We arrive on a Friday late afternoon and the first impressions of Pondicherry, on southeast coast of India , are not so good. The sea promenade is awash with masses of people. The narrow streets are hectic with bikers and cars, with blaring horns. Its impossible to look at the buildings and shops etc as the pavements, where they exist, are not walkable and you have to dodge the speeding traffic in the street.
Pondicherry has a colorful history with Roman, Dutch, British and more so French influences, after all the French were the occupiers in four periods from the 1660s. Many locals say they can trace their origins back to the French era. Sightseeing consists of the colonial properties, a couple of Catholic Churches; but, some find time to also visit the statue of Gandhi, the largest in Asia, the 19th century light house and the First World War monument. For the more energetic, there are lots of beach and sea activities, not for my passive group of companions however.
The next day, for a contrast, we set off to Auroville some 12 kilometers away. Again we find ourselves with the masses but the welcome center provides us with a good understanding of this experimental universal community focused on peace, progressive harmony to realize human unity. Started in the 1960s as a non religious community who believed they would reach over 50,000 people from around the world by the turn of the century. Actually today it has a community of approx 2,500 people, excluding those Indians employed from the local villages and short term visitors from abroad. Most of the the off spring of the original settlers have returned to their mother countries. We snap photos of the Matrimandir a large meditation globe, enjoy the walk in the gardens and head back to the town. We stop off at the much talked of “Bread and Chocolate cafe”, absolutely packed, but absolutely worth waiting for, a very healthy light lunch. Nice to see the eccentric aging Europe women and the new breed of smart well dressed Indian middle class youngsters.
Our Hotel Shanti is well located and is regarded as having one of the best restaurants in town with French and Indian chefs. The town is blessed with restaurants and eating out becomes one of the pleasures of the week end as well as the compulsory shopping with the wife’s.
The city is split into two sections, white town, the original Europeans settlement, which now only consists of 20% of the town. The other 80% being very much like most inhabited places in India, over populated, run down and some what filthy.
Twenty years earlier I met the founder of Hidesign, India’s upper end leather brand and we opened a shop together in Cochin airport. It was nice to meet Dilip all these years later and see how his business has flourished and has created some great leisure venues, including Court Yard Le Duplex and Promenade.
I tick the the bucket list next to “Pondicherry” great food, fun place, chaotic streets still in the middle of gentrification and trying to return to its Colonial elegance. If its good enough to film parts of the “life of PI” there its worth a visit. However take away the French street names out of The White Town and it could be Colonial Dutch, English or Portugeese.