Time Flows Backwards in Fort Kochi

Fort Kochi's Dutch, Portuguese and British heritage lives on in homestays that offer cosy nooks, great food, and a strong sense of time travel.  
Fort Kochi
Delight, possibly Fort Kochi's first homestay, ups the ante with a snow-white facade and a quaint picket fence. Photo by: Antony B.M.

Stippled with bungalows inside lanes with blooming bougainvillea, Fort Kochi has held on to its watercolour charm for over a few hundred years. In the quainter parts of the port town are more winding lanes with buildings in chrome yellow, cool mint, white, and lavender. Fort Kochi’s history is checkered with long periods of colonisation—by the Portuguese (1503-1683), the Dutch (1683-1795), and the British (1795-1947)—which gives the region its distinct Indo-European character.

While most of the larger bungalows in the area have been demolished to accommodate a covey of contemporary structures since Independence, a handful still exist in their original glory. These structures, most of them around 300 years old, have been restored and turned into homestays. The concept of homestays took wing in Fort Kochi around 25 years ago to offset the expenses that went into maintaining the properties. In turn, tourists, especially those from outside the country, discovered that homestays offered them an intimate experience of the region’s history and culture; their time with the local property owners and families an interesting alternative to traditional hotel stays.

Here are four colonial-era homestays in Fort Kochi, huddled not very far from each other—all at walking distance from the town centre.

 

The Dutch Delight

A perfectly manicured garden, hemmed by a white picket fence, leads you to the two-century-old Delight Homestay. Possibly Fort Kochi’s first homestay, the red-stone-and lime-structure has been run by locals David Lawrence and wife Flowery David for the last 24 years. Flowery’s ancestors bought the property from a Malayali gentleman from Kottayam in the late 1940s for Rs4,000.

Delight started out as a backpackers’ haven when there weren’t many cheap hotels to choose from, reveals David. Soon the eight-room Dutch bungalow was teeming with backpackers sleeping in every corner of the house—some even camping in tents on the rooftop. This, of course, left the place overcrowded, with no room for the couple’s two kids to run around. David then decided on a smaller setup, with only six rooms open to the guests. Four of these are heritage rooms while two are contemporary. The house has a buttress instead of a boundary, high ceilings, and walls that are two feet thick. The wooden flooring has been restored and the living room displays handmade wooden furniture. The beams of the Kerala-style roof, I learn, are as old as the building. Concrete sit-outs accompany large windows that look out at a quiet lane, its characteristic calm laced with the occasional tinkle of bicycle bells.

Every year, the facade is painted a pristine white. David tells me that his favourite thing to do is take care of the house. It is not hard to see why.

(1/662 Ridsdale Road; 9846121421 doubles from Rs2,500, including breakfast.)

 

A Home for the Hummers

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Spencer’s quaint little garden will make you feel like you’re in an Enid Blyton book. Photo by: Antony B.M.

Standing across the sprawling Parade Ground, The Spencer Home makes for a magisterial structure—only natural for a 360-year-old building. Run by M.J. Johnson, who bought the property about 28 years ago, the building was turned into a homestay two decades ago. Call it aesthetic, call it eccentric, but the ancient-yellow documents of the property agreement, framed for display on a wall inside, do underscore the from-another-era vibe of the place.

The house is resplendent with colonial archways, high ceilings, and restored wooden roofs. Although most of the building, including the wooden teak doors, has been pre-served well, the flooring has been changed for a contemporary look. The main structure has been extended to accommodate extra rooms for the homestay. There are four heritage rooms in the main bungalow and a backdoor that leads to the courtyard, which is surrounded by the seven rooms of the newer section. Each room comes with a coffee table and chairs laid out to offer a relaxing nook. But don’t hole up quite yet, for breakfast is served in the main dining hall, an impressive affair involving steaming idli, set dosa, sambar, appam, and stew, or alternatively, sausages, eggs and porridge, if you are craving continental.

As I take a walk around the property, Sanskrit chants drift out of a room. Caretaker Madanan C, fondly known as Madhu, holds raga meditation sessions every day at 6 in the morning and evening. A trained Carnatic music vocalist and percussionist, he also offers lessons in singing, tabla, and mridangam. Should you choose to volunteer, Madhu is happy to indulge in a session of jugalbandi.

(www.hotelspencerhomes.com; doubles from Rs1,000, including breakfast.)

 

Charmed at Chiramel

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Chiramel’s salon doors, salmon walls, and plush couches make it an ideal spot for an afternoon of quiet reading. Photo by: Antony B.M.

On Lilly Street, one of the prettiest lanes in Fort Kochi, stands Chiramel Residency. The historic bungalow is special for its lofty arches and large windows. Inside, a narrow corridor doubles as a verandah, with a couple of coffee tables in tow. A creaking old staircase leads you to a living room with shiny teakwood flooring, a distinct shift in style from the Chinese porcelain mosaic flooring at the entrance.

The house, built during the Dutch rule and later renovated by the British, has 22 rooms, eight of which are let out by owners Asha Anna Abraham and husband Abraham Mathew. Abraham’s grandfather had bought the property from an Englishman 75 years ago. The bungalow, now over 250 years old, is painted a soft blush pink, a refreshing change from the staple pristine white facades of most homestays. Chiramel’s walls, I notice, pose a wonderful contrast to the flamboyant royal blue upholstery on the rosewood couches and chairs.

Abraham left his job at a French bank in Doha, Qatar, to take care of the property in 1987. Since then, the friendly couple has been making patrons feel at home with their wholesome Kerala breakfasts, easily swapped with continental dishes on request. Swinging salon doors, four-poster beds, and a closet full of books add to the antique romance. Outside, Lilly Street is a visual delight, luring guests out for aimless walks amid coconut trees and Dutch- and Portuguese-style houses. If you need a break from the south Indian fare, head to Dal Roti, a restaurant next door that serves finger-licking north Indian food.

(www.chiramelhomestay.com; doubles from Rs2,500 including breakfast.)

 

V is for Vasco

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Vasco Homestay has the old-world indulgence of four-poster beds and Portuguese-window balconies. Photo by: Antony B.M.

One of the oldest properties in Fort Kochi, Vasco Homestay is quite the neighbourhood grandpa at 500 years of age. It’s one of the houses that claims to have been Vasco da Gama’s home, until his death in 1524. Standing on the corner of Rose Street and Bastion Street, the cobalt-speckled structure is an obvious tourist magnet. That it sits behind the St. Francis Church, where Vasco da Gama was buried, adds to the aura.

Elements of Portuguese, Dutch, and English architecture make Vasco Homestay, functional for 24 years, something of an aesthetic wonder. Owner George Thom Santhosh confirms that 99 per cent of the house is of European heritage, barring some restored sections. Built with a mix of lime, mortar, and sand, the structure also boasts beautiful red stone tiles and an Instagram-worthy staircase. Built from stones brought in on ships from Kutch, the staircase was erected to balance out the weight of the house. As George and I perch on a built-in window balcony, he recounts how in the olden days, young women would sit at the spot to admire attractive passersby, sometimes even winking at the man of the moment. The small teasing gestures were all from a distance, as they were not allowed to be out on the streets.

There are two bedrooms in the house, one for the family and two that are let out, all of them spacious spaces with private Portuguese-window balconies and wooden furniture that are a century old. Downstairs, the couple also runs a travel agency that organises trips for guests. Next to that is the open-to-all Vasco Café, where the stay meals are served. Saif Ali Khan was spotted sipping a cup of tea on the café’s patio in the Bollywood movie Chef. I am told the house itself has been used in over 20 Malayalam films including Dulquer Salmaan starrer Solo and Mohanlal’s Sagar Alias Jackie: Reloaded. The traditional coffee shop has cream coloured tiles, olden teak wood-and-mesh office chairs, and a generous supply of sunlight, making it the perfect spot to people-watch. Need more incentive? George’s wife Sheeba makes fabulous set dosa, best enjoyed with a cup of hot lemon tea.

(www.vascohomestay.com; doubles from Rs2,500, including breakfast).

Essentials

Regular, direct flights connect Delhi and Mumbai with Kochi, while Cochin Railway Station (CHTX) is the nearest railway station to Fort Kochi. The town is connected to Ernakulam by ferry (ticket Rs4). The journey takes about 20 minutes, and is a lovely ride along the Arabian Sea. There is a ferry every hour from 6 a.m.- 9 p.m. daily. Fort Kochi is a 20-minute ride by autorickshaw from Ernakulam. All of Fort Kochi can be covered on foot, which is the most preferred way to see the quiet town; or rent a bicycle or moped and for longer distances, hire an auto-rickshaw.

  • Chandni Doulatramani is trying to hide somewhere on the fringe, swapping between the roles of an independent journalist and a writer. These days she can be found loitering around the streets of Calcutta, eating jhaal muri and thinking up stories to tell.

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