The heartbreak of leaving our beautiful hotel in tranquil Tranquebar was luckily softened by the prospect of our next few destinations…beginning with Pondicherry (today renamed Puducherry).
‘Pondy’, as it is generally called, is a large town on the coast of Tamil Nadu, about 2 hours from Chennai. Under French rule until 1954, it was designed based on the French grid pattern featuring neat sectors and perpendicular streets. It is divided into two main parts – the Tamil quarter, or ‘black town’, and the French Colonial Quarter – ‘white town’.
The Franco-Tamil combination makes for a truly unique place. The Tamil side is very much a classic Indian town, full of heaving markets, busy roads and pretty noisy.
Whilst across the canal, the French legacy is preserved in the former French colony, with tree-lined cobblestone rues, white and mustard-coloured colonial villas, and an assortment of chic boutiques and cafes offering crepes and croissants. The pace of life is a lot slower too, much more quieter and relaxed.
After a 3-4 hour bus ride from Tranquebar on a very hot public bus (open-barred windows meant air flow for the most part, but when we stopped for a 20min coffee break it quickly turned into a human oven! We were so sweaty we almost stuck to our seats) we arrived in Pondy and made our way to our guesthouse.
Key to this chapter of our time in Pondicherry is that Independence Day fell over the exact time we were visiting here – a national bank holiday celebrating India’s freedom from British rule. Consequently, despite booking weeks ahead, we found finding a place to stay very tricky as literally 99% of the whole town was booked up. We could only find a decent room for a couple of nights and then had to book out of town for the other two. As a seaside town, and little pocket of France in Tamil Nadu, it seems Pondicherry is a very popular holiday destination for tourists both Indian and foreign.
Our guesthouse was located in the Tamil quarter but armed with the map provided by our host, we headed straight for the beach – making note of recommended eateries and an unusually high number of pharmacies and health clinics along the Rue de Bussy.
The seaside promenade runs along the Bay of Bengal and was bustling with strolling Indian families and holidaymakers enjoying ice cream and the crashing waves on the rocks.
Strangely enough the promenade/beach reminded me a lot of Herne Bay (my home town) at the height of summer. As well as the large stones and lack of sand, the promenade includes narrow landscaped gardens with various statues as you walk along, as well as a seafront cafe, and even a pier in the distance. I felt quite at home! The City police cleverly close off the promenade from 6pm until 7am each day making it a great place for an evening walk or morning run, and a relaxing space away from the honking traffic.
Two notable differences, however, are a huge 4m high black memorial statue of Ghandi and of course the incredible heat. If we haven’t mentioned this already – Tamil Nadu is HOT HOT HOT. (Somehow, probably due to having to check out of hotels at 11am/noon we often find ourselves trekking around with our rucksacks at this time of the day which is NOT recommended. Note to selves.)
After mooching along the beach and nosing in a couple of the shops, we went in search of food and came across one of our soon-to-be favourite Pondy hangouts ‘Cafe de Arts’ – a cool cafe filled with comfy vintage furniture, free Wi-Fi, and a laid back vibe. I was also unashamedly delighted to see they used filtered water and bio veg wash for all of their food dishes meaning that for the first time in over 3 weeks I felt reassured to order a fresh salad – something I’d been craving for a while but had decided not to risk. It was worth the wait! Sometimes you just don’t fancy curry. We popped back to this cafe several times during our time here to relax with a book, organise our travel plans and consume a substantial amount of lassis, crepes, salads and coffee.
It is also worth noting that Pondy is the first place so far on our travels that alcohol is permitted! Alas, no decent French wine, but we did celebrate with a beer.
Due to the relaxed atmosphere, Pondicherry was also the first time I felt OK to get my legs and shoulders out for once. No such problem for Lee who can get away with wearing what he wants, but around the more traditional towns that we have stayed in so far, I have always tried to be respectful and cover up with long skirts, trousers and scarves. But taking the lead from the younger Indian tourists (probably visiting from more cosmopolitan cities) , I must say it felt quite liberating to wear a vest top and shorts for a few days. Actually the differing way that women dress in India is something that really interests me as I’ve found it often corresponds to the nature of the town or city itself. I’ll discuss this more at some point!
On our second day we decided to check out the Tamil Quarter – including a couple of shops offering local items including incense and beautiful handmade clothes made in nearby Auroville (more on here later). We also made a special trip to the Indian Coffee House – where Yann Martel’s Life of Pi begins and also Lee’s favourite place for food so far. Basically a large room full of brown plastic tables and chairs, the cafe was consistently full of locals and extremely popular, serving traditional Tamil food. It was no-frills to say the least, but the service was fast, the coffee was good, and the masala dosa the best we’ve tasted – and only 50p!
Lee: the masala dosa tasted fantastic but also strangely familiar. It wasn’t until my third one when I recognised where I had experienced the heady potato, onion and clove combination before – Greggs. Meat and Potato pasty. A taste of home in the unlikeliest of places.
Just outside Pondicherry lies a place called Auroville, which despite not being detailed much in our travel guide, somewhat fascinated me and I was keen to visit.
Our next two night’s accommodation was booked just outside Auroville and to be the setting for first mini-disaster of the trip so far…