Quoting the Lonely Planet:
With its seafront promenade, wide boulevards, enduring pockets of French culture and architecture, and a popular ashram, charming Puducherry – whose name officially changed from Pondicherry in October 2006 – is unlike anywhere else in South India. (…)
Don’t expect a subcontinental Paris though – this is still India, with all the autorickshaws, choked streets, bazaars and Hindu temples of any city.
Oh, who would travel all the way to India to visit Paris?
Pondicherry in my eyes has something of the air of South France. On top of that, it is really possible to totally avoid the hustle and bustle. Most guest houses and hotels geared up for foreign tourists are located in the colonial European quarters, conveniently located close to the Sri Aurobindo Ashram and the sea-front Promenade (pronounced Tsunami warning).
I must say that it was a pleasure to stay in the picturesque colonial centre. The only time I needed to jump on a rickshaw was to visit Auroville, Paradise beach and Aurobeach (the last two were rather unlucky expeditions). Otherwise I enjoyed walking, walking and walking some more.
I explored the Lonely Planet addresses and added my own to the list…:
Kailash Guest House is well located, with zen and helpful management. It felt like hOOOMMMMM.
I must say that after spending 3 weeks in the South, I feel starched. Breakfast is typically idli, dosa or uttapam served with sambar and coconut chutneys. Then lunch is a South Indian thali with sambar, rasam, veggie sauces and a mountain of rice. Dinner is same-same. However, with cunning maneuvres, rice can be avoided (see combining vegetable dishes with rotis, naan, chapatis or kulchas).
I mostly enjoyed eating at the Surguru, where the personnel kindly tried to convince me into accompanying my thavala vada and green pea masala with some rice. I stood firm.
Best breakfast place was the rooftop of L’escale. Coffee or tea, fresh fruit salad and juice, milk and cereals, bread, croissants and confiture for the price of 200 rupees per person, great sea-view and good service included.
The lush garden of the Cafe de Flore of the Alliance francaise was also nice, despite the fact that it looked a bit abandoned. However, the were capable of pulling together a breakfast, much to my surprise.
The French-run “Cafe des arts” was a sympa place for a drink or a snack and to catch up with the latest French-speaking gossip of the town in original version, no subtitles. Great location, but lacking in terms of atmosphere.
Pondicherry is also the home of interesting design stores selling accessories, home furnishing , clothes, jewellery, etc.
Two good addresses are the Indian Living art, on 14 Bazar Saint Laurent for clothes, shoes, home furnishing, and the more hexagonal La maison Rose on 8 rue Romain Rolland where I bought two beautiful shirts. In the courtyard, one can taste some French cuisine at the Caravelle restaurant, in case of dosa overload.
One thing I find fascinating is that the personnel in these design shops are most of the time Indian women dressed in saris. Now, the products that are for sale have been designed by Indians, or Europeans to cater for a specific crowd and taste.
Looking at funky bags and accessories with prints of Hindu gods and seeing the lady at the till wearing the most traditional of Indian attires is similar to the impression of witnessing a catholic priest selling condoms, or a Nokia shop assistant using a Sony Eriksson phone.
Last but not least, the Ashram and the evening meditation. A serene spot regardless of whether one is interested in spirituality, or the teachings of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. Personally, I was not interested in digging into the teachings, but rather in enjoying the opportunity, the setting and the simplicity of this daily ritual.