We probably got off at the wrong station. Ernakulam has two stations and our train was supposed to go to the southern one – but it stopped at the northern one when it wasn’t supposed to. Unsure whether it would also stop at South, and with nobody around to ask, we decided to play it safe and quickly grabbed our gear and jumped off. Better a slightly longer taxi ride than being carried off to who knows where the next station was.
Except there were no taxis – reluctantly we accepted a tuk tuk, but as he had a roof rack for our backpacks the 45 minute ride to Fort wasn’t too uncomfortable, and the roads were good – if Bapu had put our bags on his roof they’d have bounced off before we’d travelled 100 yards. Finding our accommodation was a bit challenging – it was down an unnamed alley off a minor road, and the website simply gave a house number and ‘near Bishop’s Palace’. If it wasn’t for Google I’m not sure we’d ever have got here – at least we were able to give the tuk tuk driver a rough idea of where to start asking directions.
Fort has changed quite a bit since our last visit about eight years ago – there are far more guesthouses than I remember, and the inevitable Kashmiri souvenir shops. There is however a serious shortage of licensed restaurants.
This morning we walked all the way from the Chinese fishing nets along the coastal road, through the old godowns where brightly painted trucks still load up with sacks of rice, chillies and other spices to Mattancherry, where there is an old synagogue surrounded by Antique shops. Being Saturday the synagogue was closed, but as we’ve been twice before it didn’t rally matter. We went into a large antique shop just to browse – the shop was large and so were the antiques – pillars, doors, a 50ft long boat. Not things that would slip readily into your luggage, but they would look great in a big house, and probably a bargain even after the cost of shipping is added. The Jewish population left en masse for Israel in 1949, and the antique trade grew around the furniture they left behind. They also make new stuff here – some lovely wood and cane armchairs were being constructed for a hotel in Zanzibar.
After a lunch of veg cutlet and lemon soda in a cafe overlooking the street, we took a tuk tuk back to Fort to track down a restaurant that we had heard sold beer. The place round the corner where we ate last night was both beerless and uninspiring, and enquiries at a place we ate on our last trip suggests that ‘special tea’ (ie under the counter beer, which might actually be served in a teapot) is not as common as it used to be. This is not good news. We had passed a few licensed places on the way to Mattancherry, but they looked as though they would challenge our budget. The XL appeared more in our league and we went in for mid afternoon refreshment. The menu looked reasonable too, so we planned to return for dinner.
Unfortunately a lot of other tourists had discovered that the XL is the only reasonably priced licensed restaurant in the neighborhood – it was packed, even though people keep telling us that tourist numbers were way down, only about 10% of what would be expected at this time of year. Fortunately someone was just finishing, so we didn’t have to wait long, and the food was very decent.
A large chunk of the following morning was spent trying to get train tickets. I couldn’t understand why there was no ‘book now’ button for the tatkal tickets I wanted, and thought it was because I’d exceeded my quota (you’re only allowed to book 10 tickets a month, to thwart touts) – Mr V couldnt log in to his account, and you can’t create a new account until after 11:00am. Or book via Cleartrip until after midday. I feared we might have to go to the station all the way back in Ernakulam, but then discovered that tatkal tickets aren’t actually released until 10:00am. Predictably, trying to log on to the IRCTC website at 10:00am was impossible – it took 15 minutes for the site to respond, and by the time we secured tickets more than 20% of the tatkal quota had been sold. Good thing we didn’t wait until this afternoon!
We then had a wander around Fort looking for something vaguely resembling a supermarket, but failed miserably. They must exist – we found ones in Chaudi and Udupi, and this was a much larger city. I’m not talking Tesco Extra, just somewhere that sells a decent range of biscuits, loo rolls and maybe mozzie repellant. A small Co-op kind of place. But nada.
On impulse we decided to hop on the ferry to Ernakulam – boats are always good fun (provided it’s calm) and at fourpence a ticket, chugging around Cochin harbour is a pleasant way to pass the time, although Cochin harbour is more impressive than picturesque, being vast but with many oil terminals etc. Walking around Ernakulam on a Sunday lunchtime – not so pleasant. Mostly shut, in fact. It probably didn’t help that we had no map and no idea of where we were going, and consequently found ourselves in Clothesville – shop after shop, mall after mall in fact, of clothes shops, only half of which were open. But we did find a nice air conditioned cafe in a mall that served an acceptable toasted cheese sandwich (barely warm and with just faint brown lines on the bread, but that’s the norm) and the best cappuccino to date.
So back to the ferry – for some reason the ticket office was now thronged, but as is often the case, the ladies’ queue was only a fraction the length of the men’s. There are probably few advantages to being a woman in India, but the separate queues, designed to protect women from being molested under the cover of jostling for service, is one of them – the women’s is almost always shorter.
Back on the peninsula we cut straight inland from the jetty, following a canal in what we hoped was the right direction, until by sheer luck we found ourselves near the guesthouse and within striking distance of a promising looking cafe that we had passed a few times. The Teapot lured us with tea and cake, and didn’t disappoint – the large slab of chocolate fudge cake that was placed before us was really big enough to share. Unfortunately we’d ordered one each. What a shame…
Back at the Lazar Residency we gathered up our belongings and shifted them to the room next door. We were only told that morning that we’d have to move as other guests needed our triple room, but it wasn’t really a problem – our new room was smaller but we had use of a sitting area and fridge, and the bed was more yielding. And our hosts were so sweet and helpful (even offering to book our rail tickets via their own account if all else failed) that it would be hard to complain about anything really. On our last visit to Cochin we stayed in a place called the Delight, but this place was far more deserving of the name.