The planning for a Pondicherry (or Puducherry as it is now technically called) trip has been ongoing for a good part of 6 years. It started in my 1st year of engineering where I got till the booking my tickets stage but had to drop out at the last-minute after other commitments cropped up. The plan was then shelved for any further trips in favour of going to other places. I even went to the mythical union territory with my family but Pondicherry with friends was not meant to be. The idea of ever going during my college days was finally dropped and I graduated without ever going on this one elusive trip.
After a year of working, one of my friends at the office suggested the idea of going to Pondicherry. He had apparently been told that it’s a happening place to party and a beautiful place to relax. The naive way in which he hoped that the trip would happen made me laugh. But, as usual, the idea remained just that, an idea to go to Pondy, never to see the light of day because nobody could agree on a date to go on. A year later with a much smaller group, the plans were made, hotels and buses booked and shopping for flip-flops and new towels done. It was about to happen when the person organising the trip realised the day before the trip that her parents may notice her missing for the weekend and had to ask them about it. They didn’t allow it and yet another trip fell prey to the curse of Pondy.
It was thus with much dread and after a lot of nagging that I started planning again, for the 647th time, a trip to Pondicherry. The first weekend in November was chosen as the date. After much debate about not changing the date, it was finally decided that mid-November was the final date and strictly no changes would be entertained for anyone. We ended up going on December 2nd.
It was the first ever trip with friends for one of the girls in our group. A weirdly common occurrence on the trips I go on. It was only after a lot of kicking and screaming that she managed to get permission from parents who were understandably paranoid about her safety. A stark departure from my parents who just nodded when I informed them I’m going and just politely asked me not to turn up in the newspapers while on the trip. So, the news of a major cyclone hitting Tamil Nadu, while unwelcome for the rest of us, was really a shake-up for her. It appeared that the Pondy curse had struck again. While the fact remained that the cyclone had hit 600 km to the south of the city, heavy rains were predicted during the duration of our trip. So a day before the trip the decision was taken to call the whole thing off.
Ironically we ended up going for the trip because OYO rooms refused to refund our hotel booking. It was decided we’d rather sit and wait out the storm in Pondicherry than let the money go to waste and remain in Bangalore. One of the many benefits of being cheap as ironically it barely rained a drop during the entire duration of the trip. Most of us met up at the little Banaswadi station on the cold December night and shivered at each other until the train arrived. Once the train lumbered in we ran, walked and in the case of one unfortunate soul in the group who had recently been in an accident, limped into our coach and met up with two of our friends who had already gotten in at the previous station. After a small dinner, courtesy my mother, we played a few games of cards, one of which I actually one and most of which I lost, and then finally called it a night.
Day 1: The Arrival
While we awoke to heavy rain en route to the city, it had all but stopped by the time the train pulled into the station. After haggling with the auto guys outside we finally negotiated a price that wasn’t a total rip off and went to our hotel. A tip here would be to try and get an auto outside the railway station premises. If you get one inside they will gang up on you and strip you of all the currency in your wallet. Alternatively, you can live in the 21st century and call an Ola cab.
The hotel was in the heart of Whitetown, which is the famous French quarter of the city. This is the ideal place to be because a lot of the things that make the city interesting and charming are here. From the cafe and bakeries to the parks and old buildings and of course Rock Beach are all walking distance from each other in this one area. A delicious and surprisingly cost-effective breakfast in Indian Coffee House and an impromptu photo shoot later we began our exploration of the city.
While we didn’t have a fixed plan so we decided to go to Paradise Beach first. Getting ready took longer than expected, as expected on these trips, and we were finally in the cab after 11 am for the 40 min ride to the boat jetty from where the beach would be a 30 min boat ride away. In hindsight, this was a mistake. Going on two-wheelers would have been more practical and economical. Waiting a day after the rainstorm and then going to Paradise beach may have been a better idea instead of rushing there the day we arrived. Of course Hindsight maybe all well and good to sit and lecture people about but while on the trip there isn’t much use for it. The boats weren’t running that day due to bad weather.
We were massively disappointed and had no idea what to do, so we did what we do best and took a whole lot more photos. While there were local boat tours that we still running, they didn’t seem very tempting and we decided to give them a skip. The boat jetty has been turned into a park which was pretty pleasant. There was also a restaurant here, which we didn’t enter since we weren’t all that hungry.
It is here that I should give people with iPhones, Google Pixels or any other fancy phone with a killer camera a warning. You will become the cameraman or woman. There will always be people, usually more girls than guys, though there are loads of exceptions to this, in the group who want enough photos for a daily Display Picture change for the next fifteen month. And this is where karma for all the times you showed off about your phone will come back to bite you. You will take hundreds of pics of the same person at different locations at slightly different lean angles for optimum DP material. You will joke about charging people and grumble about having to take the same photo twelve times before you start saying you enjoy what you’re doing and don’t mind not being in the photos, which is an outright lie, but it gives you solace until you are asked to transfer everything at least. If you have a fancy DSLR camera, may God have mercy on your soul.
The guy in the group with an iPhone had now reached the phase where he claimed he didn’t mind not being in the photos and started joking about charging people. While we did think of taking autos back to the city, a last-minute change of plan took us to another nearby beach called Veerampattinam beach. A surprisingly good, if slightly isolated beach, which unsurprisingly was a little crowded due to the closure of Paradise beach.
The way to the beach was picturesque in a slightly rural kind of way. There was a path going to the beach, with various hawkers selling mainly different types of food, from samosas to fish fries. While the aroma was divine we decided to give it a skip since we still weren’t hungry and wanted to avoid an upset stomach so early in the trip.
The beach itself wasn’t anything too spectacular but was a good place to relax. A coconut grove next to beach provided a good spot to take a few quintessential “I’m near the beach” pictures with trees and a small backwater in the background. Overall while nothing great it was a sweet little spot with a normally quiet vibe, not really on the tourist circuit and is definitely worth the visit. After relaxing here for a bit, we headed back up the road to Pondicherry, the French quarter and being overcharged by the auto guy. Also on the subject, please be aware that squeezing six people into one auto does require a level of gymnastic ability and while it is useful in an emergency situation, just pay the extra and take two autos if possible. Your legs and spine will thank you for it.
Once back in the city we decided to go for a walk along Rock Beach also called Promenade Beach. This is where the real charm of Pondicherry is. It’s a small walkable area that is made up of an area called Whitetown and the Rock Beach. A beach road runs parallel to the beach and is an ideal place for photos and to while away hours at a time. So this is exactly what we did. We started with the ice cream shop at the beginning of the road called Gelateria Montecatini Terme (or just GMT since the name is a bit of a mouthful) where we got some truly amazing ice cream at a surprisingly reasonable price. From here onward it was just walking along the road clicking pics and trying to decide what to eat.
We entered multiple restaurants but due to a lack of consensus in the group as to what cuisine we wanted, we didn’t actually eat anywhere. After a little exploring and searching, we decided to eat in a French restaurant called Cafe Des Arts. It occupied an old French home with the furniture still appearing to be intact. While we did try to figure out what was what as none of us was familiar with French food. In the end, we decided to just try our luck with mixed results. Some of us loved it, others did not. We paid our bills, chalked it down as an affair with French food and headed back to Rock Beach.
The rest of the day was spent relaxing on the beach and exploring the surrounding area. Most of the buildings are very colourful and the area is well maintained and clean. There’s a war memorial, a statue of Mahatma Gandhi and the French consulate to see along with the various other buildings and houses along the way. There’s also a park opposite the statue and a museum adjacent to it that’s worth a relaxed visit. The whole area gives off a vibe of a mix of Indian and European that’s unexpected laid back and beautiful. It’s what makes the little city of Pondicherry unique.
Rock beach is a highlight on its own. It’s technically a breakwater that runs along the city’s shoreline, Though there is a sliver of sand between the breakwater and the promenade that runs parallel to it but not really what you would call a beach. It is the ideal place to relax with family, a lover or in my case, a mad group of friends from the office. WIth awesome food and architecture on one side and the calm ocean on the other, it’s the ideal place for everything from a crazy night out to a quiet moment of contemplation. You will waste away the entire day here and enjoy every second of it.
After relaxing and much to my abject horror, shopping, we headed back home to the hotel. December 2nd was a dry day though our hotel did offer to get the goods for us, for a fee of course. Customer service comes first I guess. Dinner at Cafe Xtasi near the hotel rounded out our day, except for one of us who insisted on rice and dal for dinner and ordered the same as a takeaway. Apparently, she needed to reset her culinary pallet back to South Indian from French. After a night of the usual discussion that’s a staple of all trips with friends, we called it a day.
Day 2: The departure
While the original plan the next morning was to wake up really early and watch the sunrise, nobody really believed it would happen. A 7am start for those of us who could actually get up that early, saw us drinking coffee and walking to rock beach for further exploration. The north end of rock beach houses a few more interesting sights including the French consulate and a war memorial. The beach in the morning is crowded with people on their morning walks and jogs. We did consider joining them for a split second before remembering we’re lazy as hell and concluding watching people jog was enough exercise for us.
As per the plan for today, we had our complimentary breakfast in the hotel and then went out and hired scooters for the day. At around 200 rupees per day plus fuel, it’s one of the most economical and fun ways to see the city, as long as one doesn’t mind the minor annoyance of almost getting run over by larger vehicles and the major annoyance of a tan, at least according to some in our group. For the rest of us our annoyances may vary, with death being a little higher on the list than tanning, but to each one’s own. With that done we began the journey to our first stop of the day, Auroville.
Auroville is around 40 min from the city, which took us a little longer cause of issues with navigation. Since I was the leading our little pack, my pillion was acting as the navigator. While initially, this was fine, but it did turn into an issue halfway through the journey because she stopped talking to me. The fact that we took her hat away from her after she accidentally let it fly off her head for the third time may have been the culprit, a fact that particularly painful for me as she was wearing my hat! After convincing her that it’s actually kind of important we reach our destination and finally giving her the hat back, we pressed on.
Auroville is a massive self-contained township of sorts, set up as an experimental community where people can live in harmony, set up in the late 1960s by Mirra Alfassa, referred to as The Mother by her followers. A name she was given by Sri Aurobindo with whom she was a collaborator. All this can be gathered from the informational video one has to watch at the visitors’ centre before being allowed into a community. The place is truly massive and aims to become an entire city at some point.
The centre of the entire place is something called the Matrimandir. It’s a large structure that looks like a humongous golden golf ball, meant as a place for mediation. It’s off bounds to the general public and entrance can only be had via prior appointment. The public viewing area outside the Matrimandir and its ground are open to all though. And it is here you can another signature Pondicherry photo, with the Mandir in the background. Which is ironic since Auroville is technically in the state of Tamil Nadu and not Pondicherry itself.
The Matrimandir can be reached either by a 1.5 km walk or a free shuttle service that runs from the visitor’s centre. The place itself does live up to being surprisingly peaceful, green and well organised. Visits are free and they ask for nothing in return except showing so reverence to what is a place of quiet meditation for many. Auroville is a great experiment for a place of unity at best and almost cultish at times at worst, depending on one’s perspective. But it’s different and definitely worth a visit.
We decided to eat at one of the little roadside hotels to save time. While the food was decent, the objective of saving time was fruitless as the food took almost an hour to be served. We grumbled our way back to the main road and after a spending a little time going around in circles due to an over-excitable navigator, we finally landed at Serenity beach. One of Pondicherry’s many beaches, though by no means the cleanest or nicest, it’s still a relatively peaceful beach to visit. With a rocky outcrop into the sea, it’s also a good place for a photoshoot. Which is basically what we did and then proceeded to lounge around in the sun for a while before heading back to the city as the sun began to set.
After we dropped off the people in the group who still wanted to shop for reasons beyond me, the rest of us went to visit the old church near the railway station. The church, called Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, is an old red and white gothic building that sits directly opposite the railway station. It houses stained glass panels which depict events from the life of Christ as well as various Saints as well. The was a mass going on when we entered so we didn’t go inside the church as such as we didn’t want to disturb. After a quiet look around we left and went to return the scooters, before walking back to the promenade at Rock Beach.
This is something everyone who comes to Pondicherry should do. The entire White Town area at night is beautiful, the promenade especially so. Just sitting here, facing the sea and talking or listening to the sea is a calming experience on really should have. We spent hours here and were eventually joined by the rest of our group. After a few photos and lots of quite grumbling and sighs, we finally began the slow final walk back to the hotel.
A short cab ride after collecting our bags found us back at the railway station, in time to catch our train and bid adieu to a place we spent far too little time in. We decided against having dinner as none of us was hungry. After finding our seats we settled in for an uneventful journey back to Bangalore. We finally waved our goodbyes to nobody in particular and to the city as a whole when the train whistled and began to pull away, but not before one final photo-op of course, bringing our little trip to an end. Apart from the settling of bills of course, which will most likely go on until the next trip to Pondicherry.
Pondicherry is just a 6-hour drive from Bangalore or alternatively a one night journey by bus or train. It’s an ideal weekend getaway with a uniquely French twist. It’s a place of exotic cars and cheap alcohol mainly due to low taxes. Whitetown is gorgeous, with its quaint old buildings and the beach, though most of the rest of the city looks a lot like most other Tamil Nadu towns.
While we did cover a few of the major attractions on our tour, we missed quite a few including the Aurobindo Ashram, a botanical garden and a number of temples, churches and museums most of which I’ve visited on previous getaways to the city and all of which come highly recommended if you’re into it.
A point to note is that it is a very popular weekend destination so going on any long weekend isn’t recommended. Everything will cost an arm and a leg and you’ll be crowded by a horde of people from Bangalore, Chennai and a dozen other places who all turned up there to chill or party. Take a day of leave or two if possible and visit on an ordinary weekend or weekday. Two days in the minimum, three days is recommended and a four-day stay is ideal. It’s a quaint, inexpensive and relaxing little place, ideal for a getaway from hectic city life. It’s a city I’ve visited many times before and will probably visit many times more.