10 Things You MUST do in Pondicherry

This is the winning entry for the Prismma Holiday 2014 contest

(Fortnight of 10-23 March 2014)

In our fast-paced lives, we are always hard-pressed for time. Long vacations are a luxury that even money can’t buy. This is primarily why we must learn to “pack a lot in a little”. With this post, I flag off the 10-Things-Series for the benefit of those who wish to “do-it-all” in the limited time that they can prize out for a trip.

My 2-day trip to Pondy and Auroville seemed short while I was planning it, but turned out to be just right for all the things I set out to do. Here’s a list of things you MUST experience when you find yourself in Puducherry:-

1. Sample the French Cuisine:

Pondicherry isn’t called the ‘French Riviera of the East’ for nothing! There are cosy restaurants on every other lane and most eateries have French dishes on their menu. Ensure at least one meal you have here is unfailingly Français (pronounced fhaan-say). Though vegetarian options are limited (most French delicacies have at least one martyred animal), this cuisine can hold its own against most cuisines that have plenty to offer the herbivores. Here’s what yours truly ate:-

Ratatouille with bread

Ratatouille with bread

2. Sip on some Fine Wine:

When all the eating is done, can the drink be far behind? The French dining experience remains incomplete without wine. Although Puducherry is not the most famous wine-producing area in India, it imports good wines from across the country and the world. I had a glass of dry Shiraz Rose` which held its acidity boldly against the spicy rice dish that my companion ordered.

Some rose wine to wash down the food

Some rose wine to wash down the food

3. Walk on the Soft Sands: 

Pondy has a beautiful coastline which can be marvelled at from a number of beaches. The Bay of Bengal gleams like a bed of blue sapphires under the setting sun. Promenade Beach is among the better known beaches that skim the posh French side of this city. It is advisable to err on the conservative side while dressing for the waters as there are rarely any sunbathers on the beaches here.

By the Promenade Beach

By the Promenade Beach

4. Ride on a Rustic Rickshaw:

This city is so small that a pair of legs is all you need to travel from one end to the other. For those who’re not very fond of walking, there are bicycles and auto-rickshaws. There’s also the occasional yellow oh-so-French Vespa that zips by. But what makes Pondy so charming is the cycle-rickshaw! Taking this open-roof, doorless ‘green’ vehicle is an incredible way to savour this beautiful city.

Riding on a cycle-rickshaw

Riding on a cycle-rickshaw

5. Look out of a French Window:

The bungalows and buildings in Pondy are indulgent in the way they go all out to to appear French. Apart from the omnipresence of the colour yellow, it is the windows that are strikingly French in their appearance. It is highly recommended to have your afternoon tea by the window so you can appreciate how architecture can make time move slowly.

Let there be light!

Let there be light!

6. Visit a Nursery in Auroville:

Much has been written about the environmentally sustainable ways of Auroville, but to truly be one with nature, one must spend a few hours in the homes of young plants (a.k.a. nurseries). The oxygen I breathed here is one of the purest I’ve breathed in India. Of course, the purity comes not only from the plants but also the committed people that work towards building this universal township.

This nursery has a “green” sky!

7. Stay in a French Bungalow: 

Don’t miss the opportunity of staying at one of the few boutique hotels in White Town (French side of Pondicherry). I stayed at  Le Dupleix, but you can also consider The Promenade (a Hidesign hotel). Most of the residences are spacious, with wooden flooring and glass-walled bathrooms (perfect for honeymooners 😉 ). My hotel had tables laid out on the patio for open-air dining.

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View from my French castle

8. Eat Creole, Vietnamese and Italian:

You don’t have to do everything only the French-way! The restaurants in Pondy can serve up some mean spreads from several other cuisines that you’ll only be too glad to tuck into! Off the top of my head, I can tell you they offer Punjabi, Moghulai and South Indian fares. And, I have personally tried Creole (available only at Le Dupleix), Italian (there’s hardly a place that doesn’t serve Italiano! 😀 ) and Vietnamese (served only at Le Vietnam). Pondy is a gourmand’s paradise in every sense of the word!

Mmm... smells of Vietnam!

Mmm… smells of Vietnam!

9. Spend a Lazy Evening at a Cafe`:

The cafe scene is quite evolved in this Union Territory. The beachfront has a string of cafes that let one ‘do absolutely nothing’. Pondicherry is a place best enjoyed by doing nothing in particular while you let the sea-breeze stroke your face. Le Cafe is the most famous of all the cafes around. But don’t let that stop you from going off the beaten path to experience other little-known cafes.

Conical roofs of a quaint restaurant

Conical straw-roofs of a quaint cafe (Madam Shante’s)

10. Join the Local Activists:

I happened to come across a number of activists on the beach-promenade on St. Bastille’s Day. I gladly took this opportunity to create some awareness about vegetarianism and it benefits. To catch the jamboree and jollity of Bastille’s Day, plan your trip around 14th July.

Vegetarian is the way to go!

Vegetarian is the way to go!

And finally, when you have done all of the above, let me know if my advice was worth it! 🙂

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An Afternoon in Auroville

The morning I checked out of my hotel in Pondicherry, I chatted with the French manager for her opinion on Auroville. I wasn’t too keen on visiting a township-under-construction, especially on a hot July afternoon when I had a bus to catch back home in the eve. But she changed my mind when she said, “Oh! You can stay there for as long as you wish… a day, a week, or even months.” I was curious to know the mystery behind the “The City of Dawn“, and what made people stay that long… in some cases, forever!

Miniature model of the Auroville City Centre

Miniature model of the Auroville City Centre

Auroville is about 30 minutes from Pondicherry by road. Founded by Mirra Alfassa, it is a self-sustaining township of harmonious and progressive minds from 50 nationalities. Entry to this ‘universal town’ is free, but one has to register at the Visitors Centre. The entrance is adorned with brick-arches and landscaped greens. It is easy to see the harmony this place shares with nature.

The Auroville Visitors Centre

The Auroville Visitors Centre

The Visitors Centre serves as a museum of sorts. It showcases the city-plan and the vision of the founder. Auroville also hosts volunteers and interns who wish to study and help build this town.  With my pass in hand, I decided to walk through the roads (and skipped the buggies that are available on rent for walk-wary visitors).

Under the roof made of dried leaves and stems

Under the thatched roof

It is easy to feel the charm of the place growing on you as you pass through various stone-signboards with the painting a herb or a flower and its medicinal and spiritual value listed beside it. The entire place is like a forest with some areas cleared to assist walking. There are tarred roads too, but it’s always more exciting to take the road less travelled by.

Wooden model of the 'Peace Area'

Wooden model of the ‘Peace Area’

My goal was to reach the centre of Auroville, where there lies a giant sphere made of gold. The area that surrounds it is the ‘Peace Area’. There are signboards everywhere to guide visitors in this maze-like forest. This town has a field full of humongous solar-panels that fuel this sustainable-concept-lifestyle. The air is cool and clean and there are nurseries and a botanical garden to harness the goodness of nature.

I was looking for a tree to rest under (as I had quite some distance to cover before I’d reach the “golden ball”), and then I came across this spectacle that stopped me in my tracks…

The revered Banyan Tree

The revered Banyan Tree

The forest heard my voice and showed me a 100-year old Banyan Tree. This sacred tree has aerial roots that have grown out of its branches and gravitated towards the earth to form tree-like structures of their own. It looks as though there are multiple trees entwined with each other, like young children in a warm embrace with their mother.

The tenacity of the ageless banyan tree inspired me and charged me up for the last mile of my walk towards the centre of this unique world. And I stood mesmerised by what I beheld…

The Matrimandir

The Matrimandir

The ball-shaped building is the Matrimandir– an awe-inspiring blend of art and architecture! This is where the seeker comes to realise inner consciousness and peace. I gazed dreamily at the sprawling greens and blessed that French lady for convincing me to give Auroville a chance.