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Sunday, 23 November 2014

COCHIN WITHOUT THE BACKWATERS





Many of our acquaintances expressed some surprise when we told them that we were going to spend 12 days in Fort Cochin ('Cochin'). They thought that we would get bored, and suggested that we left the place for a few days to see the Backwaters or some of the Keralan nature reserves. We did spend 12 days in Cochin, but did not follow our friends' advice. We discovered, as I hope to show, that there is plenty to see in Cochin and that, maybe, 12 days is not long enough. 




The climate in Cochin is hot and extremely humid. Therefore, it is best to take things at a leisurely pace; try to 'chill-out' (if that is possible in such a hot climate) rather than rush. Try to spend a lot of time eating and drinking - Cochin is full of lovely places to refresh body and mind (see my article about eating in Cochin by clicking HERE)




The place to which we kept returning at least once every day was the stretch of beach where the Chinese Fishing Nets operate. These nets were introduced to Kerala either by the Chinese explorer Zheng He (1371-1433) or by Portuguese settlers from Macau. A net stretched between 4 connected rods forms the base of a pyramidical structure. This is attached to a long lever which carries stone counterweights at its landward end. Periodically, the net is lowered beneath the water and left there for a while. Then a number of men, assisted by the counterweights, raise the laden net fom the water.




The contents of the nets consist mainly of the weeds that float on the water, and are emptied into crates. One of the fisherman sifts through the weeds looking for seafood (see below). Small, immature fish are chucked back into the sea, and anything that can be sold is sorted into containers.







One needs to visit the nets often to be lucky enough to see a net 'in action'. A path runs alongside the nets. Fisherman offer the passersby fresh fish, which they suggest you buy to take to nearby restaurants to cook. Other people try to sell a wide variety of products, mostly of little use! If all this activity is too much for you, there are more 'Chinese' nets to be seen across the waters on nearby Vypen Island



The ferry stations for Vypen are close to the Fort Cochin Bus Stand. You can use the foot passenger ferry (see above), which has a special 'ladies only, section at its stern, or the vehicle carrying ferry on which men, women, autorickshaws, two-wheelers, cars, and trucks, mingle freely.  The nets at Vypen stand facing those across the waters in Cochin, but without any crowds near them.



Vypen has a beautiful church that dates back to the Portuguese invasion of Kerala (see below).



An autorickshaw or bus from the Vypen landing stage will transport the visitor over a bridge across a stretch of water to Vallarpadam Island, where the twin-towered  Basilica of Our Lady of Ransom (see next 2 pictures below) stands in splendid isolation and attracts many pilgrims.






Returning to Cochin from which we hardly ever strayed, let us now look at some of Cochin's churches. Not far from the Chinese nets and almost opposite the grounds of the Fort Cochin Club - a fine example of British colonial architecture, which can be viewed by non-members through its gates, is St Francis Church.  Now a Protestant church, it was once Roman Catholic. It was built by the Portuguese. The altar which they installed (see below) is now housed in the fascinating Indo-Portuguese Museum (very well worth a visit) in the compound of the Bishop's Palace on Elphinstone Road.






Today, that altar has been replaced by a newer one. The general appearance of the church's interior is rather dull except for the hand-operated punkahs (ie. ventilators, see below)that are suspended above the pews.







Look out for the gravestone marking the resting place of Vasco da Gama who died in Cochin. His body was later taken to Lisbon in Portugal. The walls of the church and especially the estern end of it are lined with Dutch (see below) and Portuguese gravestones. 




Near to St Francis is the marvellously stocked Idiom bookshop. This is a booklover's paradise, but do not expect any bargains! 




The Basilica of Santa Cruz (see above), now a Roman Catholic Church, stands further away from the coast than St Francis. Its interior (see below) is nothing special but worth visiting briefly. For those who like attending masses, they are available in Malayalam, English, and also Latin.



However, the church is located close to a  truly wonderful Italian restaurant called Upstairs




St Peter and Paul is a less visited church, but most interesting. Located in Tower Road, it serves an Orthodox Syrian  congregation. It is said that the Syrian Orthodox Christians in India began worshipping  in the Orthodox rite following their conversion by St Thomas in 52 ad. Whatever their origins, these Christians worship according to rites that resemble those practised by Orthodox Christians in the Balkans and elsewhere in Eastern Europe. Over the centuries, the Syrian Christians in India have become divided into numerous different sects. Those that worship at this particular church in Tower Road look to a spritual leader not in Syria but somewhere in Kerala. 





The high altar of the church is hidden not by an iconostasis,  as in Orthodox churches in Europe, but by a curtain rather like that found in a theatre. The picture above shows this as found in St Mary's Orthodox Cathedral in Ernakulam. The church in Tower Road in Fort Cochin contains an interesting carved tablet (see below).





It is carved, so we were informed, in Syriac (a dialect of Middle Aramaic) script. The bible (see below) used in this church is bilingual - Malayalam and Syriac. I hope to write much more about this fascinating church in a future article.





Another church well worth visiting is St Lawrence at Edacochi, which can easily reached on a local bus (see below) that starts at Fort Cochin bus stand.





This attractive Roman  Catholic church was established by the Portuguese in the 16th century. Close to the weed covered waterway, this church has a lovely white-painted facade and a bell tower with 'arabesque' features.







When we visited it, a christening was in its final stages (see below). The congregation were very friendly and some of them spoke with us afterwards.





Regular buses connect Edacochi with Mattancherry, but the latter can only be reached by autorickshaw from Fort Cochin. For many centuries, Mattancherry had a thriving Jewish community. Now, only a handful of  very elderly Jews live there. We met one of them - an old lady called Sara Cohen, who supervises the running of a shop (see below) selling woven material of Jewish interest (kippot etc.) There are not enough male Jews in the Cochin area to be able to hold services in the beautiful synagogue, which has now become a protected national monument.





The synagogue is well worth a visit.It has a beautiful floor covered by hand-painted Dutch tiles, each one a different design. The central bima made with brass is spectacular as are the many lamps that hang from the ceiling.




Many tourists swarm through the ancient synagogue, but it is worth sitting down and passing a few minutes inside. In between the bursts of visitors, it is a very peaceful place to linger. The synagogue is close to Jew Street, which ought to be renamed 'Kashmiri Street' as many of the shops lining this picturesque thoroughfare are now owned and run by people from Kashmir.






The Synagogue  is right next to the Mattancherry (Dutch) Palace (see below). This contains some interesting frecoes, but these and the other exhibits are difficult to see because of the crowds of visitors streaming through the place. Give it a miss if you are pressed for time!





Halfway between Mattancherry and  Fort Cochin, there is a delightful church with a Portuguese facade to be visited.





Its peaceful interior is quite decorative (see below)





Back in Fort Cochin, there are many more attractions. A small arch on Tower Road (near to the Tourist Police office) admits one to the old prison which is now open as a visitors' attraction.





On entering the jail's compound, you get to see a row of empty cells, whose doors open out onto a covered walkway. A number of photographs (see below for an example) commemmorate heroes of India's long struggle to become independent of the British.






Some distance away from the jail, and well beyond the vast grassy Parade Ground which is surrounded by a number of grand buildings dating back to Portuguese and Dutch times, there is  the Dutch Cemetery. This was closed when we visited it, but the gates permit a good view of its well-spaced funereal monuments. 







Even further away from the centre of Fort Cochin lies the Maritime Museum. Situated on Indian Navy Land, this place is a bit disappointing at first sight. But, do not be put off by first appearances! The grounds of this museum are filled with guns, weaponry, and other military hardware (see below). This is of limited interest in my opinion.







You should give the outdoor naval 'armamentarium' a cursory glance before entering the massive 'bunker' that contains the most interesting part of the museum.  This pleasantly cool bunker cxontains a number of extremely fascinating exhibits relating to India's many century-long history of military warfare. One part of this that attracted my eye was an exhibit about the tracking of a Pakistani submarine that plied between West Pakistan and what is now Bangladesh (formerly 'East Pakistan') during the 1971 Bangladesh War. 







There is another museum that must be visited. This is the Indo-Portuguese Museum, to which I have already briefly alluded. This is housed in the grounds of the Bishop's Palace (which is not open to the public). It has been handsomely endowed by the Gulbenkian Foundation and contains a good selection of exhibits dating back to the period during which Cochin was a Portuguese 'possession'. The pair of doors illustrated above make a fine entry to the exhibition space. The door lock, illustrated below, is one of many fascinating exhibits.





It contains within its complex designs the following religious symbols: a Hindu trident, an Islamic Crescent, a Christian cross, and Jewish candles. It summarises Kerala's religious diversity. Another curious exhibit is a statuette of St George and the Dragon (see below). St George in this depiction looks remarkably like Indian representations of Lord Krishna.





While the Indo-Portuguese Museum is a contemporary structure housing 'heritage' items, David Hall, which faces the Parade Ground, is a 'heritage' structure that houses contemporary objects.







Its external appearance (see above) reminded me of Dutch constructions that I saw when visiting the Cape Province in South Africa (see an example below).




David Hall is a Dutch construction. It contains a number of room used to house contemporary artworks: paintings and sculptures. The largest of these is used occasionally as a performance space. We were fortunate to have been able to attend a concert given by a jazz ensemble visiting from the Netherlands. The concert was so popular that some of the audience were forced to stand outside and peer through the windows (see below).





Fort Cochin is full of 'heritage' buildings, some of which date back several centuries to the times when the Portuguese and Dutch ran the area. By wandering slowly through the streets of Port Cochin, the visitor will gain plenty of views of these, some of which contain rooms that serve as accommodation for tourists and other visitors. One one of these buildings I spotted the sign of the Dutch East India Company (see below).





The road that connects the Fort Cochin Bus Stand with the Ernakulam ferry station, Calvathy Road, contains a number of  so-called 'heritage' buildings of varying degrees of interest. The slightly dilapidated Aspinwall's  building (see below) is used as one of the exhibition places during the Kochi-Muzhiri Biennale, which is next to be held from December 2014 until March 2015.





Aspinwall and Company Ltd has been involved with commercial activity along the Malabar Coast since 1867 when it was founded by an Englishman John Aspinwall. Almost opposite this building, there is a small shack in which I spotted a large  portrait of Che Guevara (see below), This and the many hammer and sickle signs that can be seen all over Cochin remind us that many people in Kerala have socialist leanings.






Greenix, further along the road, was described to us as being 'unmissable'. It describes itself as a 'cultural art centre promoting Kerala's varied art forms under a single roof '. It might well live up to its claim but the unfriendly and unhelpful behaviour of the staff on duty when we visited it put us off exploring it. The Pepper House, which is across the road from Greenix makes a pleasant contrast.  This old building contains a large, peaceful inner courtyard (see below), at one end of which there is a pleasant café.






The building, which is also used during the biennale, houses a privately owned magnificent library of art books and DVDs. The collection that is open daily for members of the public to use rivals many universitys' collections of books on contemporary (and older) art. 






Back in town, not far from the Fort Cochin Bus Station, stands the luxurious Brunton Boatyard Hotel. Its website describes the building that houses as being a  'recreated period building ' , the period being the 19th century. It is worth wandering around its extensive lobby in order to view the fine coollection of portraits (see above) and old maps (see below) that line its walls.





I hope that by now you are, dear reader, beginning to understand how we were able to spend so long in Fort Cochin without having to make excursions to undoubtedly fascinating stretches of the Backwaters or to nature reserves. Spend lots of time in Cochin, relax and make your own discoveries!






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Sunday, 16 November 2014

EATING IN COCHIN




When we informed our friends in Bangalore that we were going to spend 12 days in Cochin (in the Indian State of Kerala), they all wondered what we would find to do there for such a long time. "Ah, well," some of them said, "you can always spend a few days on the backwaters or in a nature reserve. That would help the time pass nicely."  Despite advice such as this, we managed to find plenty to do in and around Fort Cochin without having to leave it as our friends suggested. 





One of the things that we particularly enjoyed in Cochin was eating. This small city is well provided with restaurants, many of which serve food - both Indian and European - of the highest quality. In 12 days, we had plenty of opportunities to sample the fare on offer in this delightful, laid-back historic town. I plan to make your mouth water by describing some of the many places that served us food. The opinions expressed in this article are entirely my own and completely unbiased by inducements offered by the establishments to be discussed.





There is a line of 4 restaurants along one pavement of Tower Road opposite the grounds of Delta College. They look rather like the beach-side 'tavernas' that I used to enjoy visting in Greece during the 1960s and 1970s. At any time of day or night, it is impossible to walk past them without being solicited by the people who work there. Even if you tell them that you have just eaten, they will encourage you to take your next meal there. I had never eaten at Maxim's in Paris, and thought it would be interesting to sample Little Maxim's, one of these pavement restaurants in Cochin. Sadly, it was one of the least enjoyable places that we patronised. There was nothing wrong with the food, but it lacked interest. The restaurant's prices were no less than other establishments that we visited, which had better food and more pleasant ambiences.




24 hours later, we ate dinner in one of the best places that we discovered in Fort Cochin. The Old Harbour House is located in a beautifully preserved building that was probably built by the Dutch several centuries ago. It has an internal courtyard (see above) and a lovely walled garden where meals can be eaten. Costing little more than Little Maxim's,this restaurant is blessed with a chef who learnt his craft in Italy. The seadood pasta (see below), which I ordered, was second to none, even some of the splendid pasta that we had sampled earlier in the year in Sicily. My wife had a superb Keralan  fish curry.  On our second visit to this restaurant we drank wine, but now this may no longer be possible as Kerala has just become a 'dry state' in which the serving of alcohol is severely restricted by law.




The Old Harbour House is not the only place that serves excellent pasta in Cochin. Located on the first floor of a building opposite the Santa Cruz Basilica, Upstairs is an Italian restaurant, Its owner was trained to cook in Genova in Italy, and the food that he serves shows much eveidence of this. Both the pastas that we tried and the one pizza were superb - well up to the standard of most good restaurants in Italy.






Upstairs calls itself a 'jazz café'. Diners are regaled by an endless stream of recorded jazz music, which is not unpleasant. An Italian who spends several months a year working in Cochin  confirmed our opinion of the high quality of the Italian food served here, but his only criticism was that he did not think that they used extra-virgin olive oil! On one of our visits to Upstairs we shared a table with a young lady who reccommended that we tried the nearby Fusion Bay RestaurantWe did as she advised, but were disappointed. This pleasant looking restaurant is very popular, but we  did not find that the food was as high a quality as many of the other places where we ate in Cochin. Equally, Talk of the Town,  which is opposite Upstairs, was  not worth revisiting.




David Hall (see picture above) is a building built by the Dutch, and looks like many of the houses built by the Dutch settlers in the Cape of Good Hope (South Africa). Beautifully restored and preserved, this has become a cultural centre. Some of its rooms house works of contemporary art, and the largest of these is used occasionally as a venue for performances. We were lucky enough to attend a fine jazz concert there. Behind the building there is a garden. On one side of this there is an open air café covered by a canopy. This restaurant serves food and drinks. Its kitchen is provided with a pizza oven (see below). The pizzas that I tried there were not as good as that which I ate at Upstairs, but they were quite acceptable and better than many pizzas that I have eaten elsewhere in India.




Other offerings from the menu at David Hall are best avoided. Whether or not you plan to eat at David Hall, it is a place that is well worth visiting in Cochin. David Hall is located at the side of Fort Cochin furthest from the bus stand and various ferry stations. Between the bus stand and the ferry landing stage where boats to Ernakulam may be boarded, there are a number of eateries of interest. The 'poshest' of these is Brunton Boatyard. The two places that we looked at here were the groundfloor bar-cum- restaurant, which is reached by walking along a passageway lined with fascinating old maps of Cochin (the one shown below was dated 1663), and another much fancier place upstairs called the 'History' restaurant.




The ground floor place has an outdoor garden overlooking the lagoon and with a view of distant cranes at the container terminal on Vallarpadam Island. Incidentally, it is surprising that the two most luxurious hotels in the area - the Brunton and the Taj Vivanta on Willingdon Island - have rather spoilt vistas rich in industrial objects. The filter coffee served in the ground floor café was pricey but excellent. Feeling peckish on one occasion I ordered a 'beer slider with bacon' (see below). This was beautifully presented but disappointingly prepared - poor in taste and not good value for money. The History Restaurant has an elaborately written menu, but offered little that could not be obtained elsewhere in Cochin at a fraction of the price. Each main dish cost more than a decent meal for 2 or 3 people elsewhere in the town.




The Cochin Fort restaurant is directly across the road from the Brunton Boatyard. It is a lively, popular place set back from the busy main road. On arrival, we were invited to look at the freshly caught fish on display and if we had wanted we could have selected specimens that caught our eye. We ate a good meal during an exceptionally heavy rain storm.




The fish peera, a dryish preparation of fish with cococonut, was delicately flavoured and delicious. The fish moilee was also excellent as were the prawns prepared in a north Indian way. The Aleppy fish curry was tasty but not as good as the other dishes that we ate. 'Continental' and Italian dishes were also on the menu but our hosts did not reccommend these.




Further away from the bus stand and almost opposite the rather disappointing Greenix exhibition of Kerala arts, crafts, and traditions, there stands the Pepper House. Like the David Hall already described, Pepper house is both an eatery and a cultural centre. The café overlooks a peaceful and very beautiful grassy courtyard. We sampled a Bombay Sandwich which was essentially a cucumber sandwich with a spicy masala - surprisingly tasty. The café serves a fresh lime soda laced with ground sarsaparilla root (see below). 





This curiously flavoured drink is both refreshing and enjoyable. The café is adjacent to a large room containing a magnificent library of  books on art - mostly contemporary - and a huge collection of DVDs of western 'art' movies. This library is open to members of the public, who are free to browse and read the books. There are also facilities for watching the DVDs. The library belongs to, and was collected by, Bose Krishnamachari, the director of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale that is about to begin in December 2014. 




The Fort House Hotel is close to Pepper House.  Its small restaurant, which is one of the best that we visited in Fort Cochin, is housed under a huge traditional palmleaf canopy (see above). 





We ate at this restaurant twice , as we did at Old Harbour House which is only just a slightly better eatery. The squid olarithu (see above) was perfect as was grilled fish. Other seafood dishes that we tried were also good. This is a very pleasant place to eat. 





One of our few visits to places outside Fort Cochin was to nearby Mattancherry. We entered a particularly unpretentious looking, rather shabby place opposite the bus stand and the entrance to the Dutch Palace. This was the Indian Hotel , where we ate beef biriani (see above). This typically Moslem preparation was one of the best birianis that I have ever tasted. Oddlly enough some of the other really good birianis that I have eaten were also made by Moslems in Kerala (in Calicut).





Returning to Fort Cochin, there are two cafés that deserve mentioning.  One of these is Tea Pot. This is housed in an old Dutch (or Portuguese?) house that used to be the home of a family.  The walls of this place are lined with shelves containing a large collection of teapots and kettles; they also hang from hooks above. The centrepiece of the place is a circular glass table supported by the upturnerd roots of a tree.




Drinks at Tea Pot are good as was the prawn kurma that I tried.  I cannot say the same for what I saw and sampled of the sandwiches and other food offerings. Nevertheless, the Tea Pot is an extremely pleasant place in which to linger. Nearby in Burger Street, there is the lovely  Kashi's. Filled with interesting works of contemporary art - mostly sculptural (see below) - and a good selection of art journals, this is a 'happening' place filled with visitors and locals.








Although the food that we saw being served at Kashi's did not look particularly exciting, the cold coffees and ginger lime sodas that we drank there frequently were second to none. There are many other cafés in Kochin, but the 2 that I have described are by far the best. 





The Cafe du Mahe is the restaurant of the Tea Bungalow homestay (see detail above: this illustrates the type of rainwater conducting chains found in buildings all over Cochin)), and is excellent. It is a little way away from the centre of Fort Cochin, but worth visiting.  We ate beside a swimming pool in the small garden surrounded on three sides by the hotel.





The grilled fish that we ate (see above) was exquisitely prepared. The vegetables accompanying the  fish were cooked to perfection lightly flavoured with garlic and celery leaves in a European manner. 




Back in the centre of Fort Cochin, close to the Chinese fishing nets and next to the Harbour House restaurant stands the Tower House hotel that is housed in a 17th century building. This establishment contains a restaurant that we tried to enter several times unsuccessfully. The rude watchman at the door put us off twice, and on another occasion it was closed because the cook was 'away'. I am glad that we persisted because when we did finally get to eat at the restaurant, the food was above average. We ate a light lunch consisting of an authentic tasting gazpacho, deep fried squids that were perfect, and a curious cheese croquette. This consisted of cheese sandwiches that had been coated with breadcrumbs and then deep fried; it was delicious. 




The Bright Heritage Hotel on Tower Road, where we stayed, also had a good restaurant, which serves non-residents as well as hotel guests. This is open to the outside under a canopy on the top of the hotel.  Everything was made from scratch when it was ordered. A team of 4 young cooks chopped, ground, stirred, and fried, once the order for a dish was given. The results were tasty. We particularly enjoyed a prawn and raw mango curry. The payasam (see above) served as a dessert made a great finale for  the good meals that we ate there.





During our only visit to Ernakulam, the modern city of Cochin across the lagoon from Fort Cochin, we were taken to have lunch at the beautifully restored old Grand Hotel on MG Road. It has a large dining room, which was filled with locals enjoying the excellent food served there.  We enjoyed several Keralan dishes - both seafood (see below) and meat - served with flaky Kerala parathas (see above).




In summary, Fort Cochin is not only a delightfully picturesque place to visit but also a wonderful place for gourmets. Both local dishes and European dishes of a high quality are available at reasonable prices in pleasant surroundings.



Spice shop run by Gujuratis in Ernakulam





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