Whether it be known by Cochin or Kochi, this city is one of the major attractions for all visitors to Kerala. Given the reasonable size of the airport, it is inevitably a gateway to the region, but not all gateways are interesting in themselves, this is very much an exception.
It’s a fast growing place, and suffers from the usual problems that rapid city expansion in fast developing nations brings, but while this may seem to be a problem, for the visitor it provides an opportunity. One of the laziest tropes any tourist can pass on is that others should go to a place before it changes, yet there is often a kernel of truth provided it is understood what those changes mean. In most instances it describes increasing affluence, something which should be celebrated rather than lamented, but it does also imply greater numbers of arrivals as a location becomes better known and more easily acessible.
This is certainly true of Cochin, its historical importance over several centuries, whether to India or the waves of European powers seeking access to the spice trade and from there control over it, means that the old city is a fusion of different styles and attitudes, and one that is deeply attractive to tourism. There seems little doubt that it will increase over the coming years, and this will have an impact, both good and bad.
Certainly the waterfront is anything but sanitised, the degree of plastic and associated rubbish discarded is unpleasant on the eye and has an obvious environmental impact, but it’s also not hard to see how in the drive for increased tourism this is quite likely to change. There are plans already in place to ensure this is cleaned up and within the next few years the entire area may well be substantially different. Kerala is a highly educated and highly literate region, one where awareness of the issues at hand is high. Expect substantial changes.
Fort Cochin is the usual starting point for an exploration, and like so many places walking is the best way to see it. There is all too often a temptation to stay in the car and be ferried from site to site, but this never provides the feel of a destination, and certainly never allows for any interaction with those who live there. The Dutch construction of Fort Emmanuel overlooks the waterfront itself and provides the backdrop to the Chinese Fishing Nets that provide a sense of historic life.
The backstreets of old Cochin are a big attraction. Both picturesque and full of cafes and restaurants, they are quiet and peaceful, easily walkable and a long way from the busy nature of so many cities. They are also full of colonial buildings, many of which have been converted into hotels or rather grand residences, but there are also churches, mosques and synagogues, the oldest in India and even Asia, and in the case of the former, the resting place for Vasco De Gama for some years before the repatriation of his remains back to Portugal.
The Paradesi Synagogue is the oldest remaining in the Commonwealth, and forms the centrepiece of the area known as Jew Town. Historically, this was a market of streets focused on spices, and while this has largely disappeared, the area now is filled with antique (as opposed to souvenir) shops that are well worth browsing.
Near the synagogue is located the Dutch (or Mattacherry) Palace. Despite the name, it was constructed by the Portuguese – the Dutch later carried out modifications – and presented to the King of Cochin as part of the machinations to win the right to exclusivity in the spice trade. Photography is not permitted within, but the wall murals are astonishing and the relics from the various eras fascinating.
I had one night there. It simply wasn’t enough, and perhaps that’s the best expression of how likeable it is there can be.