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Since we had just spent three weeks in Northern India a few months ago, we decided to head to the south this time. We didn’t have much of a plan, but my wife wanted to visit Pondicherry (now officially known as Puducherry) as she had heard a lot about its French heritage. Since there were no direct flights between Mumbai and Pondicherry, we flew into Chennai and spent a couple of days there enjoying the local food and some sightseeing. From here we took a bus to Pondicherry, and the two and half hour ride was quite scenic. The route passes close to the coast at some points and it is simply amazing to catch a glimpse of the sea peeking through the coconut groves.
When you arrive in Pondicherry by bus, it will drop you at the central market, which is as chaotic as any market can be in India. For us it felt the same as home, and seemed nothing like the “little French town” we were expecting. We eventually managed to bargain a good price with an auto-rickshaw to take us to our hotel. Note that if you are staying anywhere in or near the heritage town or the French Quarter, you can expect to pay somewhere around Rs. 75 (1.25$) for your trip. After settling into our hotel, we headed out in the evening towards the promenade to explore the town.
If you arrive in Pondicherry expecting to find a mini Paris or an idyllic French town, you might be disappointed. So were we in the beginning, walking around for the first quarter of an hour on our excursion. But as soon as we crossed Qasim Street, we could see grand colonial style buildings, including the Assembly Building and the Governors House. This gave us a faint hope that our trip might not have been in vain. And indeed we were not disappointed with what we discovered. Soon we saw numerous cafes’ and bakeries selling the most delightful looking savouries. The croissants that we tried at our very first café were one of the best we ever had, and the coffee was “just like in Paris,” as my wife exclaimed.
And indeed, there is an amazing colonial heritage in Pondicherry. The influence can be seen in the numerous cafes that are abundant all around. You can go to one of the most upscale coffee shops in Mumbai and return disappointed, but you can step into any café here and it is heaven. For the five days we spent in Pondicherry, we must have visited at least 20 different cafés and each one was special. And it’s not just the food that was special. It’s also the streets. A lot of the streets are named in French, with many of them named after famous French persons. Starting from the beach, the first street is named Dumas street after the famous writer Alexander Dumas.
I had mentioned earlier that if you come to Pondicherry expecting to see a little French town, you might be disappointed. That is because most of Pondicherry is still like the rest of India. However, the area between Dumas and H.M. Qasim Salai (street) is reminiscent of the French Riviera. Stepping into this place makes you feel like you have suddenly been teleported into another part of the world. The streets are lined with colourfully painted old houses and the sidewalks are lined with cafes and small art galleries. No wonder this place is so popular with tourists from all over. This part of the town is also called Heritage Town, or sometimes White Town because of the number of European (read white) tourists visiting this place.
White Town is not the only thing that draws people to Pondicherry. In Pondicherry is the house and ashram of famous spiritual leader Sri Aurobindo. And just 14 kilometres from here is Auroville, the township that draws thousands of visitors from all over the globe. Most of the people going to Auroville spend a few days in Pondicherry too. And why not, for it has a lot to offer.
Apart from the charming French influence, there is also the perk of being a Union Territory in India – which means they have lower taxes on some products, one of which is alcohol. So a lot of backpackers travelling through India head to Pondicherry in search of pocket friendly accommodation, cheap food and most of all, the cheap booze. And even if you are a local coming from an expensive city like Mumbai, this place is heaven. We spent almost every night of our trip at some of the local bars guzzling litres of the local beer, which cost less than half of what you would pay across most of India.
The food here is quite good too, and if you are a foreign tourist who cannot digest the spicy Indian food – no worries. There are a lot of places that are tourist friendly – and not just the expensive ones. The numerous backpacker hostels also have their restaurants and cafés with a variety of the non-spicy version of your favourite Indian delicacies, as well as the usual local fare. This was good for us as I could eat the spicy local food while my wife got Indian food the way she likes, without the spices burning her tongue.
Overall, we really enjoyed our trip to Pondicherry. From there we headed eastwards to Trichy en-route to Varkala. Our recommendation for other travellers is to find somewhere close to White Town or Heritage Town, if not in it. Places within the heritage part are expensive, but a couple of streets away are good choices.