My trip to Cochin last week began on a very positive note. I flew Jet Airways from Oman and got upgraded to business class. There’s nothing like Chicken Chettinad, bottle gourd dumplings poached in young shallots and a tropical fruit straddle to put you in the best of moods. When I walked out of the airport, the exuberant welcome I received from my friends was the sweetest topping of all.
The next day I went hunting for a Jewish friend’s family on Jew street and it turned out to be a lot easier than I had imagined, especially since there are only a handful of Jews left in Cochin. Moreover, this was Matancherry where everyone knew everyone else, except of course for the tourists who come here in quite large numbers.
Whether you’re looking for something or just browsing, a walk down Jew street is an experience not to be missed. The end of the street has the Jewish synagogue which was built in 1568 and has the most amazing Cantonese floor tiles in faded blue. The great scrolls of the Old Testament (Torah) are given pride of place on the altar, while old-fashioned Belgian chandeliers hang from the ceiling. Photography inside the synagogue is prohibited.
The shops that line Jew street sell everything from Kashmiri shawls and fabrics to silver jewelry, handicrafts and spices. The prices that are quoted are on the higher side so it’s best to bargain.
Other places of interest in Matancherry are the Dutch Palace Museum and the Jain Temple.
Next we went to see the Chinese Fishing Nets at Fort Cochin. The nets are cantilevered and fixed and the fishermen periodically lower them for the benefit of the tourists, that is, when there are no fish to catch. They are believed to have been brought from the court of Kublai Khan and erected at the Cochin harbor between AD 1350 and 1450.
Not far from the fort is the St. Francis Xavier Church which in different periods of time was Roman Catholic, Anglican and Dutch Reform. Vasco da Gama was buried here in 1524, but his remains were transferred to Lisbon 14 years later.
Fort Cochin also has The Santa Cruz Basilica, which houses some beautiful paintings, the Indo-Portuguese museum and the Dutch Cemetery.
We also took the Sunset Cruise on the Sagara Rani (Queen of the Sea) boat. Costs 300rs per person and sails around the coastal backwaters of Kerala for two hours. Refreshments and entertainment are part of the package.
The boat is owned by KSINC – Kerala Shipping and Inland Navigation Corporation. The lower deck has an air-conditioned conference hall. Since ours was the evening cruise we sat on the upper deck to get the best possible views of Cochin city, the harbor and of course the stunning golden sunset.
Shopping in Cochin is great. Silk sarees, cotton fabrics, aromatic spices, eucalyptus oil and of course tea and coffee. Those who live in the Middle East are well accustomed to shopping at the Lulu Shopping outlets which are found mainly in the UAE, Oman, Kuwait, Bahrain and Qatar. The owner of the Lulu group of companies, Yusuff Ali M.A. hails from Kerala and has pulled out all the stops to make the Lulu shopping mall in Cochin the biggest and best in India. Definitely worth a visit, though not on a weekend.
Onwards to Munnar
Distance from Cochin to Munnar – 130 kms via NH85
Time (we drove in an Innova) – 3 hrs 30 mins (approx.)
The drive took us through the western ghats and when we neared Munnar we were treated to a magnificent view of the Kanan Devan hills. The mist covered green slopes of the tea estates were a sight for sore eyes. The air was crisp and clean. There was no rain, which meant we had clear views of the mountains and valleys.
We stayed at the Copper Castle Hill Valley Resort. It is managed by the ABAD group of hotels (www.abadhotels.com). Double superior room costs 7000rs (excluding taxes). Clean, comfy and spacious, all rooms have a view. Breakfast is included and was excellent.
The Eravikulam National Park, one of the main attractions in Munnar is the home of the Nilgiri Tahr, an endangered species of mountain goat. Though we stood in line for about 30 minutes and went to the top in the buses provided, we did not get to see the Tahr. Later, we were told it was breeding season and the tahrs had gone as far away from the tourists as they could:) Still, we got to see the highest peak in South India, the Anamudi which towers over the park at a height of 2700m. Again, the view from the top was spectacular.
From the Eravikulam National Park we drove about 13 kms to Mattupetty, crossing the Mattupetty bridge and storage dam. The Mattupetty lake is situated in the centre and its still waters reflect the greenery of the tea plantations that surround it. Speed boats and pedal boats are available for hire.
Munnar is essentially a paradise for Chai lovers. There are more than 50 tea estates here, the most famous of these are Tata Tea, AVT and Brooke Bond. There is a tea museum too which is found at the Kannan Devan Hill Plantation at the Nallatanni Estate.
Other parts of the Idukki district where Munnar lies, grow the Robusta and Arabica variety of coffee. Spices that are grown here include cloves, cinnamon, pepper, nutmeg, vanilla and cardamom.
Our driver who is a native of Munnar invited us to his home where we had the most perfect cup of delicious hot cardamom tea.
We also stopped at the Top Station in Munnar (about 35 kms from town), which is at an elevation of 6,170 ft. It lies in the Kottagudi Valley and has two different viewpoints (one of them called the skywalk) that offer the most spectacular views of the western ghats. To get to the viewpoints you have to pay a nominal fee. Trekking fees are higher but can be purchased at the same counter.
We managed a short stop at the Echo Point yelling at the mountains and getting yelled back in return.
From Munnar we drove to Thekkady which is at a distance of 110 kms, about 3 hrs drive. Unfortunately it rained quite a bit on the way and this put a spoke in our carefully laid out plans. We decided against going to the Periyar lake as with the onset of rains there would be nil chance of seeing animals there.
Instead we improvised and visited the Kadathanadan Kalari Centre to watch the Kalaripayattu show. Kalaripayattu is the oldest form of martial arts which originated in Kerala and demands dedication, extreme discipline and devotion.
The centre charges 200rs per person. The seating is in two rows in gallery fashion so that everyone has a clear view of the performing artists below. Definitely a show worth watching. More here http://www.periyartourism.org/
On our way back to Cochin, we stopped to see the famous statues of Kuravan and Kurathi at the hill station of Ramakkalmedu. Apparently Kuravan and Kurathi were two historical figures who helped to find the location for the Idukki dam.
Their statues were built in 2005. From this location it is possible to get a panoramic view of some of the villages of Tamil Nadu. Unfortunately when we reached the top it started raining and the mist more or less obscured the view of the villages. But Kuravan and Kurathi were silently impressive in the mist.
St. Alphonsa’s shrine and pilgrim centre is located in Kottayam, Kerala and is worth a visit.
Kudamaloor was our last stop where the ancestral house of St. Alphonsa lies. It has been preserved as a museum and has a chapel and meditation centre on its extended premises.
Best time to visit Cochin – Between October to April
June to September – Heavy monsoon season
Events of interest to tourists
Indira Gandhi Boat Race – Last week of December
Cochin Carnival – Last week of December
Jewish Hanukkah Festival – November/December
Kathakali – Story play genre of art, performed in dance form with elaborate make up and costumes. More on http://www.kathakalicentre.com/
Kerala has 3 international airports at Cochin, Kozhikode and Trivandrum. The new T3 International Airport at Cochin (phase 1) will be inaugurated soon.