We’ve discovered (and I suspect we’re not the first) that the way to survive and embrace India is to make sure you take time out every now and then and that we’re not cut out for the really, really budget. Pondicherry was our next escape. This time, to a mini French enclave for a few days.
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Pondicherry (or Puducherry) is in the Union State of India and is a big (but welcome) culture shock after Tamil Nadu.
Under French rule until 1954, this little bit of France, has something of a faded glory about it. It’s a little bit hippy, a little bit chic – no doubt due to the famous Sri Aurobindo Ashram and the nearby Auroville and the large number of artists who converge here along with those finding themselves.
Here can be found cheaper alcohol, steak, clean streets and mercifully car (and motorbike) free streets.
Despite the best agitations of the “Indian Man” and the trials of the “last seat” from Kanyakumari to Madurai it didn’t put us off the bus system, so we found ourselves arriving on an overnight bus from Madurai to Pondicherry.
We left at around 10pm and arrived into Pondicherry just after 5am, at the cost of 550 INR (US$8.67, GBP 5.62 each).
We didn’t get much, if any sleep and the stops towards the end seemed pretty frequent, in our up on the top deck, double compartment, but at least we were here.
There’s something about arriving in a new place before dawn. You get to see her without her makeup. Especially when you arrive near a bus station, because no bus station, EVER, is a nice place to arrive. There’s the feeling that some folks are on their way home. Some are waking and starting the day and we’re just feeling our way in, slowly and cautiously.
We ignore all offers from the auto-rickshaw guys, strap on the backpacks, trust in the GPS and take a wander towards the French Quarter.
We’ve short listed a few places to stay and in this pre dawn time, we plan to walk slowly past them, figure out what they really look like and then hit up our favorite with a cash, bargaining deal. First though, we negotiate those sleeping on the streets, dodge the cows meandering in the dark and push our way through the busy streets by the market that’s setting up for the morning.
The promenade in Pondicherry is free from vehicles between the hours of 6pm and 7.30 am.
It’s a wonderful place, folks are walking, talking and there’s no incessant horn blasting, no high pitched whine of rickshaws.
We watch the sun rise at the Le Cafe and breakfast slowly.
Our negotiating skills amount to nothing at the Lotus Bay View Hotel. This is nothing new in India. Online, ahead of time is the BEST way to get a deal in our experience. It’s also much less painful. The staff here tell us that the best deal to be had is on online, and ask if we want to use their wifi to book. So we do. They let us check in a couple of hours early and we take to the welcome shower before exploring Pondicherry.
There’s such a marked difference between the French areas and the Indian areas of the city. There’s little traffic here, the streets are litter free. They’re quiet.
There’s a continental feel to the place, street names in French and in a French style.
Cafes are just that – set in courtyards, with wifi and planted greenery.
A distinct lack of India here in the heart of India. We’re in the Union Territory here, so if you find the right place the beer is cheap, we found that in the Continental Rooftop Restaurant, where Indians and backpackers mix, where Kingfisher beer is 65 INR for a large bottle and where the Peanut Masala is spicy and moorish.
Before the French, this was a Portuguese colony, so we head off to the Puducherry Museum with high hopes. Dashed again. No photo’s allowed inside – perhaps so that no one can record the sad state of affairs that is this poor little place. There’s no story, no information, no route to follow and nothing, apparently of consequence, so poor is the curation.
All around, though, are glimpses of a once beautiful past. There are faded ochre buildings, there are balconies and high ceilings. There are fine houses, mansions and stunning churches.
I sense that Pondicherry is clinging to this heritage and her important tourist rupee by her fingertips.
Our retreat is done, we leave the peaceful tidiness of the Old Quarter and the French Quarter. We retrace our steps to the bus station, crossing the garbage strewn canal back into India.
We’re taking the 47 INR public bus to Tiruvanamalai – one of the great Hindu spiritual centers in India.
- Where We Stayed in Pondicherry – the Lotus Bay View
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