Pondicherry, for the longest time, was an item I was itching to tick off on my bucket list. This little French nugget, far too small for an Indian town is located on the East Coast of India, close to Chennai, a bustling metropolis in South India. It’s history is fascinating. Having been set up by the French, captured by the Dutch, recaptured by the French again, and finally, destroyed by the British, this Union Territory merged back into India in the 1950’s. For people who’ve never been to France, this is the closest one can get until you find your way to the land of croissants and exquisite wine.
Another thing that piqued my interest – the societal divide based on caste, whose lines have seemingly blurred today, but were starkly visible a few decades ago. Starting with the name ‘Villa Blanche’ or White Town where the colonists resided, and ‘Villa Noire’ or ‘Black Town,’ now called Heritage Town, where the bourgeois lived. A canal (that now looks like a drain) divides the two right down the middle.
Unlike most tourists who book their stays in White Town or Auroville, I chose to stay in Hotel Annamalai, a refined 3 star hotel in Saram. You see, as a digital marketing consultant who works uninterrupted while I travel, I needed space, connectivity and comfort to work, especially during the scorching afternoons in Tamil Nadu. On reaching Pondicherry, I rented an Activa, which cost Rs. 300 a day, and allowed me to ride to White Town in under 10 minutes, and Auroville in half an hour.
My days of ambling through Pondicherry began earlier than 8 am, when the sunshine was still mellow. Much like Goa, the snoozing lanes were lined with pastel coloured bungalows and pretty pink bougainvillea flowers spilling over the walls. However… reality check! This isn’t what the entire town is made up of. There is also a fair share of charmless concrete buildings where the poorer section of society lives.
The French Riviera of the East also boasts of impressive churches – some distinctly European in design and colour and just a kilometre ahead, bright gaudy ones that are characteristic of South India. Both are fascinating places to visit in their own right.
Many evenings were spent at the Promenade, a stretch tourists descend upon at sundown. Lined with eateries and a broad, clean walkway, it is a fantastic place to hang out. I personally loved unwinding at Le Café, an open-air 24 hour café on Promenade that offers food at unbelievably low prices and was deserted on all 4 evenings that I spent there. Speaking of food, here are a few sophisticated cafes and must-try restaurants in Pondicherry that you should pay a visit to. For a food connoisseur, you will find instances of two of the world’s greatest culinary cultures – Indian and French – convening with finesse. And for a beer guzzler, you can bid adieu to Tamil Nadu’s alcohol taxes and raise your glasses to dirt cheap alcohol.
History lovers, there’s plenty to make you stop and stare as Pondicherry has a way of leading you back into a world brimming with chivalrous charm. Visit Le Dupleix, a beautiful hotel and restaurant that stands in the stead of the residence of the last Governor of Pondicherry. Other places of interest include the Governor’s Palace, Aurobindo Ashram (if you like meditating), Manakula Vinayagar Temple and maybe spot statue of Dupleix, too!
One cannot go to Pondicherry and not visit the Matri Mandir, an iconic golden globe structure that is a symbol of peace, universal brotherhood and yoga. Auroville is an experiment in human unity and is home to people of at least 5 dozen nationalities. The place is rustic and has the whole ‘return to nature’ utopian charm about it. While it does little to cater to tourists, you will find some darling cafes located here to stop at after your visit to Matri Mandir. Be warned, some of these are located at the end of maze-like mud roads.
Yes, there’s plenty of things to do in this sun-soaked city. I spent 10 days there, and people still look at me like I’m crazy. The rule of thumb is that 3 days is more than enough. However, it would be foolish to let others’ itineraries dictate the duration of your stay and experiences. When you rush through an idyllic city like this one, you miss spotting that old French couple donning a sari and kurta-pyjama as if they’ve been wearing it all their lives. Or the dusky woman in a sari riding an old moped with a bag of baguettes in the basket in front of her. Or the flower seller outside the temple greeting visitors with a grin and ‘bonjour!’ And that would be a shame, wouldn’t it?
P.S. You may also like to read my post on Pichavaram, which is a 200 km drive from Pondicherry, with the 2nd largest mangrove forest in the world.
I hope my posts on Pondicherry help make your travel plans to this town easier. If you have any questions, drop me a message on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
Can’t wait to tell you about my next adventure. This time I stayed at a pretty great hostel called Nantin Camp in Nainital. Until next time!