when our list of 2016 holidays was posted at the beginning of the year, i immediately perused it for any long weekends on the horizon. monday, 7 march, was listed as a holiday for shivaratri, so i began plotting where i could escape to for an enjoyable 3 days away. gokarna is always an option, as are hampi and coorg, but i’ve seen all of those plenty of times and wanted to go somewhere new.
and then i remembered pondicherry. pondicherry was always the place i said i would go next and yet never made it to; being so close, i knew it would be easy to plan a trip, but then somewhere newer and shinier showed its face. or i would let myself get swayed by friends wanting to go somewhere else. or i just wasn’t in the mood. whatever the reason, i made it 10 years without seeing pondicherry, which i knew i needed to fix.
the long weekend conveniently fell about 10 days before cindy was due to head back to the states, and we thought it would be fun to take a trip before she left. then, when i was chatting with abhijeet – one of my colleagues in bombay – i went with my impulse and invited him as well. he seemed excited and called his friends mihir and fagun along, and so we eventually ended up with five of us descending from various parts of india for a long weekend in pondicherry.
we had a blast exploring and swimming and relaxing, and i’d like to share some highlights from the weekend with you today.
first, some history [because i’m a nerd like that]:
pondicherry is a union territory on the southeastern coast of india, about 170km south of chennai and surrounded by the state of tamil nadu. the town was colonized by the french in 1674, and they designed the area to be a port city for trading with other countries. it passed through the hands of the dutch, british, and portuguese over the years but always returned to the hands of the french. although the territory gained independence in 1954, pondicherry continues to maintain strong ties with france. there are a number of french nationals who have made the town their home, and you can see the french influence in the architecture, food, and infrastructure as you make your way around:
- there are cross roads every 50m, just as there are in towns and cities in french
- the streets are laid out in a grid pattern with canals to prevent flooding
- many of the buildings have high ceilings to keep them cool throughout the year
- there are 5 schools that continue to be run by the french government
- most people, including indians, will greet one another and exchange pleasantries in french – bonjour, c’est va? – before continuing conversations in tamil
- many pondicherry citizens grow up tri-lingual, switching easily between tamil, french, and english
- street names are written in both french and tamil
- buildings have names in english and in french
the people of pondicherry are proud of their french heritage and are proud of how clean and well-maintained their streets are. everywhere you turn you can see the remnants of the days of french rule, and it was really neat to see that while still being planted firmly in india.
i have already written extensively about our fabulous stay at mango hill, about 8km from the town of pondicherry. with its inviting pool, friendly staff, delicious food, and comfortable rooms, it was the perfect place for our getaway. while it would have been nice to stay in the french quarters of pondicherry, with its proximity to restaurants and tours, mango hill was exactly the peaceful spot what we were looking for.
what we did*:
number one, we swam. as soon as we checked into our room, we dropped our stuff and headed for the pool. on sunday we ventured to the beach, swimming and walking until we found ourselves on serenity beach. we were back in the pool and back at the beach on monday, utilizing as much time in the water as we could manage.
we also got up early on monday morning to watch the sunrise from the rocks on serenity beach. being able to walk out into the sea gave us a great vantage point, and we were able to watch the fishermen at work while the sun made its ascent. i did not want to get up that morning, but it was definitely worth it.
we had a great time just strolling the promenade and people-watching. the promenade – also known as goubert street – is closed to traffic from 6pm to 7am, and in the evenings it is full of locals and tourists, enjoying the sea breeze and the fresh air. it was also on the promenade that we made friends with all of the street dogs — if we sat still for longer than 5 minutes, we had no fewer than two dogs keeping us company.
on our last day in town cindy and i did a walking tour of the french quarters with yuvaraj. he contracts through the tourism department, so we joined him for a quick hour-long tour rather than one of the half- or full-day options that are on offer. yuvaraj is from pondy and has extensive knowledge of the history and architecture of the area, so we learned a lot about the buildings in the french quarters and how to differentiate between them. we also learned about how pondicherry operates as a union territory, running certain things through the indian government and others with advice from france. it was a very interesting – and quick – look at the town, and it was nice to be the only ones on the tour: it meant we could stop and take pictures whenever we wanted, and yuvaraj could customize our tour based on our questions and interests.. [if you’re interested in doing a tour with yuvaraj, he can be reached at +91.9944959445 or firstname.lastname@example.org]
food in pondicherry is a great mashup of french, seafood, and continental, so you can get just about anything you are craving. we took full advantage of the variety and had crepes, fish ‘n chips, tomato and mozzarella, bacon-wrapped prawns, red snapper, burgers and sandwiches, caesar salad, a cheese plate, cassoulet, bruschetta, and pomfret over the three-day period.
by far, the best meal of the trip was the cassoulet at mango hill. it was a great combination of fish, prawns, crab, and calimari in a delicious and savory sauce. we mopped it up with some garlic naan and could not stop exclaiming over how great it was.
i will also say that although we weren’t super impressed by the food at cafe des arts, it is a very nice place to chill out and is worth a visit. the courtyard is lovely, and i really like how they have converted the sitting rooms of the house into a cafe. they have good wifi, and the servers are all very friendly. it’s a great place to chill out for a few hours, but i would suggest steering clear of the savory crepes; the nutella and banana crepe, however, was pretty tasty.
how much i spent:
one of the best things about pondicherry is its affordability. i was able to stay in a nice hotel and eat in nice places without breaking my bank. the town of pondicherry is very walkable, especially the french quarters, so transportation costs were low, especially once we discovered the local bus. all told i spent approximately rs 7,000 on the entire weekend – give or take – which includes transportation, accommodation, and food & drink.
here’s a breakdown, if you’re interested:
- round-trip bus fare: a little less than rs 1,400 on airavat club class [you get a discount for booking round trip tickets]
- 2 nights accommodation at mango hill: rs 2,500 per night + taxes // since cindy and i shared a room, i spent about rs 3,000 for stay
- local transportation: rs 500, but that is only because it took us a day to figure out the bus stands, timings, etc
- food + drink: approximately rs 2,000 across all meals // for all except one meal, cindy and i split a starter and a main course, thus cutting down on costs
- architecture tour with yuvaraj: rs 200 per person
you can definitely spend less if you stay in a guesthouse in town and keep your travelling to a minimum, but this isn’t that much for a comfortable weekend away. if you’re keeping score in the states, that’s a little over $100 for a 3-day weekend
things to know:
i had a great time in pondicherry and think it is a great spot for anyone to visit. if you are thinking of heading over, i’ve got a few things for you to keep in mind:
- you can easily walk around pondicherry, but if you are taking an auto, keep in mind that the autos do not use their meter. ask at a guest house or restaurant to find out how much your ride should cost to ensure you don’t pay too much. i don’t think we got ripped off, but it’s always better to check.
- pondy and auroville are about 10km apart. there are a few private buses that run between the two towns, but you can take a local bus for rs 5 as well.
- alcohol is cheap in pondicherry, since it is a union territory, so there are a lot of police checkpoints when leaving the town. be cautious if you are carrying alcohol with you.
- the sun is pretty intense, especially in the morning. wear plenty of sunscreen, and remember to re-apply throughout the day.
it was so nice to get out of town for a few days and relax and not worry about work or elections or anything else happening around the world. i’m so glad i finally got a chance to see pondicherry, and i hope it’s not another 10 years before i manage another visit.
have you ever been to pondicherry? what did you like best?
*there are a lot of things we didn’t see or do, because we prioritized swimming and relaxing and seeing the sunrise. this post in no way reflects all that there is to do in the area but is simply what we chose to do.