Thursday, 2 February 2017

Fort Kochi - Confluence of culture

This was my first solo trip; I planned everything from scratch as I was determined to take this trip, no matter what. And I did exactly that. I got onto the train on an RAC ticket, in the General Sleeper compartment and lost the room I had booked two weeks before I left from Mumbai, but this remains one of the best trips I've ever taken. Read on to find out why...



I was lost. It was an ecstatic feeling. I had been craving for this feeling since so long I couldn’t even remember. It’s hard to describe it in words, but it’s like I didn’t want to be found, I wanted to dissolve into the crowd and become inconspicuous and at the same time feel free. Free to do what my heart desires, free to follow the unknown path. No phone calls, nobody you know—it sparks you to explore; it’s like writing on a fresh piece of paper, to fill it up with stories of exploration. So, I set out simply to explore a new world full of unknown pathways.

A forgettable train ride
My journey undertook a twist 24 hours after I was in the general sleeper compartment without a confirmed ticket (to think this would have been the problem!). According to the extremely ‘efficient’ Indian Railway website, my train was meant to reach Ernakulam at the end of 24 hours. So I deftly packed my bag and waited for the station to arrive. With a broad and rather relieved smile, I ask a co-passenger, “How long till Ernakulam now?” He calmly replies, “Another 12 hours.” I was dumbfounded. This wasn’t what I had bargained for. Grumpily, I consoled myself to sleep hoping this twist of fate is for the better.

I reached Ernakulam at four in the morning and since it was too early to check in to my homestay, I ended up at the Santa Cruz Basilica at 4:30 a.m. Originally built by the Portuguese in the 1500s, this cathedral was later destroyed by the British and rebuilt towards the end of 19th century. It was only at dawn, as the sun slowly peeped through the windows, that the frescoes across the walls and ceiling began to tell their story. My long silence was broken by the priest who started the mass in the local language, Malayalam.


The Santa Cruz Basilica

Ideal accommodation
At 6:30 a.m. after failed efforts to comprehend this unknown language, I started walking through the empty by-lanes of this harbour town. As the cool wind swept my face, I noticed the fluffy clouds above. Have you ever noticed how the clouds are different in different places? I always do. Closer, clustered together or spaced out wide and far, clouds look different in different cities. I also observed that Fort Kochi is overflowing with homestays; it is said to contain more than 100 homestays to fit every budget. A homestay is one of the best accommodation option to choose when visiting Kerala. Though I was fairly tempted to book one of the many Wayanad Resorts and tree houses I found online. Reason being, as I soon discovered, the locals whose house you live in are the most valuable source of information—unlike any travel guide—to see the town. In addition to that, you’ll be lucky to savour the local cuisine straight from their kitchen!

I picked Sithara homestay as my home for the next few days. The family’s warm hospitality and yummy delights made my stay truly wonderful. I specially recommend a homestay for women travelling alone; it’s the best and safest option.

A walk in the crowds
The next day I set out to explore this ancient Portuguese-influenced city. The best way to discover Fort Kochi is on foot. Walking along the many by-lanes allows you a glimpse at the string of colonial homes, vibrant cafes and restaurants that add to its cosmopolitan culture. One such café was the Kashi Art Café on Burgher Street. Started with the aim of creating awareness for art, the café displays paintings from various artists and also promotes exhibitions and festivals. A must visit for art lovers, the café offers brews from different parts of the world, in addition to a delectable platter of pastries and savouries.


Kashi Art Café
Another unique eatery is Teapot at Peter Celli Street. The cosy little joint speaks the story of a tea connoisseur: shelves with over 100 types of teapots fill the place, over 15 types of tea, ten of them flavoured, are served, piping hot or iced and besides Darjeeling, Assam and Nilgiris, the house blend features local teas from the region, even the tables are made of authentic tea chests with their stencilled writings proudly proclaiming, ‘Produce of India’. Pancakes, orange cake, chocolate cake and more scrumptious delights are served, along with the tea of your choice, making it a complete tea experience.




Teapot

From here, I headed towards the Old Harbour Hotel on Tower Road. Built in Dutch architectural style with Portuguese influences, this was the first hotel in Kerala. Later, it became a residential home to employees of English tea-broking firms, until it was left unused for a period of time. But proprietor Edgar Pinto decided to give people the chance to relive a glorious past and refurbished this heritage structure with the help of German architect Karl Damschen. The uniqueness of this colonial-style hotel lies not only in the architecture, but also in the way the rooms are named. The rooms are named after the many streets in Fort Kochi, such as Princess Street, giving it a homely touch.







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Old Harbour Hotel


In nearby Mattancherry
The next day I set out to visit a nearby town, Mattancherry. The pleasant weather prompted me to go on foot, as the distance wasn’t too much to cover. Mr. Harry John Bernard, owner of Sithara homestay, suggested I visit St. Francis Church at Parade Road. St. Francis church was the first European church to be built in India, in 1503. Vasco Da Gama died in Kochi in 1524 and was originally buried in this church for 14 years, before his remains were moved to Lisbon, Portugal. His gravestone can still be seen here. Another reason to visit the church are the unusual, antique hand-operated fans inside that comprise a plank covered with canvas and suspended from the ceiling, which works when pulled by ropes on either side.

Walking ahead, by the seaside promenade, I was intrigued by the famed Chinese fishing nets that work on the principle of balance. As the fisherman laid out these massive fishing nets, with the multi-hued sunset creating a wondrous sight, it made me think of the innumerable number of fish it can trap!

Chinese fishing nets 


After an idyllic walk through the many by-lanes, where I was greeted by smiling kids running around and chatting with me, I reached Jewtown. Swarming with tourists and locals alike, the market is lined with curio shops selling myriad kinds of items such as antiques, lamps, statues and more. Jewtown is the centre of the spice trade in Fort Kochi, so spices like cardamom, cloves and pepper are available in abundance. Shopping aside, you can also book a houseboat or a country boat and visit the backwaters in the market. You can also visit the Jewish Synagogue here, but it was my bad luck that it was closed, as it was a Monday. In Mattancherry, you can visit the Mattancherry Palace Museum, where nearly every relic has an interesting story to tell.  

The Jewish synagogue at Jewtown

A brief performance of Kathakali provided an insight into the rich culture of Keralan history. I also found out that Fort Kochi has a cultural bent as several new musicians, and the myriad facets of music they represent, are encouraged and given the opportunity to display their talents.
My trip certainly ended on a musical note, and I came back with several new friends as well as a set of new experiences, but the best part about it was that it turned out completely contradictory to my expectations and that’s what made it so memorable.

Fact file
By air: Airlines like Air India and Jet Airways offer daily flights to Kochi from across major cities. 

By rail: There are three stations in Kochi namely, Ernakulam Junction, Ernakulam Town, and Kochi Harbour Terminus, which are well connected to all major cities across India.

By road: Private and public transport services connect Kochi to all major cities. The Kerala State Road Transport Corporation runs the bus service in Kerala and it has a central bus stand near the Ernakulam Junction railway station.

Accommodation:
Sithara Homestay, House No. 1/308, Lilly Street, Fort Cochin, Cochin 682001, Kerala, India.
For more information, call 91 484 2215065 or e-mail: mail@sitharahomestay.com

For more information: www.keralatourism.org

Saturday, 12 November 2016

Drip coffee on the go

Photograph: Starbucks.com


One of the things I look forward to most when travelling is seriously good coffee. I like mine to be intoxicatingly aromatic, so strong it wakes me up and smooth like silk on my taste buds. But instant coffee powders find it hard to match up to the magic of filter coffee. Lucky for me, I found the perfect coffee companion to take with me when I travel. Meet Starbucks' Origami--a single serve personal drip coffee alternative. You simply need to place the filter on the mug, pour hot water over it and voila! Strong, aromatic drip coffee in an instant.

While they aren’t yet available in India, hopefully you can find them on your travels. I found these in Thailand, and I hear they are available in Japan as well.

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

Your road trip planner - GoRoadTrip.com



My earliest memory of a road trip is of being packed into a Maruti van with my cousins singing along to popular Bollywood numbers, whilst eating chips and drinking Rasna. It was a fun time; our group was large and loud; the roads were bumpy; and the stopovers were many. We even did a few road trips in those mid-sized tempos and Swaraj Mazda buses sometimes. As an adult, the meaning of road trips changed a little. Family turned into friends, the music changed from Bollywood dance beats to slower tunes by the likes of Coldplay and Jack Johnson. But one thing never changed. The joy of riding on endless roads. The changing scenery as we cross state lines, the often hilarious sign boards, and the camaraderie of good company.


One of my most memorable road trips was the Mumbai-Delhi-Mumbai route. I had never imagined getting to Delhi via road, it turned out amazing. We had stopped over at Udaipur, Pushkar, Ajmer and Vadodara on the way; exploring the cities. We even saw a donkey run nervously across the highway road. The trip was an unexpected surprise. The other road trip that I will never forget is one I did from Srinagar to Leh and onwards to Manali. The dramatic changes in scenery that went from arid desert to snow-covered mountains, the kind people we met, the ramshackle tea stalls with piping hot Maggi-it was truly a journey to remember.



But many people I know have yet to embark on a journey that leads to the open road. Some have reservations because they don’t know where to begin their planning or how to effectively plan their trip. That’s where Go Road Trip comes in. I found this useful tool that helps people plan in detail and customise a road trip of their choice. From selecting the route to figuring out what kind of attractions you want to see on the way (be it heritage, beaches, wildlife or more), the timings of your chosen attractions so that you don’t end up there when it's closed, good restaurants on the way, how many kilometres are to be covered and many more minor details. There are around 75,000 road trip itineraries generated by over 27,000 users To choose from. Once you’ve customised your trip, you can download it and hope in your car!

*This is a sponsored post