Fort Kochi’s quietude is a respite for those seeking to escape madding city crowds. What’s not to like about its hipster cafés, Instagram-worthy Chinese fishing nets, and narrow lanes festooned with colonial-era homes?
But the stories that the town’s lifelong-resident David Lawrence loves start in a different time. “Until the early 1990’s, Fort Kochi was strictly a residential area.” For a kid growing up in the 1960’s, life was organised and simple, he adds. “Four schools, a playground, and general stores were a stone’s throw away.” It was not until the 1970’s that provisional shops and restaurants were introduced in Fort Kochi.
Families like his made their way to Parade Ground in the evening, where children played cricket, football or hockey, or simply cheered for their favourite local club. The four-acre space is still the largest ground in town and was once the site of military parades and drills conducted by the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British. Today, it is a barren patch.
To Lawrence’s relief, not all his old haunts are lost. On Sunday, he would set out on a leisurely stroll down Princess Street, Rose Street and Burger Street—all bustling with residences of the Anglo-Indian communities. Eighties music wafted from the windows, along with the aroma of freshly made curries. Most owners have sold the properties and settled abroad, but the 63-year-old still drops by for strolls. It has bronze stucco walls and peeling plasters, and the structures now house cigar shops, souvenir stores, art galleries and cafés have altered it. Loafer’s Corner—a popular meeting place at the confluence of Princess Street, Peter Celli Street and Bastion Street— is a good place to sit down for coffee, fresh juice and homemade cakes after a walk.
Lawrence’s favourite food is his wife’s home-cooked meals. “I come home and complain after eating out because the flavours have been adapted to the Western palate,” he chuckles. “I like my spices.” Of the few joints that do justice to the region’s cuisine, Lawrence loves Oceanos, a garden-view restaurant which serves great seafood. Fusion Bay, known for its Syrian-Christian delicacies, is also a must visit. It has lip-smacking fish preparations and good vegetarian options too. Fort House, the restaurant at the eponymous family-run hotel, offers waterfront views and delectable prawn mango curry on the menu. The Old Harbour Hotel, a 300 year-old building with Dutch- and Portuguese-style architecture, serves dishes made with organic produce and fresh catch from the sea owing to its proximity to the Chinese fishing nets.
Lawrence often covers the area’s biggest landmarks on his walks. The Mattancherry Palace (Dutch Palace) lies three kilometres from his house (in Kochi), but he likes to take in the double-storied structure that’s home to a fine collection of murals from the Ramayana and Mahabharata. The 16th-century St. Francis Church, believed to be India’s oldest existing European church, is also the burial site of Vasco da Gama before his remains were moved to Portugal. “The road down takes me to the Dutch Cemetery. It is a very cultured locality.”
Lawrence was one of the first residents to open a homestay when backpackers began flocking to Fort Kochi. Delight Homestay, a 250-year-old Dutch bungalow, opened its doors in 1994 to welcome European tourists. “We did not have Indian travellers visiting at that time,” says Lawrence. When they eventually did, the town experienced a tourism boom and opened more homestays. Luxury hotels mushroomed and international flights came soon after. It became a Rubicon for contemporary Kochi; locals began talking of a “before” and an “after.” But no matter how much Fort Kochi changes, Lawrence says he has never tired of his seaside home.
Pooja Naik is Senior Sub-Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. She likes to take long leisurely walks with both hands in her pocket; channeling her inner Gil Pender at Marine Drive since Paris is a continent away.