After 26 hours on the Coromandel Express from Kolkata and a 3 hour drive from Chennai, passing the enormous Marina Beach, coastal paddy fields, salt hills, backwaters, and stunning views of the Andaman sea, we arrived in what looked like a far-flung corner of rural France.
Set behind a long sea-front promenade is the 2km square of leafy streets, lined with colourful buildings covered in bougainvillea, that makes up Pondicherry’s French quarter. Pondy’s French history is visible at every turn; from the bilingual French-Tamil road signs and colonial churches, to the policemen’s gendarmerie-style hats and the Pompieres du Pondicherry fire station. And, not least, the shouts of “Non, arrêtez!” as the children living opposite us were told off by their parents.
While the French have left a pastel palette of architecture, the life and colour layered thickly on top is definitely Indian. Familiar black and yellow rickshaws cruised the tree-lined streets, lights lit the park in anticipation of Diwali, and, as the French Quarter blends into the Tamil Quarter, the vibrant colours of textile shops, spicy aromas of dosa cafes, and lively sounds of scooter horns and street hawkers take over.
Our plan for Pondy was relaxation, cafe hopping, and a small amount of sight seeing. Aside from visiting the Portuguese-style French churches, and gift shopping in the Tamil Quarter, we booked yoga and guitar classes at the SITA cultural centre. They also offered henna, workshops, cycle tours on vintage bikes, cookery classes, and dance lessons.
The first thing we did was pick up a scooter. With an easy grid layout and much quieter streets than anywhere we’d been so far in India, this was a great and cheap (£2.50 per day) way of jumping from place to place and speeding past the few wandering stray dogs.
In search of sea views, we headed to the promenade on Rue Goubert. Turns out this doesn’t play as big a part in the town as we’d expected; it’s more of a rocky edging to the sea than a soft sandy beach. Le Cafe is the only cafe actually on the promenade, and we stopped here for a drink to watch a military parade and Diwali decorations being put up around the big Ghandi memorial statue. Sunsets (and sunrises too, apparently) are spectacular here and someone had the brilliant idea of banning all traffic on this sea-front road every evening. For Rebecca, this was parfait for a few sunset boules de glace by the sea.
From Cafe des Artes on Rue Surcouf for croque monsieur, to Villa Shanti on Rue Suffren for a French cheese platter, to petit fours at Baker Street in the Tamil Quarter, all accompanied by excellent French-press coffee, it’s hard to choose a favourite cafe in Pondicherry. Pasta with delicious fresh sauces, hand made in the open kitchen by the Italian owner, at the tiny La Pasta comes pretty close for taste, and the beautifully lit courtyard at La Maison Rose is up there as far as ambience goes. It wasn’t until we were sat in the lively atmosphere of Le Club that we realised that there was something missing in Pondicherry. We’d been there 3 days and the only cows we’d seen were on the menu. For the first time since arriving in India, steak was available, and it was served with frites and massively overpriced Cabernet Sauvignon (mais naturellement!)
So we settled into a happy routine of cafes, restaurants, seaside strolls, and reading on the roof terrace of our French Quarter guest house. A short scoot to the nearest wine shop to pick up cheap, and ice-cold, beer, and we had the perfect recipe to unwind from a hard day’s cafe hopping…
The soundtrack for our evenings started with calls to prayer drifting accross the rooftops from distant minarets, and ended with ominous rumblings of thunder somewhere over the darkening ocean.
The plan for our last day had been to visit Auroville. This spread-out multi-national settlement was set up in 1968 by the co-founder of Pondy’s town-centre Ashram, known as ‘The Mother’. It was set up as a cash-free society based on trade, and maintains the noble ideals of peace, calm, and sustainable living.
The storms that had been threatening each evening finally arrived, though, which limited our visit to just a short stop at the excellent German bakery, and the farm shop to pick up some snacks and supplies for our train to Bangalore.