Pondicherry, India: Where you’ll find French bakeries and a Bohemian vibe

Dec 6, 2016

The aroma of spices wafts from elegant historic buildings in Pondicherry – known affectionately as Pondy – which offers a slice of France in India. CHARUKESI RAMADURAI uncovers the once-sleepy town’s new vibrancy.

If there is any doubt that Pondicherry marches to its own beat, consider this. While all of India marks Independence Day on August 15, the city (officially Puducherry and locally Pondy) celebrates it the following day. For it was on August 16, 1962 – more than seven years after France surrendered this territory back to India – that Pondicherry legally merged into the Indian union.

And on July 14, the city reaffirms its affinity with France by celebrating Bastille Day, also known as French National Day, with parades and fireworks. This city was, after all, a French colony for a couple of centuries and has seen the Portuguese, Dutch and Danes – who used it as a trading port – come and go.

While French may be the official language in Pondicherry, the patois on the street is undoubtedly Tamil. This juxtaposition of cultures is evident on the quaint cobbled streets laid out in neat grids – many have both French and Tamil names, making it confusing for new visitors.

The colourful Manakula Vinayagar temple is cloaked in intricate carvings of deities, with the fragrance of camphor and jasmine, and the sounds of temple bells and prayers lingering in the air.

Just around the corner, you will find a contrasting European colonial building. The minimalist white and powder-grey structure is home to Sri Aurobindo Ashram, where offerings (including flowers) are not accepted, and only silent meditation occurs. The ashram, a place for spiritual retreat founded by Indian philosopher Sri Aurobindo and French spiritual leader Mirra Alfassa, spells serenity and stillness in an already peaceful Pondy.

While the city is usually quiet and idyllic, it becomes lively during its many festivals. These include the International Yoga Festival in January, with workshops and competitions for yogis of all ages.

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Young at heart

While imbued with a rich, long heritage, Pondicherry is anything but fusty. The town throbs with a youthful, creative pulse. On one end of the breezy beach promenade on Goubert Avenue – lined with vendors selling cotton candy, spicy fritters and ice cream – the town’s young crowd congregates at Le Cafe for coffee, sandwiches and views of waves buffeting the shore.

The beach, facing the Bay of Bengal, also hosts the 16-day Pondy Photo Festival at a disused warehouse in the city’s Old Port. This year’s event revolves around the theme of water, with exhibitions, workshops and talks running from August 27. The festival is part of the larger Pondy Art initiative, which aims to raise public awareness of the challenges faced by India, through vibrant performances and huge artworks splashed across street walls.

Tasting the best of both worlds

At the risk of being too literal, perhaps the best way to taste Pondy’s multicultural flavours is through its dining scene.

Mornings can begin with fresh, flaky croissants and French-pressed coffee from the French-owned Baker Street. Alternatively, kick-start your day South Indian style with a cup of strong filter kapi (coffee) and a crisp dosa (crepe made with rice and lentils) at Surguru Restaurant.

Pondicherrian cuisine, best described as Franco-Tamil, marries ingredients like tamarind, coconut and pepper with the more subtle rosemary, thyme and basil.

Carte Blanche, the courtyard restaurant at Hotel de l’Orient – a charming French mansion with arched doorways and pretty balconies – does this well. Its mildly spiced white chicken curry and succulent mutton chop kebab, battered and deep-fried, are especially good.

Describing the origin of this cuisine, Arun Elangovan, manager at Neemrana Hotels, says, “When the French ran out of their own ingredients, they started using local ones in their dishes, and a new cuisine was born. They cooked without the spice levels associated with Indian food, using coconut, for instance, to reduce the piquancy of pepper.”

Indeed, a new generation of creative individuals, both Indian and foreign, are adding colour and character to Pondicherry, with their hip businesses putting a clever spin on tradition.

Sultry afternoons are best for browsing such homegrown products. These include incense sticks, candles, soaps and silks at the stylish Kalki boutique. Or shop for pretty paper products like notebooks and lanterns at Sri Aurobindo Handmade Paper Factory, where visitors can watch the transformation from pulp to paper – silk-screened or hand-marbled into beautiful sheets.

SEE ALSO: Top shopping destinations for art in India

A Bohemian touch

Pondy makes up for its lack of nightlife with cosy cafes on every corner. Kasha Ki Aasha, with its boutique selling handmade handicrafts on the ground floor, is so inviting, one could spend evenings – or even an entire day – at its vegetarian rooftop cafe. Order a cup of masala tea and perhaps a black-bean burger.

Its owner Kasha Vande, is an American who has called Pondy home since 2002. “I love how this big city has that small-town feeling – full of little, friendly neighbourhoods, each with its special characteristics,” she says.

At Cafe des Arts (10 Rue Suffren, Tel: 91 99 9448 1914), try a glass of refreshing hibiscus juice and pick up funky, locally designed jewellery and clothes with fun prints. Don’t be too surprised by the rickshaw parked in the middle of its small lawn, it just adds to the store’s quirky ambience.

Clearly, the mixed retail and dining concept is big in Pondicherry. One of the trendiest cafe-cum-boutiques is Le Hidesign, a local brand that has gone global. Its flagship store distracts with a dizzying array of leather products as visitors make their way to the cafe on the top floor. With a beer or hot chocolate in hand, it’s possible to admire the twinkling lights of the shopping streets below from this lovely spot.

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A particularly cheerful place to sip on a cocktail is the courtyard cafe-bar at La Villa Shanti. With its soothing white decor, punctuated by graphic art, this 19th-century building restored by two French architects is also one of the best places to stay.

In recent times, Pondy has become a popular hub for surfing and diving. It’s one of the few places in India with pristine coral reefs and stunning marine life. The Kallialay Surf School, set up by Spanish brothers Juan and Samai Reboul, trains both beginners and advanced surfers. Its surfing competition has attracted more than 60 surfers from across the world each year, you could say it’s creating waves, much like today’s Pondicherry itself.

FAST FACTS

  • CURRENCY
    Indian Rupee

 

  • BEST TIME TO VISIT
    Pondicherry is an all- weather destination, but avoid the period between April and July, when temperatures are scorching.
  • HOW TO GET THERE
    Singapore Airlines flies 7 times weekly from Singapore to Chennai, from where Pondicherry is about a three-hour drive.
PHOTOS PETER ADAMS, FREDERIC SOREAU (CORBIS) / INMAGINE / YANNICK CORMIER / JEREMY CAROLL