By Sudha Mathew
I am sitting at the best restaurant in Pondicherry with great company. It’s a pleasant evening and our table is in the leafy courtyard of a heritage hotel. There is a live band, the snowy white tablecloths are topped with lit candles and the other diners are an interesting mix. And here I am, tapping my feet, drumming my fingers on the table and getting increasingly agitated when each course is served about thirty minutes too late and the bill takes an hour to reach the table.
So… the only travel advice I have for you is to memorise Pondicherry Tourism’s tagline “Give time a break”. Repeat twice a day, before or after meals. Since I did not have the benefit of this wisdom it took me a couple to days to fall in step with this relaxed pace. But this town with its large Gallic heart is kind-hearted and lets me take my own time to appreciate its charms. I am on work to choose the best heritage hotels in Pondicherry for the seek&hide portfolio. On a location visit, I am usually like a spinning top that stops only to eat or sleep. But despite my hectic viewing schedule this feels like a stolen holiday.
On a side note, I love everything about old houses especially large and gracious ones that were designed for large land-owning families. Their history, architectural quirks, secret nooks, love stories, ghost stories; I will listen in rapt attention to anyone who is willing to talk about these things. And one of the best bits of my job is that it gives me a legitimate reason to worm my way in to these houses, eyeball everything in great detail and ask the host prying questions about its history. Luckily, there is so much opportunity to do this in Pondicherry.
Coming back to the present, it is impossible not to fall in love with the French Quarter. Unless you dislike well-kept, symmetrical roads lined with on both sides with beautifully kept houses of a minimum age of 100 years and flowering trees planted for shade. Most of the houses in this area are painted a pale yellow colour and have distinctive wrought iron window grilles. A few are painted pastel pink too adding to the overall picture postcard effect. The biggest surprise is that the roads are very well signposted and laid out in a symmetrical grid unlike most other places in India. I find it immensely charming that they are all called Rue something or the other. Thankfully unlike New York, there’s very little chance of a gridlock. Most of the residents prefer bicycles and you can see them parked outside villas. But even a bicycle is too fast if you want to really see Pondicherry. Although it is technically a city, it has the air of a small town with most of the sights and restaurants situated in the French quarter. The best way to see it is to take a leisurely walk gawking at beautiful houses with high walls, stopping at little kitschy boutiques and grabbing a pain au chocolat or a tall cool drink to keep you going.
All this may sound idyllic and straight out of Europe but there’s one thing that’s very Indian about Pondicherry – the weather. It is quite warm around the year and the heat is unbearable in summer. The best time is between December and February, which is also when you will see the highest inflow of foreign tourists. Unlike the rest of India where British tourists dominate, here it is the French. The connection between France and its old colony remains strong. French is an official language of Pondicherry and many people speak or at least understand it. The “Lycée Français of Pondicherry” is the oldest French school in Asia and graduating students have the option of going to college in France. I am at a bakery having a hard time choosing between a baba au rhum and a meringue when the lady at the counter starts an animated conversation in French with two overseas visitors. Although I know about the French connection I am still amazed. This lady looks just like a regular Tamil woman in a sari but the conversation is as natural as it would have been had she been speaking in Tamil. Later in the day, I meet Mr Bascarene, the owner of one of my favourite homestays in Pondicherry, Les Hibiscus. He mentions that his family speaks mostly in French at home.
The Tamil quarter surprises me when I move residence to Maison Perumal, a registrar office turned elegant heritage hotel. There is a palpable sense of energy and commerce in contrast to the laid-back, cerebral vibe of the French Quarter. The architecture is also very different with the wall-to-wall row houses creating intimate streetscapes. I can picture the families who lived here sitting on their verandahs and gossiping with the neighbours. It must have been one large street party every evening with children running in and out of each other’s houses. It is a pity that this part of the city seems less of a focus for conservation efforts than the French Quarter.
Auroville is yet another unique aspect of Pondicherry but I have saved that for the next time I want to “give time a break”.
Do: Nothing. But if you insist on being a busy bee then try surfing lessons at Serenity Beach, 10 kms north of the city. Or visit Auroville to meditate at Matri Mandir.
Eat: Baker Street Café for French food and desserts, Choco La for a chocolate fix, Salle A Manger for Creole French food, Surguru for South India fare.
Relax: Four unique heritage properties with great service and food. Gratitude, Maison Perumal, Les Hibiscus and Hotel Du Parc.
Shop: Too many options really but here are my favourites – Auromode, Boutique de Auroville and Kalki for chic clothes, home décor, handmade paper products and organic preserves. These stores have a branch at Auroville and one in the city.