Saturday, February 25, 2017

Kochi in the Times of Biennale



For visitors to Kerala, Kochi is a transit point. It's the city you take the train or flight to, before embarking on your journey to Alleppey or Munnar or wherever. But for three months every two years, Kochi becomes a destination in itself. From December 2016 to March 2017, Kochi is once again playing host to the Biennale Art Festival. Whether you love art and culture or are simply the curious kind and have a free weekend in March, I'm telling you to put Kochi on your travel list. Here's what you are missing if you haven't been to Biennale yet and how to make the best of it.

Let's start with our star attraction. Until March 29, the whole city of Kochi, and specially the Fort Kochi area, will be one big art gallery. There are 12 official venues but that's just your starting point. Spread all over Fort Kochi and Jew Town are plenty of other collateral events and venues. My favourite venue and the one I spent the most time at was Aspinwall House. Enough has been said already about the immersive experience called the Sea of Pain. Other installations are no less haunting.

There is Yael Efrati recreating the memories and textures of her grandparents' house in Israel



There is Naiza Khan showcasing boats from the journeys never made, recreated in the minds of artisans from Karachi.



There are layered paintings, memories of houses lived in and shared multi-sensory experiences that are going to haunt you the way only very good, immersive art can.

How long a trip should you plan? There are a whole lot of cultural and cinematic events happening around the festival and there are guided experiences that only happen a few times a day. Plus, taking in all the art at once can get a bit intense so you might want to spread it out. I would give it three days at least.

So I've done Biennale; what else is there?
Let's sort out the basics first. Kochi is spread out between the main city (Ernakulam) and the Fort Kochi area. You are better off staying in Fort Kochi because everything will be within walking distance or a cheap rickshaw ride away. Be warned though that most properties are old and you are more likely to get 'old world charm' rather than the comforts of a modern hotel. But no matter which hotel you pick, check and double check that they have great airconditioning. Kochi is hot and when you are done walking around the art venues, you are gonna need cold air and ice cold drinks to revive you.

Now that you have a roof and an airconditioner over your head, let's talk about what else you should be doing while in the city:

1. Walk Around: Fort Kochi is full of beautiful buildings. And I'm not even talking about the touristy sites like the Mattancherry Palace either. Just regular streets in Fort Kochi and Jew Town can take your breath away.



You should obviously walk to the shore and see the Chinese fishing nets that have come to define the Kochi skyline. But don't count on any life changing views here - you walk to the shore, you see the nets, you say okay and that's that. The other place I loved walking around in are the crazy, shopping filled streets of Jew Town.

2. Go to the city: From Fort Kochi, you can take a ferry or an uber to downtown Ernakulam. I loved walking on the marine drive and taking in the views. Kochi's not much touristy anyway and Ernakulam is somewhere few tourists get to. Which means that even at peak tourist season, on a weekend evening, we had the walkway and the views almost entirely to ourselves.

3. Eat: Fort Kochi has a whole lot of cute cafes and bakeries. You can find several of them selling the traditional Kerala plum cake and that's definitely worth a try. But I discovered Qissa Cafe in the 18 Hotel early on in our trip and pretty much made it my base.



This cheerful cafe was my point of call every time I was in search of a cold ginger ale or a late sandwich for lunch. They bake a mean carrot cake too. If you are in the city, however, look for Gokul near the Marine Drive. It's a chaotic local joint that serves snacks and meals and my favourite Kochi discovery - puttu kadala or rice flour cakes with chickpea curry.

My final suprise recommendation is actually inside a mall in Ernakulam. I had my final meal in Kochi at Calicut Paragon inside Lulu Mall and the rasam and the malabar parotas there were my favourite of the trip.



4. Shop: When in Kerala, you must buy spices grown in the area. You will see shops selling pepper, cardamom and cloves everywhere in Jew Town but on a local friend's recommendation, I went to the spice shop inside the bustling Lulu Mall (which also accounts for the lunch above). The spices here are fresh and nicely packaged. I would recommend buying all sorts of peppercorns - my favourite was dried green pepper - as well as the locally grown black and green cardamom, cloves, vanilla beans and allspice. These spices last forever if you leave them whole in the fridge and grind as you need them so you are sorted for at least a couple of years.

Go ahead then, plan that trip now. You won't get to see art that impressive until Biennale comes back to town in 2018.

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