December 31, 2007

Day 1: 19th December '07 – Fort Cochin, Athirapally and Sholayar

We reached the Queen of Arabian Sea - Cochin (or Kochi) on the eve of Google listing Kerala the most searched destination! (http://sify.com/news/fullstory.php?id=14577503) The weather was perfect at 23ºC and this season was definitely the best time of the year to visit Kerala – which has earned the title ‘God’s own country’ and we were here to check in person why it had won the label.

The second round of monsoon had come and left. The festivity of Christmas was in the air. The itinerary was a 8-day journey starting from Fort Cochin, through the backwaters, then up the hill stations and ending at the capital. And this is how it went for my wife and me.

We started the day at Fort Cochin (or Fort Kochi). This man-made island represents colonial India with Dutch, Portuguese and British presence in its own unique architectural way – bungalows, churches and forts.

Our first stop was the neo-classical Santa Cruz Basilica - built in 1505! Adjacent to the cathedral is the Bishop House. There was a volunteer who showed us around the basilica and elaborated on its history. A short drive away was The Dutch Cemetery, which was consecrated in 1724 and is located against the sea. Walk along the coast and you can spot the Chinese fishing nets – evidence that this was an ancient fishing hamlet. The nets operate even to this day.

Many old bungalows in Fort Cochin have been converted to heritage hotels. Our favourite was the Malabar House (www.malabarhouse.com)

A short rickshaw ride takes you to St.Francis Church – probably one of the oldest churches in India. This is where Vasco Da Gama was buried in 1524 – until his remains were moved to Lisbon.

Fort Cochin can be a treasure trove if you looking for handicrafts, antiques, paintings, sculptures, etc. – however hone your bargaining skills before venturing out. There are hundreds of shops selling wares for the art hunter. I did manage to spot a few good original paintings for as less as Rs.4,000.

Art Café’s are a must during a visit to Fort Cochin. There are many of them in the island like the Kashi Art Café (Chocolate cake and cold coffee for me please!). This is where culture vultures meet over a cuppa. The ambience in these art café’s is so vibrant and this gives the life and color to this island. There are events happening every evening in Fort Cochin – dance performances, kalaripayattu demonstrations, art workshops and music concerts.

The Jew Town in Fort Cochin is a very historical part of Fort Cochin. You walk into a narrow lane of Jewish shops and the street ends at a Synagogue, which was built in 1568. Photography is prohibited inside the synagogue.

Our last stop in Fort Cochin was the Dutch Palace – built by the Dutch and gifted to the Raja family of Cochin. Though photography is prohibited inside, the mythological murals depicting Ramayana and Mahabharata and portrait paintings of the royal family is breathtaking.

Fort Cochin has so much more to offer – culturally, spiritually and emotionally. We wished for another two whole days to spend here. We had to move on and reach Aathirapally waterfalls – a 2 hour drive from Fort Cochin.

Aarthirapally is located on the edge of the Sholayar forest range and the Chalakkudy river plunges more than 80 ft. at this fall. The walk to the fall is the most exciting part - a gradient path winding through a thick forest – the fall by itself is not a stunner. By the time we finished with the fall it was almost 6 pm. Then, after obtaining special permission at the forest range, we entered the Sholayar forest. This drive is not one for the weak-hearted. The forest is home to several types of deer, elephants, bears and leopards – besides several tribals who find home in these jungles. After a 3 hour drive through the black forest, we were lucky to spot deers against the headlights on 3 separate occasions.