassy patch that slopes downwards from the New Sea Wall. The simple, Portuguese-style villa façade has two curved, turret-like corners into which a round dining table would fit perfectly, and French windows that look out beyond the Chinese fishing nets to the sea.
The house has belonged to me (or rather, my imagination) since I first visited this tiny island off Ernakulam, which holds more objects of interest in a square meter than the biggest Indian city.
One day, perhaps, I will really own it. For now, I can only gaze at it and the row of lovely, similarly-built villas that line the New Sea Wall, and silently thank whoever is responsible for giving Fort Kochi its heritage zone status, which protects its Jewish, Portuguese and Dutch buildings, the wide, canopy-forming rain trees on the Parade Ground, and the sweet charm that defines Fort Kochi.
Fort Kochi is one of the handful of islands, which, along with the mainland – Ernakulam – makes up Kochi. Larger in comparison to its sister islands but still pocket-sized, Fort Kochi has such an array of sights, restaurants, art galleries and antique shops that you’re likely to waste time just deciding where to go. But mornings in Fort Kochi belong to the Kashi Art Café. There are a few interesting eateries that have sprung up in the area that we’re willing to explore as lunch or dinner options, but Kashi Art Café offers the best breakfast menu: inch-thick slices of buttery toast, fresh juice and peace.
Sleepy afternoons are perfect for diving head-first into the cool, dusty world of antique shops that line the streets of Jew Town, but morning is when you should see the best of Fort Kochi – its architecture. Start at the New Sea Wall and walk till you get to the dilapidated but atmospheric.
Dutch Cemetery. Then head down Church Road to St Francis Church, India’s oldest, whose elegantly simple façade is a far cry from the comparatively new Santa Cruz Basilica, with its gilded interiors, lofty ceiling and magnificent stained-glass windows.
Mattancherry, at the other end of the island, is more obviously touristy, with antiques stores and art galleries lining the streets. There are more touts here as well, but that doesn’t take away from its charm. The Dutch Palace is a chunky building with a plain exterior and stunning frescoes within. You’ll probably find yourself lingering in the 400-year-old Paradesi Synagogue to admire its willow-patterned Cantonese tiles, Belgian chandeliers and golden pulpit.
We walk back to Fort Kochi via fragrant Bazaar Road, whose dingy spice shops are made vibrant by the pungent potpourri of smells they release, telling you the story of Kerala and how this began over a handful of pepper, making Fort Kochi the ideal start to a Keralan odyssey. We linger in Fort Kochi for a few days, following our noses through its network of lanes that never fail to surprise before we somewhat reluctantly move on.