In just a passing glance most of you would be able to tell which location this is. For the ones who haven’t got a clue, this is a heritage street front in Pondicherry’s French quarter.
The heritage area in Pondy is divided into two sections by a canal. One side of the canal is the Tamil quarter once referred to as Ville Noire or ‘Black Town’ and now simply called Heritage Town, and the other side of the canal which is closer to the beach is the French quarter, Ville Blanche or ‘White Town’.
Pondicherry was a French colony for over 250 years and even post the Indian Independence until the year 1962 and as a result, the French influence is still felt. The flavor and essence of the colonial period is wonderfully conserved in its simple beauty and charm and it’s all there to see in the famous Goubert Avenue and the whole of White Town.
Interestingly, the most popular or recognizable color associated with the White town is not white, but yellow – the classic ochre yellow walls of the heritage houses. In most photographs yellow is not just a mere background color, but the main subject itself. In fact there are only a handful of structures with yellow painted walls. Most of the structures in the area are actually Grey (mostly owned by Sri Aurobindo Ashram) with white highlights giving an overall feel of ‘whiteness’ about them but the yellow ones, although only few, stand out from the rest and offer a dash of color to the otherwise dull streets.
Throughout Europe, there’s history behind everything – even paint colors. In Norway – I’m talking about old houses here – a red painted house was supposed to be poor man’s house because red pigment was easier to produce at that time and was much cheaper while white, costlier to produce, was rich man’s choice of color for house paint. I don’t know about the particular history of exterior painting in colonial Pondy but the basic understanding is that those settlers, though enormously rich, chose affordable earth-based hues such as ochre yellow and charcoal grey (with white sash and trim) to align with the landscape or simply they were in trend back then.
The second most popular subject seen within a typical White Town photo frame is the bicycle. What is it with Pondy and bicycle, you wonder. Pondy is not exactly a rich city so you will see lot of ordinary people commuting by cycle, but cycling is also a culture here. The almost flat terrain makes it a very ‘cyclable’ city. ‘Wake Up Pondy Tour’ run by two French women is a 2 hour cycling tour of Pondy in retrofit ‘bicyclette’ from 7am to 9am in the morning. It’s a big hit with both domestic and international travelers. Cycles are also available for rent so a cycle leaning on an interesting wall is a very common sight and it is natural that they made their way into many photographs.
If you ask me about my experience in Pondy, I would say I found the heritage town refreshingly quaint but beyond that Pondy failed to impress me. May be I visited in the wrong time of the year – June, with summer still lurking around – and on a long weekend. The heat and the crowd quelled my desire to explore further at an aesthetic level.
However, I must admit that there’s an air of ‘Peacefulness’ about Pondy despite the long weekend mayhem. I like the government’s tourism tagline – Peaceful Puducherry, Give Time a Break!
Pondy is very slow-paced compared especially to the mad rush in Bangalore. I find people riding two-wheeler and bicycle right through the middle of the road in their own sweet pace unmindful of the vehicles behind them. In the first day, I would honk several times and turn to my wife in exasperation and ask, ‘why are these people like this?’ They would turn and look at me with an expression which suggests, ‘What’s the hurry dude!’
Three days later, I’m riding my rented scooter – with its rear view mirror drooping like a drunken man’s head – to return it to the stable, I realize that somehow Pondy has got into me too because I’m riding in walking pace in the middle of the road with a couple of cars from Karnataka blaring their horns at me. I turn back and ask, “What’s the hurry dude!”
Suggestions & Recommendations
I have drawn up a list of suggestions and recommendations for you, dear readers, to help you avoid the mistakes I made and make your travel a better experience than mine.
#1) First thing first – Pondy is not Goa. If you are only interested in beaches and want all the luxuries, the freedom and the atmosphere a Goan beach offers, there’s no other matching substitution in India. What Goa can offer, only Goa can offer.
#2) Best time to visit Pondy is between December and February because the weather could be a little kind on you. My case, as I hinted in the post above I treated myself to the full blast of the sun, but was lucky to escape without any consequences. My wife wasn’t that lucky though. She developed some sort of sun-burn effect on her skin which required medical treatment – keep your most strongest sun screen lotion handy. Don’t visit in peak season which is the month of April, May and on any given long holiday.
#3) Book your accommodation well in advance, because… read point #2 again. I booked my stay a day before and got a place in a very narrow market street. Pondy can be far more crowded than you imagine and you could be left to stay in shady places.
#4) If you have the whole day ahead of you, rent a scooter for local trips – costs rs 300 for a day (until 8:30pm). Don’t take your car out into the streets of Pondy, unless you are a large family or too old. If you must, for heaven’s sake, don’t blindly follow Google maps shortest route suggestion. I did and ended up in small gullies where i could neither go front nor back. Follow only the main road. Traffic is not huge, you will be alright.
#5) Don’t miss the Heritage Town. Pondy is all about this small area. If you come back from Pondy without seeing this, consider you haven’t seen Pondy.
#6) Promenade beach (Rocky Beach), which is adjacent to the heritage town, is a really good place to take a stroll in the evening (if it’s less crowded). There are good sea facing hotels and coffee shops.
#7) Paradise beach island is another good place. Perhaps the best beach sand you will ever find in India – so fine powder! and clean too. The beach is not an island geographically, but you can only access the place by ferry. It is open from 9 am to 6 pm. We visited at 12 noon after standing in queue for about 2 hours for the ferry ride – there are only 4 boats going up and down. It was so hot that I couldn’t get out of my slippers (to feel the sand) or out of the shade of my umbrella. Visit only after 4 pm in the evening.
#8) Beaches shut down by 6 pm. I arrived at Serenity beach late and was chased away by police. So time your beach visit accordingly. Beaches are also dangerous than Goa beaches. Be watchful when your kids are in the water.
#9) Try Chettinad cuisines. Looks like Chettinad dishes are the most popular among locals. If you want to try Chettinad style briyani, visit Sri Kamatchi Briyani Veedu (highly rated) restaurant in the White Town. It’s the most delicious briyani I had in a long long while. My wife agrees with that (which is rare) so it must be really good. Average cost (for a small family) is 600 rupees. There are some good places for fine French dining also. Why not, when in Rome be a Roman. I mean to say when you visit a place like Pondy, you should actually be trying French dishes. I did, but it was only French Fries with a jug of beer!! Don’t be like me.
#10) Fill your petrol tank to the full in Pondy because it is cheaper.
Ideal Two Day Itinerary Suggestion –
You will need 2 full days to get a grip of the place. Day 1: Visit Auroville Matri Mantir in the morning and spend the evening loitering the heritage area and promenade beach. Sri Aurobindo Ashram is also close by.
Day 2: Go visit Paradise beach and spend the evening in city center or go back to promenade beach. You can also squeeze in a couple of church visits if you haven’t seen the churches in Goa.
Best Route from Bangalore: Krishnagiri-vellore-arcot-cheyyar-vandavasi-thindivanam-puthucherry.