I visited Paris for my Spring Break, way back in 2010. And on one of the days, as I walked down from Blanche (of the infamous red windmill) to Monmartre, I was confronted by a very tall, very thin Frenchman, dressed impeccably in a pin-striped suit and a Fedora (what I guessed from my very limited knowledge of hats). He said something in French, that, to a goober like me, sounded dark and sexy. And then he proceeded to plant a brief kiss on my lips.
Yep. No joke. He leaned in and it was sort of a blur. I would like to think that I reacted with the swiftness of a ninja, but I ended up with my head conked back in an uncomfortable angle (like a zombie in training) and the taste of a Frenchman on my lips.
Definitely. Not. Complaining.
This confirmed my one belief when it comes to travelling : the best way to explore a city is to walk its roads. It’s pretty obvious, that one. And I have it down pat with practice. It’s my absolutely favourite thing to do. On one disastrous trip to New York, I hobbled down from Grand Central to the 70th Street, with angry blisters on my feet (that I’d bound up with cotton socks), just because I wanted to see the city. And its as much a normal thing to do as an obtuse one, because you never know what to expect. But instead of Paris, today I’m here to talk about Paris’s Indian cousin twice-removed on her father’s side. Puducherry. Previously known as Pondicherry.
Pondicherry is one of those sleepy towns that you would want to visit in the middle of bustling work week. Or for a weekend getaway. And especially if you were looking for a place to help you get in touch with your spirituality. I was however, craving for a little piece of French-inspired heaven, just to bust the stress of a demanding day job.
Step 1 : Get yourself over there.
We hired a cab from Chennai airport and took the East Coast Road (SH49) straight to our hotel in Pondicherry. Our only stop was a small traveller’s shack midway that served South Indian biryani – tomato red rice with a large piece of chicken thigh! The rice was red, for Christ’s sake! The trip took 3 hours. It was raining. And I had my head hanging out the window like that of a dog’s, with my tongue out, trying to catch as many rain drops as possible. Yes. I do that sometimes.
Step 2 : Get settled in at the hotel.
This step is important. You need your rest, before you head out to destroy your poor feet. Le Dupleix was a total pleasure. The property was basically Pondicherry’s Governor Joseph Francois Dupleix’s house in the 18th Century, until it was turned into a boutique hotel, complete with wooden-board flooring, ornately carved wooden rafters and South Indian temple-style pillars. The very French combination of white and blue colors really make a statement out of the whole decor.
We were not only impressed with the service and location (just a 2-minute walk away from the promenade), the restaurant was pretty fantastic as well. Breakfast had a decent range, from cereal to house-made bread, eggs to order, fruits and a large selection of pastries.
The bit about restaurants I love is that the best ones always have a few well-selected items listed in the menu. Le Dupleix’s menu is exactly that. You won’t find a 100 items ranging from North to South, just really good Indo-French food, with a few typically Indian items as well. You can even choose to eat at the Governor’s Lounge. Fresh seafood, great steaks with unusual twists involving Konkani spices and coconut milk.
Step 3 : Set out to explore the French Quarter on Day 1.
Check out the map below. Don’t be fooled by it, though. Things in maps look much nearer than they actually are. A lot nearer. This map below, will lure you in with that blurb that says “44 mins, 3.5 km”. Then it will proceed to make you sweat and chew you and spit you out by the side of the promenade at the end of the day.
On our first day we headed out to Le Cafe for breakfast. The little cafe is a small seafront property that overlooks the Bay of Bengal. At off-peak hours you’ll be able to get a table all to yourself but more times than not, you may find yourself sharing a table with a Tamil family, or with a German couple back-packing through India. But it’s all part of Le cafe’s charming ambiance. I strongly recommend the Cafe Frappe. I had three in one breakfast sitting. And then four more the very next day.
Yes, four. Why do you ask?
I even bugged the cashier for the recipe, till he gnarled at me in Tamil and pointed vaguely towards a waiter, who was polite enough to give me the recipe. And yes, you can have french fries for breakfast. You’re on vacation.
After breakfast, it was an easy transition to just take a leisurely stroll along the Promenade to the Old Lighthouse and beyond. Walked along the promenade with the beach running alongside. All the way up to the Puducherry Museum.
Puducherry Museum was a bit of a dud. It’s a run-of-the-mill museum but very well-maintained. It’s also tiny. For an entry fee of Rs 10/-, you can cover the entire museum in 15 minutes start to finish. After a brief dose of the Kings and British Generals of India, by the end of which I was frantically looking for a chair to sit on, to rest my feet, we walked our way to the Sri Aurobindo Ashram. Which, by the way, is 90% of the reason why spiritual travellers choose to visit Pondicherry.
The Ashram was founded by Sri Aurobindo in the 1920s, as an abode where anyone can undertake his spiritual teachings of Integral Yoga. As visitors, we were allowed in to visit the Samadhi, and we stayed back for a couple of hours for pranaam and meditation. You’re surrounded by fellow spiritualists and the serenity of the Courtyard makes for an ideal setting where one can sit and meditate.
After our session of finding our centers, or in my case, observing other people’s feet, I was ready for food. Not too surprising, since I’m always ready for food.
Next stop: Baker Street. No, not a street per se, but a bakery! Baker Street is located in the Indian part of town, or Ville Noire, as invaders had named it to put locals firmly in their places a couple of hundred years back. Snort.
This part of Pondicherry is pretty much just like any other Indian city. Blaring horns over hordes of traffic, shops selling metal utensils, shacks selling vegetables, cyber cafes stuffed to the tee with foreigners trying to print out their e-tickets. And in the middle of all this, sits Baker Street, a trim shop with display cases showing off house-made truffles, French macarons and gold-topped pain au chocolats. I settled for coffee, a ham-cheese-rocket Panini and coffee éclairs. And palmiers. Oh the palmiers! Crispy when you bite in till the sugar, slightly burnt and caramel-ly, starts to melt on your tongue. By the time I was full, I had already ordered a couple of single-serve pizzas to take back to the hotel. Evening fell and I headed towards the promenade to walk the sweets off.
The promenade comes alive in the evenings. Local vendors line the street selling handmade jewelry, toys, street food, sodas and popcorn. Families come out and children play on the streets. Vehicular traffic is blocked out the road from 6 PM and this makes the entire promenade a near-perfect stretch of land if you want to go for a jog or just an evening stroll.
Dinner was at Villa Shanti, just a street away from our hotel. Although we were stuffed from lunch, extra pizzas and regret-filled popcorn, the food at Villa Shanti turned out to be as good as that of Le Dupleix with a very similar menu. Although, we found it to be quite expensive compared to the portion sizes.
After a bout of pre-independence French chic and a kick-ass frappe by the sea, we were ready for more. And this time in a little suburb 12 kilometers north of Pondicherry.
Step 4 : Spend Day 2 at Auroville.
Auroville, aka the City of Dawn, is essentially an “experimental township”. I have tried to use other words to describe it, but “experimental township” is actually the best way to do so.
Our second day in Pondicherry saw us booking a white taxi to Auroville via the East Coast Road. It took us about 40-45 minutes to get there. We did plan a stop at the bakery, however, it was closed on the day. The main attraction of Auroville is undoubtedly the Matrimandir, essentially a “temple” of tranquility. And visitors really keen to spend a session of meditation inside, have to obtain pre-permission (from the Visitors’ Center) at least a day before.
The first thing to do is take a tour of the Visitor’s Center, to familiarize yourself with The Mother’s teachings and the concept behind Matrimandir. If you want to concentrate inside the Matrimandir, get yourself registered and express your interest in doing so. Chances are that you might have to come back the next day.
Our walk from the Visitors’ Center to the Viewing Point of the Matrimandir, was rain soaked and pretty cool. The narrow path has been carved through a thick tree grove with wooden canopies from point to point. We grabbed a couple of umbrellas and walked slowly through the light drizzle, enjoying every moment of it.
The Matrimandir, even from the Viewing Point quite a bit away from the actual structure, is impressive at first sight. Being an architect by profession, I had already read up a bit about it, but the pictures don’t really do much justice to its archetypal quality.
We hung out and took quite a few photographs and for short time contemplated coming back the next day, but at that point we only had a day left at Pondicherry and there were still a couple of places we wanted to take in before the trip got over, so we decided against it.
Back at the Visitors’ Center, we were ready to indulge in a different kind of spirituality. The ‘retail therapy’ kind.
The Visitors’ Center is well-planned, with clean lines sitting in harmony with brick arches, all in vernacular materials. It’s also home to three delightful boutiques and a cafe.
The boutiques sell everything locally handmade at Auroville itself, right from incense sticks, to colorful and breezy pieces of clothing, very typically Ashram-wear. I came away with a yellow-&-pink tie-dye top and a grey ruched up dress, for which I’m currently hunting for a wide belt. You can also indulge your cravings for handmade jewelry, candles, potpourri and Auroville’s own line of soap bars, shower gels, shampoos and skin care. Add handmade paper and locally made journal for the stationery-addicts, and it’s a haven for travellers looking for gifts for your near and dear ones.
After a bout of shopping, we settled for coffee and brownies at the Cafe. Then followed up with some more coffee and walnut cakes.
Step 5 : Walk around the town a little more on Day 3.
Day 3 was to be our last day at Pondicherry, so we decided to take in The Basilica and eat a little more (ermm….what else?).
We took off from the hotel early and walked M.G. Road towards Sacred Heart Basilica. And on our way fell Kasha ki Aasha. Kasha ki Aasha is essentially an art boutique run by women, and they have a quaint little garden cafe that serves the most sumptuous banana lassi and a bean burger patty that came with chopped vegetables rather than buns. The service was a little slow which did annoy us a lot. And the place i not cheap given the fact that they only serve vegetarian food. For hardcore meat-eaters like us, that is a down mark.
Getting to the Basilica after the brunch took much longer than we had anticipated. And that was more because we sauntered on our way than what the actual distance might take.
The Basilica, again is not an immensely impressive one, but it is steeped in history and the bright Gothic arches are a delight to study.
The walk back from the Basilica was a tiring one, because by that time we severely needed a place to sit and put up our legs.
And right when we thought that we’d walked our legs off, came La Maison Rose.
La Masion Rose is located right around the corner from Le Dupleix and its a great place to hang out with friends or family. Bung yourself down on a wooden chair or a wiry swing lined with cushions, order a few rounds of chilled beer before you tuck into their great beef fillet burger With extra roasted potatoes. They also make a mean gazpacho.
We ordered a spinach salad with club sandwiches. And that burger too. And trust me on this, do not miss their coffee and chocolate parfait, either.
Apart from the food, La Maison Rose also houses a pretty boutique, Amethyst, with an exotic collection of local handicrafts and hand-crafted clothes. The chilled-out vibe of the place with a very pastel-shaded air about it, make La Maison Rose a cool place to hang out at.
At the end of Day 3, stuffed with gorgeous food and loaded down with shopping, we were glad to get back to the hotel to put up our feet for a little while before the car-ride back to Chennai. Day 3 was to be our last in Pondy.
Pondicherry is a quaint Indo-French seaside town that is perfect if you’re looking to getaway for few days, without breaking the bank. Make a romantic trip out of it or a spiritual one, walk your legs off in it. It’s totally worth it.
Essential Info & Tips:
- Pondicherry has a host of residential options that you can choose from. And to suit your budget. We chose Hotel Le Dupleix, mostly because of the reviews on TripAdvisor. The hotel doesn’t exactly burn a big hole in your pocket, but if you’re looking for a budget stay try one of the Ashram Guest Houses under the administration of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram. The food served in the Guest Houses are all vegetarian and the rooms are pretty neat.
- If you do choose Le Dupleix, before you head out to explore Pondicherry, ask the front desk for suggestions for sites to visit and they’ll happily oblige. The staff is delightfully chatty. They will also give you a brief history of the hotel. The evenings were pretty breezy during our stay and the hotel has these pockets of verandahs wherein they’ve placed antique swings and chaise lounges. Take a book with you, order for a mojito from the bar downstairs and just chill.
- Villa Shanti, where we had dinner, is also a hotel. And we found the rooms to be really pretty albeit slightly above our budget.
- Pondicherry doesn’t really have much of a nightlife. It is a town where lounges and bars are popular with the tourists, but they close most doors by 11 PM, so don’t expect to have a “rockin’ party” at a disco anytime soon.
- Bear in mind that the Matrimandir is not a “tourist” spot and only those who are seriously interested in the spiritual experience of it, should try and register. The Auroville website has a chock full of information, so do check it out before you make plans.
- We walked but you can also take a very short electric shuttle ride from the Visitors’ Center to and from the Viewing Point, if you’re unwilling to walk the 1 kilometer-long distance.
- The cafe at Auroville is well-know for its coffee, cakes and French-style pastries. But if you do have time, visit the other eateries for lunch as well.
- Apart from sessions of meditation in the Matrimandir, you can sign up for lectures, workshops and therapies as well. They also have a volunteer program. Again, check the website for detailed information.
- La Maison Rose has a great collection of vintage style furniture, lifestyle items and also a nicely curated collection of paintings and books. Browse around between meals.
- We here at The Nomadess love beaches, but our 3-day itinerary in Pondicherry only allowed us to visit the Promenade Beach adjoining the French Quarter. Here’s a list of other beaches in Pondicherry which you can add to your list, including one in Auroville : Karaikal Beach, Mahe Beach, Plage Paradiso Beach, Auroville Beach, Serenity Beach, Paradise Beach, Quiet Beach, Reppo Beach. I suggest reading reviews of Pondicherry’s beaches on TripAdvisor before making plans.