It was 7 am when the train pulled in to crowded Bangalore City Junction. A 450rps ride took us the 7 klms to the Springs Hotel and Spa, a pretty swish establishment for us but at 2900rps cheap by UK standards. We’ve learned from experience that it doesn’t pay to go too downmarket in the big cities, particularly if you’re expecting to spend some time in the room as is likely when you’re passing through. We’ve stayed in some real dives in the past but those days are over.
The real draw of this place though is the location, a few minutes’ walk from the Lalbagh Botanical Gardens. That’s another thing we’ve learned over the years. A green space in a big city is the best way to while away the hours. Besides, these gardens have the largest collection of tropical plants in India and though they don’t quite live up to the guidebook’s description of India’s Kew Gardens, we loved the place. At the entrance gate is a signboard saying: ‘ Lalbagh has been called the lungs of the teeming metropolis. So breathe long and deep. The oxygen here is free.’
We had a leisurely walk in the cool of the evening taking in the rose garden, glass house, bonsai, the impressive collection of trees and the Brahminy kites swooping over the lake. Others were there to keep fit. Unsurprisingly it’s a popular place for power walkers and joggers. Whilst there were some attractive displays of flowers and shrubs, (the Jacaranda and Frangipani in particular we’re lovely) what made the visit memorable were smells and sounds: fragrant blossoms, some familiar and others unknown, and the delightful birdsong. There are over 45 different species in the garden apparently.
So, at 5pm we set off with a manic tuk tuk driver through the manic traffic back to Bangalore City Junction station for (as it usefully says on the ticket) the 6.45 Eranakulum Express Train No 12684, total distance 625 kms, scheduled to arrive at 06.05 at Eranakulum Junction South with Side Upper and Side Lower bunks in AC2, one Senior Male, one Senior Female, total price Rs 1600 – or about £8 each for the best seats on the train.
We arrived at the Aroma Homestay in Fort Cochin at 7 am and, despite being dragged from their bed to answer the door, our hosts Joseph and Elizabeth gave us the kind of warm welcome that online reviews had suggested we could expect and which had brought us there.
Located in a residential area near the Pattalam Market but within walking distance of the seafront and main sites of the town and with a community life of its own, the Aroma Guesthouse was a good choice. We enjoyed the traditional Keralan breakfasts prepared by Elizabeth and the time we spent talking to her and Joseph about their lives and their family.
Fort Cochin may not be to everyone’s taste but we dawdled happily around its relatively quiet streets, shaded by the huge spreading rain trees, stopping for a drink in the cafés and tea shops and looking at the art exhibited in locations around the town as part of India’s second Biennial.
In the mixture of Portuguese, Dutch and British architecture that line the streets there’s evidence everywhere of its colonial past and its importance as a trading centre for spices, tea and coffee. The Portuguese came here to trade in 1503 and Vasco de Gama died and was buried in St Francis Church, the oldest European church in India.
In Jew Town in nearby Mattancherry, a 40rps tuk tuk ride away, we explored the dilapidated former spice and ginger warehouses along Jew Road, some now converted into shops selling spices from the sacks of star anis, turmeric, long pepper, cinnamon, cardamom, cloves and many more that we did not recognise. Such abundance! Such wonderful smells!
On this, our final evening in Fort Cochin we went to see a performance of the Kathakali, the Keralan dance drama telling the story of Shiva, Parvathi and Arjuna from the Mahabharata. The audience were invited to arrive early to watch the process of putting on the elaborate make-up for the characters. The performance itself was a thrilling spectacle of colour, histrionics and frenetic drumming. Dinner followed, pumpkin soup, a really mean Meen Moilee, the Keralean speciality of fish in fragrant coconut milk, and mutta kuzhalappam, coconut filled pancake.
Tomorrow morning we’re escaping the 100+ degree heat and heading for Munnar, the hill station in the Western Ghats – and the tea plantations.