Thursday, January 23, 2014

Pondicherry-The French Riviera of the East

Visiting Pondicherry had been a long cherished dream. I had seen numerous programs on television depicting Pondicherry and this place has fascinated me always. The calm and peace, the sea air and the beautiful French colonial architecture and the cobbled streets promised something ethereal and a true blue French experience out of France. 
There is a strong French influence in the city, especially in the old quarters, with Rues and Boulevards lined with Mediterranean style houses and bakeries, although the city remains very much Indian. French is still understood, and the whole city makes for a rather pleasant mix of East and West.
The Bay of Bengal
Mostly people travel to Pondicherry via Chennai as it is situated 160 km north of the city. Getting to Pondicherry involves a three hour road journey from Chennai. But since I was visiting Hyderabad, I decided to take a Volvo bus which took us around 13 to 14 hrs to reach. I know not a very wise decision but then I wasn't sure if I was ever going to visit Chennai. The Bus journey obviously was tiring and tedious although the Volvo buses are really good and comfortable. 
Anyway, once we reached Pondi we, i.e. my Mom and brother, took an auto-rickshaw for a 100 bucks and reached our Guesthouse-Le Escale on Rue Dumas in a quaint alley behind the beach Promenade and very close to the ocean. A quaint little French guesthouse with narrow stairs and nice view of the Ocean from its terrace which has been turned into a lovely eating area where we had a sumptuous French breakfast the day we arrived. The owner was very nice to give us maps and instructions to explore the area. 
The Beach Promenade

Le Escale Guesthouse

It is best to travel in Pondicherry by auto-rickshaws or by foot or by hiring a cycle, scootie or a bike on a reasonable rate. The first day we hired a cab for 6 hours, which was a big mistake, as the auto drivers are the best bet to travel in and around Pondi. The cab driver took us for a ride. We first went to Auroville which I found really beautiful, reminded me of South Goa. The tranquility of its surroundings was incredible. The longwalk to the Matrimandir can get a bit tiring. Once we reached the Matrimandir my Mom was a bit disappointed as it was a Gold round ball of a structure. The outside is plated with gold, while the inside houses a space bathed in warm colored light, with white marble and geometric patterns. In order to experience Matrimandir, first head to Visitor's Center to watch a short film about the history of Matrimandir and Auroville (this is required for going to see the Matrimandir inside or outside). Then you can ask at the desk for a viewing point pass. They will direct you along a walking path to the viewing point where you can see the Matrimandir from a distance. If you want to go inside the Matrimandir, you must then go to the Matrimandir Tour Booking at Guest Accommodation Services (upstairs at Visitor's Center) and get a pass for the tour. You are told to come the next day. The Botanical garden, the Banyan tree and the Visitor center were splendid.From there we headed out to the Auro beach. Although considered one of the best beaches on India's Eastern Coastline it was very polluted. I must say I was a bit disappointed. 
Auro beach

If you like you can head out to the Serenity beach from there. A more tranquil and cleaner beach. Mostly frequently by foreigners and surfers.I loved it here.
Serenity beach

Alliance Francaise
The Church of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception
The Church of Our Lady of Angels

A Surfer at the Serenity beach

Coming back to Pondicherry, there is not much one is expected to do at Pondi. It is a very laid back place. Nevertheless, beautiful. Pondicherry is famous for the Shri Aurobindo Ashram where one can meditate or checkout the library to buy books. There are several buildings all over Pondi affiliated to the Ashram. I found the place a bit stoic and pretentious as  the visitors were constantly shushed and there was not much freedom to move around the ashram. Offered prayers at the beautiful Ganesha Temple, Sri Manakula Vinayagar Temple. A wonderful spiritual experience. 
There are a number of old and large churches in Pondicherry, most of which were built in the 18th and 19th centuries. A number of heritage buildings and monuments are present around the Promenade Beach, such as the Children's Park & Dupleix Statue, Gandhi statue, Nehru Statue, Le CafĂ©, French War Memorial, 19th Century Light House, Bharathi Park, Governors Palace, French War Memorial, Romain Rolland Library, Legislative Assembly, Pondicherry Museum and the French Institute of Pondicherry at Saint-Louis Street. A leisurely walk by the beach promenade which is bustling with activity, brunch by the Sea at the Le cafe( a bit overrated place but go there for the experience of sitting by the sea and having a cup of coffee or tea with snacks), an evening snack consisting of quiches, eclairs, etc at the Bakery Street cafe, dinner at the Bamboo Garden restaurant, one just couldn't get enough of this place. Pondicherry is known for its wide variety of cuisines ranging from South Indian delicacies to seafood.French influence can be seen to some extent in the local food. The best options are still the local delicacies; the excellent seafood. Good French food is available at restaurants around the French part of town. The Shopping experience is also quite nice in both Auroville and Pondicherry. I particularly loved a shop called Kalki and a boutique selling Auroville products, including designer clothes, soaps, incense, aromatic bath oils, jewelry ,etc. You can also buy hippy clothes from streetside vendors, hammocks, leather bags from Hidesign... Shopping could be real fun here.. The whole vibe here is of Bohemian-chic and New Age meets Old World..

Two days are more than enough to cover all spots leisurely. As for me I would have loved to stay for more days in order to take in the surroundings on a leisurely pace. Enjoy the walks around the Pondicherry city, shop at the marketplaces, checkout the cultural centers, visit the Ashram, stroll around Beach Promenade and so much more. I will definitely go back there as this one visit made me want more out of this place...

The Gandhi Statue at the Beach Promenade

Raj Niwas