Pondy Ponderings | Our traveller speaks!
Former French colony….
Views of the azure coast of Bay of Bengal…
Et bien sûr Auroville!
Armed with enough ammo to visit Pondicherry I embarked with my family on a Gallic holiday! This tiny city tucked away nicely along the coastline has always been on my bucket list, so of course I was really excited. After fuelling our bellies with a scrumptious authentic South Indian breakfast in Chennai we headed exactly there!
En route, Black Swan Journeys had arranged for a visit to the remarkable Shore Temples of Mahaballipuram. And I am Oh so grateful for that! The rock cave temples are masterpieces and sadly slowly deteriorating and discolouring due to the salt in the air. Superlatives fall short when it comes to appreciating the craftsmanship at display here, while there all I could manage was gleefully scamper around like a besotted fool.
High on excitement, we continued further on our 3 hr journey to Pondy and as we touched the East coast Road (ECR), my heart started doing its own little jig. Reason? The barrage of antique/ salvaged furniture shops that lined the road. The reclaimed wooden windows, traditional pillars, and furniture pieces were a treasure and I wished I could come back and raid the shabby sheds at night.
When we hit the ‘photoshop – perfect’ coastline we knew we had arrived. The quaint white structures, cobbled streets passed us by when we finally reached our accommodation – Palais De Mahe.
Now about this property…
Everybody loves a good ‘pamper me silly’ session, a few moments of carefree indulgence in the lap of luxury. But the clinical hospitality of 5 Star properties makes me squirm in my shoes…eerrrr… Slip-ons. The staff’s crisp uniforms and perfectly coiffured hair generally urge me to smooth out the creases off my travel – crumpled Tees. The grand spacious setting swallows me in, whilst its structured detailing bothers me.
Luxury is worth your money if you get it with a touch of warmth. That’s exactly what I experienced in this CGH boutique property in Pondicherry. The cheerful mango coloured facade invited us with warmest of welcomes. The distinct French colonial architecture pitched against earthy local Tamilian materials is what makes the 18 room property so special. There is subtle detailing in every aspect that emphasises the nurturing undertone of the hotel. They have brought the antiquated look to life albeit with a contemporary touch, avoiding the over-abused ‘heritage feel’.
And the hotel staff’s warm smiles and friendly chatter make you feel so much at home. The unpretentious simplicity when Fabian (desk manager) said even before I asked, “Ma’am, this hotel has no history; it’s a new property…. Just designed with the intent to pay ode to the culture of Pondy.” was endearing. Their hands-on approach and informal uniforms made it easy for us to slip in the holiday mood.
These little things sum up my kind of luxury. This place had a soul and I felt it, and walking through this intimate setting I knew, things will only get better.
In the evening, with just a city map (courtesy Fabian) and a holiday spirit we headed to the local favourite spot, Promenade, which was just a stone’s throw away from the property. Now, Promenade is your regular shore side road that transforms into a non- vehicular carnivalesque street by evening. It’s definitely your first go- to place to get the real feel of laid-back Pondy. A casual stroll and the regular fare of Popcorn, ice cream, balloons, local bites plus fresh seabreeze caressing your face for FREE await you there!
And we were even lucky to catch a Pop concert. LIVE. In the middle of the road. Just a couple of feet across us was the lead singer singing. Ahem …. in Tamil. But who cannot enjoy the quintessentially peppy South Indian tunes! We Did!
By now I had realized Pondicherry is one place that encourages exploration….some head here to explore spirituality, many come here in search of quietude and some to explore their creative side… Well, for now, we just decided to explore a few favourite food haunts, which Fabian was kind enough to circle on our map.
Namrata (Blackswaner) was not kidding when she said we could cover most of Pondicherry on foot, ofcourse preferably when the sun hangs low over the horizon. Basically, Pondy is split longitudinally by a canal that separates the French quarter (where we were staying) from the Tamilian quarter and as you walk you distinctly can feel the difference. The mustard and white facades slowly fade out as you cross over the canal and enter the chaotic Tamil quarter, and by that no way do I mean Tamil quarter is not worth venturing, it has got its own high points, and one of them was the bakery (Baker’s Street) that we planned to grab a lite dinner and heavy desserts at. And on that sweet note we ended our Day 1.
Having travelled with Black Swan Journeys before, I knew all I had to work at was packing our bags and getting our flight times right, the rest is most efficiently handled by them. So, Day 2 being a Sunday (and also the day when India clashes with Pakistan in a World Cup match. SOB SOB) most places were shut, hence we were put on schedule to visit the Paradise beach. The car dropped us at the ‘boathouse’ to catch a speed boat that would take us through the backwaters to the beach across.
I didn’t go with loads of expectations; now how different can the beach be from any other beaches of India really? But this one was! It was clean! The water was blue and the sand was pale white! and my son was ecstatic. It was just the kind of a beach where you could enjoy a good session of water play and building sand castles. And that’s just what we did. Time flew and the sun grew hotter that’s when we finally decided to move on.
Just a cautionary advice: Don’t venture too deep, the waves crash hard on the shore. And watch your feet; there are these thorny variety of shells that could prick you.
While in Pondy we had decided to excerise our taste buds and had made up our mind to try the varied culinary options that were available here. And we had Fabian to blame for that, he had described these various joints as if the best Michelin starred restaurants were in Pondicherry. That day was local Tamilian cuisine day for us and as per recommendation we headed towards Palais De Mahe’s Tamilian sister, Maison Perumal that served the best authentic local cuisine.
We asked our driver to drop us and go (only to learn later it was not the brightest of ideas. The sun spits fire in the afternoons in Pondy). About Maison Perumal, unlike Palais De Mahe this one is a heritage property. A vernacular Tamilian home was restored into a hotel by CGH Earth Group. Eating here was one of the highlights of the vacation. We stepped in to witness the most magnificent performance by the sun beams as they hit the huge lotus stone bowl sitting in the traditional courtyard of the house. That was one of my click-happy moments as my phone camera worked full time capturing the teakwood columns, stained glass ventilators and the two beautiful courtyards.
The subtle aroma of Chettinad spices wafted around teasing our olfactory neurons as we waited for the Perumal fish curry and prawns. Honestly, I am not the biggest fan of South Indian cooking, but these flavours I really enjoyed and they got a nod from my staunch meatatarian husband too.
The rest of the afternoon was indisputably spent watching India bring Pakistan down and there on the celebrations ensued.
The final day had the most important of attractions to be covered. At least they were important to me. Here is why…
When you enroll for architecture you ought to know three things:
No 1: The textbook definition of Architecture (Yawn)
No 2: Ayn Rand’s Fountainhead
No 3: Chandigarh and Auroville
Image Source: premasagar (Flickr)
These are like the pilgrimage sites for architects in India. Having visited the first it was time to visit the latter.
Auroville, the city of dawn (it could also very well be the planet where a talented bunch chose to unanimously descend), is infact an entire ecosystem in itself. Mostly, the city is known for all the creatively driven individuals that have worked towards making the utopian city a reality. I was aware that the Aurovillians are a close knit community, to them outsiders essentially mean ‘micro organisms that cause no fatal harm’.
As tourists who had only half a day to explore we could briskly do the rounds of the Handmade Paper and Textile factories, the pottery Centre and workshop, and the famed Auroville Earth Institute, but I soon concluded, to really feel the pulse of the place you have to spend a healthy amount of time here. Do a crash course for traditional earth construction techniques at the Earth Institute or do a workshop at the pottery centre.
If you have ever tried to google ‘Auroville’ the first thing that flashes on your screens is Matrimandir. The Golden Globe is considered the soul of Auroville and not all are allowed access inside. You need to be in a serious meditative space mentally (Or wearing all white flowing robes might work!) and have to take permission a day prior to the visit personally. With a 4 year old in tow meditating was out of question,so, we seeked ‘peace’ from the viewing point (they give a pass for that) by clicking several selfies with the globe in the backdrop.
The Visitor’s Centre next to the Matrimandir has several stores that sell products manufactured in Auroville, though they are exquistely exclusive, in my opinion, are also exorbitantly priced. If you want to buy their products do so at their factory outlets, they are cheaper in comparison.
Past noon, after finishing the tour, I had a nagging feeling I had missed the larger picture. To understand what makes this place click you have to be an insider but that didn’t stop me from appreciating how the town functioned generally.
Food Alert : Donot forget to grab the yummiest croissants from Auroville Bakery and missing Tantos mouth- watering Italian pizza is a mortal sin.
On an impulse, we decided to do the rest of the city touring on a two wheeler (the free spirit of Pondy had rubbed off I guess) and Fabian magically had that at our disposal in no time. With my fellow travellers pillion I started off a bit rusty, after all it had been close to a decade since I last did this. But I soon got my groove back, and happily covered the heritage area (White quarter) that included the Aurobindo Ashram, AuroShika store, Fleurs en Falcon perfume factory, Ganesh temple and the thoroughly professional elephant who gives blessings but only if you slip a note in his trunk.
We zipped through the roads that nicely followed a chequered pattern, making navigation fairly easy even for my 4 year old. Later, crossed over to the Tamilian side and tasted sinfully delicious chocolates in Zuka chocolaterie, then skimmed through some stores and old and new Churches.
It’s unbelievable how riding through the uncharted streets, exploring a new territory can make you feel empowered and liberated (if this was not the best package deal then what is, I wonder!).
After a long tiring day, we concluded the evening with the finest Seafood tasting at Palais De Mahe (we can only swear by Fabian’s word. We didn’t sample any other restaurants.)
There is lot more to be viewed, tasted, found and discovered that could not be explored in this short stay but there is always a next time. With memories of a rejuvenative experience and a healthy tan we moved on to find what Black Swan Journeys had in store for us in Singapore. But that’s another story for another time!
– Shweta Salvi, Asst. Editor, Home Review.
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