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3 days in French colonial India by the sea

If any of you have read the Life of Pi, you will remember Pondicherry as the hometown of the main character, Pi, the zookeeper’s son. Well there is no longer a zoo in Pondicherry, there is still plenty to see and do in this quaint French colonial seaside village in South India.

Despite being the main tourist destination in this part of South India, Pondicherry remains a sleepy little village. Things happen in their own time here…”hurry” most definitely is not part of the local vernacular. In part probably because of the heat and also because in this part of the world things are done the way they have always been done…old traditional ways and values are held in high esteem among the locals.

In Pondicherry there are two very distinct sides of town – Tamil Town also known as “Ville Noire” or Black Town and the French Quarter known as “Ville Blanc” or White Town. The dividing line being a main thoroughfare called Quai d’Gingy. Tamil Town is more local and leaves one with no doubt that they are in India…cramped streets teeming with people, strong smells of food stalls and shouts of hawkers selling anything and everything from street carts. The French Quarter has that unique feeling of French colonial towns in Asia…broad boulevards, tall leafy trees and stately residences and buildings with an unmistakable air of quiet elegance. Both sides can be explored thoroughly in a few days.

Here are our top recommendations on things to see, do and eat in Pondicherry.

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Tamil Town

  • Don’t miss the Sunday Market. Lots of local goods are on offer here, but for us it wasn’t as much the shopping as it was the sheer spectacle of local life…haggling over used books, buying hammers at the “hardware store” consisting of tools scattered across a tarpaulin on the street.
  • Shop at Casablanca Department Store, 165 Mission Street. Several floors of Indian wares…from tunics and pottery to sandals and local leather handbags. We went for a quick visit and emerged 3 hours later. Try a blended iced mint tea at the café to refresh between floors. I bought a linen, hand-embroidered tunic dress for 990 Rupees ($20 USD / $30 SGD) and a silky, soft cotton duvet cover for 1490 Rupees ($30 USD / $45 SGD).
  • Have lunch on the roof at Hotel Aristo, Nehru Street. Don’t be put off by the dodgy exterior, there is some seriously delicious Indian food here .Try the walnut chicken and lentil dahl. Special tea (beer) is available and served discreetly in teapots. Main dishes 80-150 Rupees ($1.50 – 3 USD / $2.50 – 5 SGD).

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French Quarter

  • The best thing to do in this part of town is wander the wide boulevards and pop in the various little shops and cafes. We do however have some favorites though…
  • Shop at the gift shop of the Hotel De Orient for carefully chosen treasures. We bought ivory handled cheese knives for a song as well as exotic colored-glass candle holders.
  • While we had many meals, our favorites were at Rendezvous at 30 Rue Suffren, where the menu is mostly French and Indian (with some Chinese!)… but really, when in India why not have delicious Indian food. We also recommend kashi ki aasha at 23 Rue Surcouf – go to the rooftop restaurant for lunch….a relaxing vibe and yummy local and European foods (including pastries) can be found at this boutique shop-colonial house-café.
  • Shop at Fab-India, 59 Rue Suffren, for all manner of Indian textiles. You can find everything here from tunics and trousers to tablecloths and carpets. I bought a gorgeous chain-stitched, handmade wool Dhurrie carpet for 1900 Rupees ($69 USD / $102 SGD) along with a cotton crinkle scarf with hand-painted gold detailing for 395 Rupees ($8 USD / $12 SGD).

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Seaside

  • On Goubert Street by the sea, the main event is people watching on the promenade. Grab a seat on the bench and watch Indian life stroll by. Watch children climb sculptures and husbands and wives separate by gender to gossip in small groups. Rickshaws scurry past to drop off visitors, while a brass band plays. From families to young groups of teenagers to yogis….one sees it all at sunset in the festival atmosphere by the sea in Pondicherry.
  • Eat at the Lighthouse restaurant at the top of the Promenade Hotel. The restaurant has a very international atmosphere We enjoyed the tandoori seafood sharing platter and tandoori vegetables with a couple of glasses of French wine for 1900 Rupees ($38 USD / $57 SGD) for 2 people. Actually an extravagant price by Indian standards but worth dining rooftop with the sea breeze.

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If you have time for a day trip, head to….

  • The communal settlement of Auroville. An international community seeking spiritual enlightenment where people come from all over the world seeking a life of peace and harmony, Honestly it is a bit of a strange place to visit…the highlight being an astonishing spherical golden structure oddly resembling a golf ball where residents go to find silence. But if you have time, it is an interesting curiosity.

Keep in mind…

  • There is little to no “nightlife” in Pondicherry. Most restaurants / bars close at 11pm and it is not unusual for restaurant not to serve alcohol at all.
  • This is conservative South India….even cropped pants and v-necked tops can be seen as racy attire, so unless you crave raised eyebrows and (sometimes aggressive) male attention ladies, please dress appropriately.

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On hotels….
We chose to stay in the French Quarter in a hotel called Le Dupliex. In the 18th century, Le Dupliex served as the home of the Mayor on Pondicherry and remains today rather stately and elegant in its presentation. The hotel is so lovely – which is why it pains me to have to share with you that the service is rather lacking. Our reservation was botched despite repeated confirmations (confirmed several times because of the lack of confidence instilled during the reservation process – painful phone calls and nary an email to the reservation email address ever returned). Our room, while refined and comfortable, sprouted a leak in the bathroom that seemingly could not be repaired despite multiple visits over multiple days from the handyman. The restaurant is cute and cozy in a tree-lined courtyard with graceful touches, but we repeatedly had to track down our servers even though at times we were the only diners in the restaurant and service staff was forgetful delivering partial orders that required a significant amount of follow-up. And finally the front desk / concierge staff proved itself to be extremely limited in its ability to provide any advice on dining, activities or even helping us with directions to locations that we already had the addresses to. With all that said, it is still the most elegant address in town, so if booking at this hotel just come prepared to “wing it” and expect no local support. Once a member of the distinctive Relais & Chateaux collection of luxury hotels, Le Dupliex no longer delivers the quality to support its presence in the collection. I think next time, I will try the Hotel De Orient run by the Neemrana group – while perhaps not quite as elegant, we have heard the service is much better.

Le Dupliex
5 Caserne St.
Pondicherry India
Ph: +91 413 2226999/2226001-5
Fax: +91 413 2335278
http://www.ledupleix.com
7000 Rupees / night ($141 USD / $210 SGD)

Hotel De Orient
17 Rue Romain Rolland
Pondicherry, India
+91 413 2343067
www.neemranahotels.com
similarly priced to Le Dupliex

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