Friday, 10 February 2017

The Mistress Of Spices - Travels To Goa & Beyond


Fourteen hours after boarding the sleeper train we pulled into Ernakulam Junction in Kerala. I know what you're thinking - fourteen fecking hours, that's longer than it takes to fly from the UK to India - but seriously, travelling by train is one of the great Indian experiences and, until you've tried it, I honestly don't think that you can say that you've truly seen India. Of course, we could have flown but that would have cost us around £300 as opposed to the £20 we paid.


We hailed a tuk tuk and 15 minutes later (approx. £3.50) we arrived at our accommodation, Kapitan, a heritage home stay in the historical quarter of Fort Cochin. December had been a bit of a disastrous month for tourism following Indian Prime Minister Modi's decision to withdraw the 500 and 1000 rupee notes from circulation virtually overnight and so we were able to negotiate the room rate down to £10 a night.


We've been to Kerala twice but the last time we visited Fort Cochin was almost a decade ago (27th December, 2007 - the day Benazir Bhutto was assassinated) and, as we were on a tight schedule, we only spent a piddling 24 hours there. We decided we needed to do it proper justice.


Our first port of call was the old district of Mattencherry, a cluster of red-tiled riverfront wharfs and pastel coloured godowns (warehouses), once the colonial capital's main market area and the epicentre of the Malabar spice trade. 


 With most of their original owners moving abroad, many of these buildings have lapsed into an advanced state of disrepair. 


Spices have been traded from Kerala's ports for more than two thousand years, before St Thomas the Apostle introduced Christianity here in 52 AD. In an anonymous Alexandrian text written in the first century AD it was recorded that the Romans sailed here with holds full of flowered robes, eye-liner....mica and wine (which sounds a bit like my suitcase) and returned laden with spices, monkeys, tigers and elephants but pepper or "Malabar Gold" was always the prime commodity. Pliny the Elder (23 - 73 AD) complained that trade was draining the imperial coffers of Ancient Rome.


After the decline of the Roman Empire, Arab merchants used their considerable navigation skills to monopolise the spice trade which they then continued to do so for centuries that is until the arrival of Vasco da Gama in 1498 who, after spotting the potential, helped the Portuguese obtain the permission of the Raja of Cochin to open a trading post here in 1503.


After surviving many bloody encounters with the Arabs, the Portuguese eventually lost out to the superior naval strength of the Dutch who took control of Cochin in 1613 who in turn, following the Battle of Colachen in 1741, were ousted by the Raja of Travancore with control being taken by the British. The port was upgraded in the 1920s and become the richest harbour in South India but, after Independence, her fortunes declined sharply leading to the dilapidation you'll find today. 


Modern Cochin still prides itself on being a major centre for gold trading, shipbuilding and spices. In the ten years since we last visited there's a real sense of change in the air and, as you'll discover in my next post, the Cochin district council have come up with an ingenious way of utilising these wonderful old buildings.


Despite Cochin being a major tourist destination Western tourists in Mattancherry are few and far between, seemingly to prefer to spend their time in the cafes and restaurants of Fort Cochin fiddling with their phones.




Each godown specialises in just one commodity, pepper, red onions, bananas, cardamon, cinnamon, ginger, tea, coffee, vanilla and as you pass, the smell is intense.


Goods are still transported in the old fashioned way, by manpower. This chap made the whole process look effortless, no mean feat when it's touching 37°. Although Goa isn't much cooler, Kerala is a lot more humid and the sweat runs down your back in rivulets. Definitely not conditions conducive to taking attractive photos of ourselves. Still, with so much going on in the street who needs gormless selfies?


If you turn the central heating on full, whack on a few layers of thermals and stick your nose in a tub of pepper you can scroll through these photos and experience the street of Mattancherry for real.

























It seems like a lifetime ago since I was warm. It's been snowing on and off here since we got back and the breeze is positively Baltic. Hopefully tonight's curry should warm us up - providing we don't contract hypothermia on the bus there.


We're trading with Judy's in Bethnal Green on Sunday (details HERE). It would be ace to see you and we promise not to bang on about our trip too much.

See you soon!

PS See the full set of Mattancherry photos HERE

83 comments:

  1. Once again, I love your pictures. That blue door is beautiful! So many textures and colours. Wear that strappy dress - and have a rum and coke to keep you warm.

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    1. Thank you! I'm glad you enjoyed them. I'm a sucker for an ancient door! x

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  2. I could smell the spices - great colour - it makes me want to go there.

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    1. You should, Fi - it's a wonderful place! x

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  3. I was only thinking today what a horrible contrast it must be for you and Jon after all that warmth and sun to come back to freezing cold and snowy England.

    Dilapidated is the perfect word to describe the sights in your pictures but so interesting. I loved the child in the tin bath/pot! The sacks of spices were wonderful. Do you know what the curious looking reddish discs were?

    Hope you have a very busy day on Saturday - at least you'll keep warm!

    xxxx

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    1. I'm not sure what those discs were, I was intrigued by the shells, too.
      The weather was a right old shock to the system! xxx

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  4. You've illustrated your excellent narrative with wonderful shots Vix, love the child in the pail, the forlorn puss, the colour and decay. The mention of Pliny the Elder made me smile, my dad's always going on about him. Have you seen the new ITV Indian drama? (set in Kerala I believe, but actually shot in Sri Lanka) Only seen one episode but don't think it's my bag.xxx

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    1. Thanks, Fiona!! I can't resist a scruffy tom or a child in a bucket!
      I'd forgotten about that ITV drama, I saw it advertised before we went. I'll try and catch up with it. At the moment we're hooked on Taboo! xxx

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  5. I never tire of seeing the colours and textures of India and there is something so exciting and inspiring in the crumbling buildings and painted signage. It's such an intriguing place I can see why you keep going back xxx

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    1. You might regret saying that - there's hundreds of photos to come!!! xxx

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  6. Such evocative photos. I couldn't quite smell the pepper, and we've got the heating on but it's still a bit chilly (a few snow flakes in the air today!), so I'm aware I'm not getting the full experience. I'm still massively enjoying these posts though! Is it wine o'clock yet? Why yes, yes it is. Have a good weekend, stay cosy xx

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    1. Yes, it's been very snowy here, too. What a contrast!
      Can you believe I still haven't opened the wine I got for Xmas? Thanks for reminding me. Tom Hardy in Taboo and some chilled Rosé could be just what the doctor ordered! xxx

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  7. I think monkeys and elephants are a far trade for eyeliner and wine! I just love all the colours, so vibrant.

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    1. Might push me over the baggage allowance though! xxx

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  8. I'm in much need of a vacation, and your India posts are the closest I'm going to get right now, so thank you! It's snowing and blowing over here too, although it's been a relatively mild winter over all. Glad to have you back.

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    1. Gah, same here! I thought we'd missed winter. Serves me right for being smug! xxx

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  9. Fabulous pictures, I love the one of the baby in the tin bath! hubby is getting interested in your blog too now as we aim to visit India next year!!!!

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  10. This whole blog was divine! I would love to go there just to fix up the houses to their original design (granted it may hurt my bank account a bit!).

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    1. Thanks, Tracie! What I'd give for an Indian passport so i could buy a few of those properties! xxx

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  11. The colors with your description of the warmth makes me long to travel.

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    1. You'll have to go one day, I'm sure you'd love India. xxx

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  12. Hi from Australia, I love your blog but tend to lurk. We spent January in India and a week of it was in Kerala, they are not wrong when the describe it as God's Own Country. Your photos are just wonderful, the colours, the textures, I can almost smell the spiced air. Thank you Vix for your wonderful blog and travel adventure.

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    1. Lovely to hear from you, Lynette! Kerala is absolutely magical. xxx

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  13. Wonderful post, Vix. (And a local cat too!)
    Zxx

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  14. high heat, lots of humidity, minus the spices and it sound like my town in summer. Even in their falling down state, the buildings look beautiful.

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    1. Ha! I'm living in the wrong place! xxx

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  15. Lovely photos, I love the colours even though it looks run down. Still beautiful. Xxx

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    1. Thanks, Jess! The light in India really does these colours justice. They'd look wrong in the UK. xxx

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  16. Oh how I love your posts on India. Not only do you always share beautiful photos that make me feel like I might just be there, you always have a history lesson to accompany them. I will probably never make it to your India so I thank you and look forward to more of these posts.

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    1. Thanks, Sue! I'm glad you like reading them, I love writing them! xxx

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  17. lovely post, fabulous pictures, I love all the colors, and the historic background, all those ages of spices trading. The atmosphere looks amazing (even if 37ºC is not really my cup of tea)
    Sorry about all that cold and snow at home!, spring is coming (I'm repeating this like a mantra!)
    besos

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    1. I hope Spring is coming! It's only been 6 days and I'm already so over boots, coats, gloves, hats and scarves! xxx

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  18. We really enjoyed seeing these photos. My kids paternal ancestors came from this place.

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    1. I'm thrilled that you enjoyed the post, Karen. Any chance of you taking to kids to visit the land of their ancestors? xxx

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  19. I have yellow cat like that...I've thought of taking a train trip to see my son in Oregon.
    Coffee is on

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    1. I loved that cat, he looked like he had the weight of the world on his shoulders!
      Do the train trip. I bet it's loads cheaper than flying. xxx

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  20. The Indian Railway is definitely the best way to see India! Not the most glamourous mode of travel but comfy with everything you need on board- toilet, snacks, chai, meals, souvenirs for sale, , magazines for sale, a bed AND you can walk about & chat with people!

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    1. Yes, yes, yes!! It's got all you need - friendly folk, excellent food and non-stop entertainment! I've even mastered the squat loo now. xxx

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  21. Seriously the best armchair traveling...every time! A dear friend just got home from a two week trip to Goa...a painting trip...and I'm anxious to catch up with her. It really does look magical!

    Thanks...ALWAYS...for sharing your journeys with us!

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    1. Oh, a painting trip! I can't imagine a prettier place to do that! xxx

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  22. thank for the excursion into the spice trade and history of kerala! you made gorgeous photos! love the hardware store :-)
    you look sweet and comfy in the overnight train! <3
    stay warm! xxxxx

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    1. Happy that you enjoyed the tour! xxx

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  23. Oooh it looks so wonderfully atmospheric and vivid! I absolutely love seeing sacks of spices and chills, anything like this is so memorizing! I like train travel too!!

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    1. Train travel in India is the best! xxx

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  24. Fabulous pictures! Yay, Bethnal Green - let's see if I can make this one! :) xx

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    1. Thank you!! We're back on 2nd April. xxx

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  25. You're back! I absolutely adored reading your post. I can hardly wait for the next instalment!

    Stay warm!

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    1. Thanks, TP! This weather is a bit of a shock to the system. xxx

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  26. There is something about the care worn appearance of the buildings which gives them a great beauty in your photos. I was chatting to an Indian chap who lives in the UK when we were walking today and he loves the UK at this time of year because of the verdant greens of the woodlands even on a grey day in the Winter. He actually doesn't like the heat when doing the summer walks the group organises. It is always amazing to see different cultures even if it's remotely through the travels of others! Arilx

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    1. That's funny that your Indian fellow walker doesn't enjoy our heat, isn't it? Many Indians we meet in the South talk of how they'd love to experience snow, there's even a snow theme park opened in Goa so locals can play in the artificial stuff! xxx

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  27. This is the most beautiful and emotive post Vix.

    I just lurk these days and rarely comment but I so admire your lust for exotic travels in India. Cx

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  28. This is the most beautiful and emotive post Vix.

    I just lurk these days and rarely comment but I so admire your lust for exotic travels in India. Cx

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  29. It looks so beautiful! I think the smell of pepper would be too much for me though, I have such a strong sense of smell. I didn't realise you would be in London today, I'll see if I can try and make it down before I go out later xx

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    1. You'd be sneezing for England!
      We're back in Bethnal Green on 2nd April! xxx

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  30. Now sipping hot chai while studying your marvelous photos and remembering Proust's remarks about how encountering a specific scent has the power to transport one to a different time and place. Cinnamon reminds me of my grandmama's Hoosier cabinet; freshly ground coffee, a gigantic overstuffed sofa in a college town apartment.

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    1. Ahhh, the power of smell! I bought Jon a fragrance from Lush after I read the description comparing it to the scent of someone's Grandfather's wardrobe in his Delhi mansion. xxx

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  31. Such amazing colours - love the photo of the blue doorway. I have a thing for doorways! xxx

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    1. Doorways, peeling paint and bicycles propped up against walls - my camera is always full of them! xxx

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  32. I love the photos but also the way you write about it, it brings it alive. I love the vibrancy of the colours xxx

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  33. In spite of the state of disrepair of the colourful old warehouse or maybe because of it, I find these photos very evocative and of a timeless beauty. Your description tickles the senses and I can almost smell the pungent spices and feel a trickle of sweat down my spine, although that could be hot flush coming on ;-) I would wilt in such temperatures! Being back in the UK at this time of year, must be quite a shock to the system! xxx

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    1. There is something magical about the decay and dilapidation, isn't there? I suppose the bright colours and blue skies add to the charm.
      Oh for some of that sweltering heat right now. I wish I could bottle it! xxx

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  34. What wonderful photos! So much texture and colour. Must have been stunning to experience in real life.

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    1. It was! It took us an age to walk anywhere, so much to admire on every street corner. xxx

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  35. Such a fascinating and beautiful country, Vix! :)

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    1. Can you see why I'm addicted to India? xxx

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  36. Great pics, I loved the adventure (I couldn't smell the spices but as far as temperature goes, I'm living that one - humid and hot here (yesterday was 42!!) today a delicious high 20's. You'll stay warm with your memories and curry, I'm sure. All the best for a fabulous year. xx

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  37. Brill! I wouldn't say no to a 14 hour train trip ...as long as it wasn't in the UK that is! I do love your adventures and look at all the colour. I love the decay as well. Nothing as inspiring as a bit of peely paint. Look forward to the next instalment.
    Loves ya!
    xxxxx

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    1. We'd be bankrupt if we splurged on a 14 hour train trip here! xxx

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    1. I want all the cats in India! x

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  39. Bah! My laptop just ate my comment. Never mind, these photos are utterly gorgeous and so evocative of place and time. I can almost smell the spices and the colours are so vibrant. Those decaying buildings are so poignant and look so lovely, who could fiddle with their phone when they could be wandering here? I also love the cat and your psychedelic skirt. Thank you for cheering up my grey day. Xx

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    1. Glad to be of service! Its hard to think that we were only there a couple of weeks ago, it feels like a lifetime after the past week's weather! xxx

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  40. So many things to see! My head is reeling at all the colours; it must be positively psychedelic once you factor in the heat, sound, and scents of the spices.

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    1. It's incredible, it really is. No surprise that by 10pm we're fit for bed, a non-stop assault on the senses. xxx

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  41. LOVE the photos of the decaying buildings - still so colourful. This post is so much better than any travel show. xx

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    1. Aren't they fantastic? There's something so magical about decaying buildings. xxx

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Love from Vix
xxx