Life & Style

The traveller who followed the sun

“Iceland is an island, as big as Kerala with a population of three and a half lakh people. It has volcanoes and glaciers high mountains and vast wilderness. It is a beautiful country, but as different as can be from green and fertile Kerala. I love both places dearly. I have the best of both worlds” says Thora Bergny, architect and hotelier, who first came to Kerala in 1998.

The Icelander has spent over two decades between these two diametrically opposite worlds, running a hospitality enterprise in both.

Thora runs a guest house in her native small village, Seydisfjordur of 650 inhabitants in a deep fjord on the east coast of Iceland, were the sun disappears behind high mountains four months every year, from November to February.

Though the dark and quiet winter has an appeal of its own, she was tempted to move towards the sun. So when a friend suggested she travel with her to Kerala in 1998 Thora jumped on board.

To cut a long story short, she fell in love with both land and people and came again the following winter — this time with a group of Icelanders.

“The first years I hung out around Kovalam and Trivandrum, but in 2003 I had an architectural project running in my home town, renovating an old bank building and turning it into a hotel. Earlier, I had been impressed with the fantastic antique markets in Mattancherry so I managed to convince my clients that this was best place to source the most fabulous décor for their hotel,” she says.

Finding a secret garden

In 2003 she travelled to Kochi and packed a container of antiques, furnishings, furniture and textiles to send to Iceland. On that trip a life changing event took place. “A knock on the door in my humble room in Burger Street. A rickshaw driver that I had been driving with that day found my cellphone under the seat in his tuktuk. He took the trouble to track me down to return my phone. I was impressed, so I asked him if he was free the next day.”

He was, and since then Faizal Abdul Khader has become her dearest friend, instrumental in Thora’s daily life in India. Through the years they have taken on many projects together.

He was her “go to” man when she decided to make a Mongolian Yurt for her guest house, ‘Hafaldan’, in Iceland. When Thora and her daughter-in-law established an Indian art and craft shop in Seydisfjordur, Faizal introduced contacts, acting as interpreter, guide and project manager.

He also found her a home in Kochi. “When I saw Peace Cottage I knew this was it, I could see with my architectural eyes that this place had potential,” says Thora who converted the house into a four bedroom “tiny-hotel”, blending traditional and contemporary architectural styles. She opened it as Secret Garden in 2007 later adding more rooms, a pool and a Yoga area.

Through all these experiences Thora’s relationship with Kerala and its people grew. “I got to know a lot of people and saw incredible craftsmanship. I find this one of the most fascinating things about India. Artisans can make almost anything by hand,” she says pointing to a recently made stained glass window in her hotel.

It’s has been more than twenty years since Thora and Faizal met, and the partnership has been mutually beneficial. As they worked together to establish her businesses in Kochi, he matured as a professional entrepreneur and was able to improve livelihood prospects for himself and his family.

“Without Faizal none of this would have been possible” Says Thora. He was my connection to a world that I had no knowledge of ...”

The small tranquil hotel “Secret Garden” has bloomed and prospered through both soft and rough times. A steady stream of travellers find their way to Secret Garden now. “They hear about us and seek out our small, secluded hideaway,” says Thora. Faisal manages the property while she is in Iceland.

“I realised quickly that I could not change India,” says Thora, explaining how she ended up finding a home in Kochi. She adds, “But I could allow India to change me.”

Recommended for you
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Aug 14, 2020 8:49:42 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/icelander-thora-bergny-and-her-little-hotel-secret-garden-in-kochi/article30870093.ece

Next Story