Sunday, 5 May 2013

Weekend in Pondicherry

Pondicherry, the slice of french riviera on the Bay of Bengal seaside is not a usual tourist destination. This is one place where you do not want to zip through the 'to see places' but soak in the tranquil and laid back atmosphere, the french and Tamil architecture, marvel at the restored old mansions and houses and conjure up a wish of living the rest of your life in one such mansion practically doing nothing. Life is unhurried here in the French quarter or the White Town, which the french built so lovingly, creating the typical french ambiance, look an feel and the cuisine.

A weekend in Pondicherry though too short a time to enjoy the town which practically does not boast of any landmark tourist site, yet for me one has to live here for weeks to really savor the town called Puducherry.

One may ask, what is there to see in a town which runs barely a couple of kilometers on the sea front. Where the seashore does not transform into a sandy beach. What is there to see and do here? To such touristy folks, I have to say thus. Puducherry is not a beach town but a seaside town. There is simplicity and refinement in its heritage hotels, cuisine, crafts and even the street signs, which you never get to see anywhere else in India. No place in India can boast of its street names and signage written in French and the local language - that too neatly marked at every street corner. Not in English.

The day begins with being one with nature meditating on the seashore's boulevard dotted with numerous black boulders to keep the mighty waves away. Some moments spent in yoga, pranayam, or simply watching the wobbling fishing boats tossed up by the gigantic waves and the crimson sun waking from the  night's slumber are bliss moments. The early morning breeze, the sea waves and the tranquil only broken by splashing waves and cries of crows, chirping of birds can soothe the minds of any ravaged city soul in search of the "own moment".

Walk the french town early morning or late evening. Every lane and bye lane offers sights which softens the weary soul. Mustard painted mansions laden with bougainvilleas look extra ordinary.

The glitzy city buildings pale in comparison to these old beauties which have withstood the ravages of time and look strong enough to last few more centuries.

Neat straight streets with its both sides flanked with rows of mansions and houses, some converted into boutique hotels, some into quaint restaurants and art shops. Many of these under the Aurobindo Society serving as residences for their inmates who come in large numbers from across the world in search of human equality and peace.

Street signage in Tamil and French

Best way to savor Pondicherry is by foot or hire a bicycle or for that matter scooter which are available aplenty from hire shops or you can ask your hotel they would arrange one. White town is best explored on bicycle if you do not wish to strain your legs. Obviously, this also happens to be the preferred mode of conveyance for the White Town folks including the Ashram inmates and visitors. One could see men and womenfolks of all age commuting on this humble mode of transport - healthy way of living, inexpensive and eco-friendly.

 The stay options in the French quarter ranges from the modern The Promenade right on the boulevard near the Light House to Hotel De L'Orient - a heritage hotel from the Neemrana house.
But for me, the place that certainly provides the solitude, serenity, bliss and my own space has to be the Gratitude on the leafy Rue Romain Rolland. # 52 it is. The ochre colored two story old mansion which has seen some 150 odd years since it came up has been recently converted lovingly into a home for people who do not hanker for the modern luxury of a star hotel. Kakoli and her team deservedly proud of their property, which they call their home.

Few days spent here in this informal home either lazing on the antique bed, curling up on the comfy sofa with that book that you always wanted to read but never got the time, penning your thoughts sipping tea by the courtyard under the tall mango tree, looking at the sky swinging on the swing by the courtyard or getting treated with traditional massage are some of the things that you could do here.

Ochre color casts a sense of warmth and being at Home at Gratitude

Tea and coffee is available round the clock. Choose your tea and the famed Auroville Pottery cup from the assortment.

The gong which is rung to announce breakfast time. Breakfast at Gratitude is communal time, where all residents gather and partake the home-made food served from the kitchen and lovingly prepared by the house staff. Choose from the delicious Dosas, omelets, multi grain breads, fresh fruits, organic preserves, muesli and flakes and of course tea or coffee.This is one time when all residents meet and discuss their plans for the day and also share details of who they are and what brings them here. This trait of Gratitude reminds me of the vanishing tradition of our homes when at the break fast or dinner table all family members must be present. Leave your shoes at the shoe rack near the entrance. This is another trait which reminds us of our home.  
Warm glow of the bedside lamp reflects soothingly on the fine bed furnishing

The tall mango tree above and birds frolicking on fruit laden branches provides enough inspiration for the creative mind.

The colonnade and the courtyard. All rooms open to the central rectangular courtyard

Curl up with the book that you always wanted to read.The long corridor on first floor provides that ambiance which stimulates creativity. Every nook and corner  here displays tasteful craft and art handpicked by the owners. The cushioned chair here, down the veranda another chair to laze around. Old portrait on the wall, wrought iron chairs in the courtyard, the bull statue in the ground floor veranda, the flower mural in the boutique, the ceramic red rooster on the dining table, small nick knacks here and there. The refreshing soap from Auroshikha in the en suite bathroom, the jasmine flowers in urli and the inviting flower vase at the doorway all placed to enhance the charm of this place. Gratitude is certainly a Home away from Home and the one which will always beckon me to this french Riviera.                                                                                 

Pondicherry is not only about the white town. The Black Town or the native town is equally beautiful and full of sights and sounds which are in complete contrast to the french town. The charming Tamil mansions of Vysial street, the old Goubert Bazar and its all women fish market and the characteristic manners of these feisty women are some of the sights and sounds that one should not miss.

The charming lady fishmonger at the all women fish market at Goubert Market

Old Tamil mansion on Vysial Street with its trademark Thenni, the shadowy corridor which served as place for resting and gossip for the house owners, neighbors and passer-byes

Walk down to the Ashram Paper Factory on S V Patel Road for handmade paper and paper products made at this factory run by the Aurobindo Society. One always comes out of this premises with loads of paper products. 

Muslim Mansion on Rue Cazy

The Muslim Quarters of Rue Cazy, Rue Chanda Sahib and Rue Mulla presents charming example of French-Tamil architecture. The old mansions here have the ground floor built in the traditional Tamil architectural vernacular while the upper storey is built in French architectural style.  

Rooftop cafe at Kaasha ki Aasha
Kaasha ki Aasha on Rue Surcouf not only is a fine craft boutique housed in an old Tamil mansion but also runs a fairly good rooftop cafe. Full of easy bamboo loungers, deep cushions and green plants. Ideal for curling up with the favorite book over a quick bite or tea. The kitchen and store is run by women here.

For an authentic Creole meal in a fine ambiance one has to be at Carte Blanche at Hotel De L'Orient  on Rue Romain Rolland, few blocks away from the Gratitude. The food here is top of the rank and the ambiance just perfect for an evening meal. Colonnaded breezy courtyard, greenery all around, flowering plants and the authentic creole cuisine is signature of this place owned by the Neemrana group.  

Carte Blanche at Hotel De L'Orient

For the authentic Pondicherry and wholesome meal my favourite would be Madam Shante again on Rue Romain Rolland. 

While in Pondicherry one certainly gets impressed with the nattily attired policemen with their trademark red cap         Kepi. They are certainly a proud lot.                       Coodinates:   Gratitude on 52 Rue Romain Rolland.                                      Nearest Airport - Pondicherry, but only limited flights land here. Chennai is the nearest airport with easy connectivity.    Chennai to Pondicherry can be covered by road in approx 2.5 hours. Taxi fare from Chennai - About Rs.3,000/- for air conditioned car. Book with Gratitude, will cost less.                                                                   Banks and ATM - Citbank branch on Rue Bussy. Other Bank ATMs nearby.                                                                 Fast food Restaurants - Pizza Hut on Bussy Street, KFC on M G Road.                                                                 244 Hour Cafe - Le Cafe on Beach Road                            Crafts & Shopping - Boutique de Auroville, Kalki, Hidesign, Casablanca - all on and around J L Nehru Road. Auroshikha at Rue de LaMarine for soaps and agarbattis, Kaasha ki Aasha on Rue Surcouf for crafts, Arumai on M G Road for pottery, Linen World on Mission Street for  men's and women wear in linen fabrics