As you wander along the cobbled roads surrounded by the atmospheric, French flavoured white and mustard buildings with its overhanging balconies and quaint air of yesteryears, it will be hard to believe that you are 6000 miles away from France. Pondicherry, a small French town which offers an amazing confluence of age-old heritage and modern advancement, is on the Coramandel coast of India, just two hours from Chennai.
For a small city, Pondicherry is wonderfully cosmopolitan. There's the south Indian culture, of course, and the French colonial presence. Then there's Sri Aurobindo Ashram and the township of Auroville, which have been drawing people from around the world for decades. Endowed with immense natural beauty and rich cultural heritage, Pondicherry tourism department uses the punch-line 'Give time a break' for their advertisement campaign. It seems appropriate, for a break in this seaside town does allow you to switch into a slow lane. Here are a few incredible ways to discover this balmy town.
1. Be French for a day
Get a dose of French culture as you walk through the French Quarter or Ville Blanc. Pondicherry's Old Town is unique to India; you come across colonial-era streetscapes that have been brilliantly preserved. Wander down Rue Dumas or Rue Labourdonnais and you'll find wide, tree-lined boulevards and French villas painted in pastel shades. Private homes with white shutters and bright yellow facades bedecked with red bougainvillea, and bicycles parked outside, create a very Mediterranean feel.
2. Walk through the park
Situated close to the famous Promenade Beach and surrounded by the picturesque Governor Building, Raj Nivas and Roman Rolland library, is another place of interest, the Bharathi Park. It was the zoo in the Life of Pi and is home to 1,500 rare and exotic varieties of plants, with pathways and fountains as well as a children's train and an aquarium. The centrally located Bharathi Park, at the site of the demolished Fort Louis and military parade ground, is the city’s other lung space with the Arc de Triomphe-sque Aayi Mandapam, a monument constructed by a French emperor in memory of a lady courtesan, Aayi, dominating the centre
3. A spiritual high at Aurobindo Ashram and Auroville
The Aurobindo ashram, established by Sri Aurobindo Ghosh is a popular landmark in Pondicherry. The Ashram Centre is at Rue de la Marine, which has the tomb of the philosopher Sri Aurobindo and his living quarters amidst a pretty little garden. Visit Auroville, 10 kms away from the city. With its name meaning ‘The City of Dawn’, Auroville was founded in 1968 by Sri Aurobindo and Mira Alfassa also known as The Mother as an international community. The idea was to create a universal town where people from all over the world would live in harmony and peace irrespective of caste, color, nationalities etc. During the inauguration soil from around 124 was placed in a lotus shaped urn to symbolize the idea behind the establishment of the township. Catch a glimpse of the spiritual center, a golden meditation dome called Matri Mandir. This beautiful dome represents Auroville's very essence with a quiet hall for meditation. The dome is covered on the outside by golden discs that reflect the sun, giving it a surreal radiance.
4. Learn History at Pondicherry Museum
Pondicherry museum houses various sculptures and other archaeological findings from the Arikamedu Roman settlement which is an ancient port a few kilometres from the city. The museum also boasts of its various rare statues and bronze sculptures which belong to the Chola and Pallava dynasties. The century-old Law Building which was the residence of the French Administrator, displays Roman pottery and Megalithic burial urns. The Transport Gallery features palanquins, carts and the Pousse Pousse; a vehicle pushed from the rear and steered by a rider. Soak in the majesty of the French period with paintings, porcelain and rare furniture from the 18th century, belonging to princes, governors and generals, including an ornate four-poster bed that belonged to Governor
5. Walk down the Promenade
Amble down the Promenade Beach which is located right at the heart of the city. The walk is characterized by various landmarks and statues like the statue of Mahatma Gandhi which doubles up as slide rides for kids, the 88ft lighthouse, French War Memorial and statue of French Governor Dupleix. You can stop at one of the quieter restaurants for a truly global culinary experience or go local by binging on yummy paani puris near the court complex.
6. Hang out at a Cafe
Get drawn into Pondy’s many cafés and boulangeries where the tantalizing aroma of fresh croissants and baguettes hangs in the air. From Zuka chocolate café in Mission Street, which has become a recent icon in the city, what with chocolate lovers thronging it through the day to Pasta Bar Veneto with its quiet Italian ambiance and yummy pastas, Pondicherry has an eclectic range of restaurants.
So for all of you, who are looking for a place to spend some quiet quality time with yourself, put this mini France on top of your bucketlist!