My time in Kanyakumari was an unexpected, yet personal, experience. So, me being me, I needed to get back into some sort of normality. Fortunately, heading north east towards Pondicherry, or Pondy as the locals call it, was something to look forward to.
Before I arrived in Pondy, I spent a night in Madurai, the ‘city of amber’. This, however, was somewhat disappointing; Madurai is famous for the Meenakshmi Amman temple which, though impressive, doesn’t hide the fact that Madurai is just a large, over crowded city. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed my short time in the city, but I didn’t really get a feel for the place other than through aesthetics, and with it being expensive (as cities naturally are) I was glad I only stayed one night before moving to the ‘french riviera of the east’. This, of course, meant another ‘sleeper’ bus. Now, you’ll often find when taking overnight ‘sleeper’ buses that you arrive at ridiculously early times so, after climbing out of my bus and finding a guesthouse at 6:15am, I headed to the boulevard to see what was going on; expecting it to be empty.
I couldn’t have been more wrong! The boulevard was crowded with people jogging, couples walking, people meditating to the sunrise, and yoga classes taking place; I was a little overwhelmed really. I was expecting to be strolling around aimlessly until a Chai stall opened or until I spotted someone selling some street food; I wasn’t prepared for hundreds of people making the most of their early mornings on the boulevard which, by the way, is closed to vehicles for 12hrs of the day (this is very handy). The boulevard itself is simply stunning at that time in the morning; it makes me think of the kind of boulevard you’d see in LA or somewhere like that; there are palm tress, the ground is clean, it’s amazing.
As a city, the part you want to see in Pondy is split into two areas: Ville Blanch, and Ville Noir; both of these areas are typically French in their grid like layout which makes navigation around the city very easy (something that cannot be said about other cities in India). Other than this, there’s the other side of town, which is typically Indian, where the main languages are Tamil and Malayalam, the streets are hectic, the food cheap, and the people friendly, whereas Ville Blanch is typically French in it’s atmosphere; quiet, reserved, expensive, and with an air of superiority that is a direct reminder of its home country. However, you don’t come to Pondy to see how the Indians live. No, you come here to see what a former french colony looks like; this is the most interesting.
Unlike other former colonies I’ve been to so far (Mumbai and Fort Kochi as two examples), Pondicherry (or Ville Blanch and Ville Noir to be more specific) is still very well looked after; the majority of buildings are still in great shape, the streets are clean, and the arrogant yet peaceful atmosphere still remains. Yes, the decadence of the former colony is still perceivable and alive in the many over-priced restaurants, fancy bars, and seemingly upper class cafes. If you’ve been to France then you’ll find Pondy is a nice, if expensive city where you can lose yourself among familiar looking villas and gardens; if you’ve not been to France then you may find it to be a very quaint, interesting break from the general hustle and bustle of the rest of India; either way, Pondy is a quiet, calm escape from the high-speed life of the subcontinent.
Of course Pondy has its great points, namely the food and drink (namely wine in fact), and the people on the whole are friendly enough (the animosity between the French and English remains), though I did get along famously with the owner of my guesthouse, also called Louis, who interestingly was working in the Ritz Hotel the night Princess Diana died; he firmly claims the driver was very drunk ). Anyway, the many petit cafes that you find dotted around both the French and Indian quarter are great for brunch and aren’t quite as expensive as the afternoon and evening restaurants (120r for a croissant, fresh fruit juice and coffee isn’t too bad at all). Also, worthy of note for any coffee lovers out there, the coffee here is sublime; I’ve not had coffee in India as nice as when I was in Madikeri which is surrounded by plantations, so make sure you grab a cup or two. Naturally here you can also find French cuisine, some of it fine, some of it far from fine (if you’re after a good meal, a few drinks and some live music, there is a bar called ‘The Room’ which is on the edge of Ville Blanch that I highly suggest). Here, in my experience, it really does come down to a ‘pay for what you get’ scenario which for general backpackers can be costly, though with the city being quite small, within a 10 min walk you can find 6r street food and nice chai on Gandhi road.
The fact that you can alternate very easily between luxurious villas and cheap guesthouses on the other side of town is possibly quite attractive; the two areas of the city are separated by Mahatma Gandhi road, which creates a very clear distinction between the two. If you’re looking for things to see here (of which there is very little unless you’re interested in architecture) then this road is where to start; it runs straight through the centre of the city and most things to see can easily be found from one of its off shooting roads (this road itself is very reminiscent of ‘Commercial Street’ in Bangalore and is adorned with American fast food restaurants and high end sports shops etc).
Some of the main sites in Pondy are the religious and spiritual buildings. The city is home to Hindi temples (including an Elephant), Mosques, and Catholic and Christian churches, some of which are architecturally outstanding. Also, perhaps more for non religious people with a strong sense of spirituality, there is the Sri Aurobindo Ashram to the north of the Ville Blanch. This is an early ashram created by Sri Aurobindo before he gave main control over to his ‘spiritual collaborator’ known as ‘the Mother’ (whose real name escapes me). ‘The Mother’ is also the creator of a local town called Auroville, but that’ll be covered in a separate, more elaborate post.
One place of interest that I found off the ‘tourist trail’ is a little area just to the north of Ville Blanch right on the coast. There is a small fishing community here which lies against the rocks that make up the beach. You won’t find any shops, restaurants or cafes here (I really struggled just finding a bottle of water) and you’ll be pushed to find any english speakers; it genuinely feels like a different part of the country, yet it’s only 200m away from the brightly coloured colonial buildings of the old town. If you want to just relax and get away from the european influence on the city, this little settlement is the place to do it; just sit and watch local kids play cricket or wait and see the fishermen bring in their daily catch; no one will bother you here and it’s reassuring to know that everything else you might possibly need is a 10 minute walk away- I really do recommend a visit.
Of course there are other things to see and do if you’re on a proper tourist visit to the city; there’s the botanical gardens (not too much to see really), the Gandhi Statue (can’t miss it), and Barathi Park (nice to sit and relax pre-lunch) but, if I’m honest, the highlights for me have been the colonial architecture. Every street in Ville Blanch has its own colours and slightly unique set of buildings; it really is interesting to just walk about for hours admiring the designs before settling for some coffee in one of the many cafes. All in all, if you’re heading to Pondy make sure you know exactly what you want to be doing; I’m lucky in that I’m interested in Architecture but, if you’re not, I’m afraid you may find yourself either quite bored, or quite drunk. (I’ve met a few people who’ve been here and found it boring).
After my personal experiences in Kanyakumari, I can safely say I felt absolutely nothing (apart from slight inebriation one night ) in Pondy; I didn’t meet any other backpackers, or talk to many interesting people (apart from my guesthouse owner), but what I did find is a great break away from India and a little period I’ve since called ‘western week’. I left Pondy and took the mighty 8km journey to tackle the experimental town of Auroville, which, well, is something else completely…