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Posted at: Jan 28, 2018, 1:48 AM; last updated: Jan 28, 2018, 1:48 AM (IST)

Essence of a city by the sea

Immerse yourself in the charms of Puducherry, which offers myriad experiences and bountiful memories

Aradhika Sharma

What do tourists usually do in Puducherry, earlier known as Pondicherry? Typically, they go to the Aurobindo ashram, visit Auroville, walk on the seafront or the Promenade as it is called, visit the churches and try and visit the beaches (nowhere as lovely as those in Goa or the Andaman and Nicobar Islands). In addition, they may strive to get a French meal to complete their acquaintance with the sea town. 

But if the tourists leave it at that, a nodding acquaintance is all that they’ll gain with the place. To experience the charm of the place, they should immerse themselves in the essence of Pondy (affectionately called so by the residents) and try to absorb the energies of the unique Franco-Tamilcity. 

The union territory is clearly divided into two parts — the White Town — a sheltered segment in Puducherry, which was solely reserved for the French who had settled here and called it home after 1674 — is visibly the heritage part of the city. The old French buildings on either side of the cobbled roads painted grey and white with overhanging balconies and verandahs, house some stunning hotels, government offices and the ashram departments. The other part is the local section with the bazaars, residential colonies and the industry. The energies of the two sections differ diametrically. While the White Town is charming and relaxed, the main town is busy and very, very loud! Here’s what you could do in Puducherry:

In the cobbled lanes

When you walk the distance of 1.2 km on the Beach Road that runs along the Promenade Beach, you cover some key must-see spots. The imposing Gandhi Statue (Gandhi Mandappam) is situated on the beach. On Sundays, people throng around the statue to see the band display. Across the road is the whitewashed 19th century lighthouse that dominates the horizon. Walk a few steps, and you will come across the War Memorial to honour the fallen French soldiers of World War and a memorial for Marquis Dupleix. 

Exceedingly charming, however, are the rues (or streets) that run in parallel lines through the town. Not too many people except the locals and a few foreigners walk these cobbled lanes but here’s where the soul of Puducherry lies. You’ll come across surprising little cafes, boutiques and art galleries as well as ashram ‘departments’ that have lovely things to sell. 

While walking Rue Romain Rolland, Rue Suffren, Rue de la Marine and Rue Dumas, you’ll pass huge doors, curved gates and deep windows of villas covered with flowering bougainvillea and champa. Time comes to a standstill while walking these serene and uncrowded streets.

Blooming bylanes

The residents of Puducherry are crazy about flowers! These grow in abundance in the courtyard of every house, in the flowering vines on the walls and in tall trees. Flowers, in fact, are central to the locals. Offerings in the temples are of flowers and huge drums of pink lotuses are available in the shops in front of temples. Most women  have fragrant strings of flowers tied in their hair. You should certainly buy a perfumed gajra for your hair, besides some lotus flowers, which can be offered at the temple of Manakula Vinayagar. Orchids, gerbera, tuberoses, bird of paradise, gladioli and many other flowers can be purchased at very reasonable rates.

Basket of goodies

There’s a profusion of produce here — the sea yields its fruit in the form of fish and crustaceans and the land produces plentiful fruits and vegetables. You must go for an early morning walk (or hire a cycle), along the fishermen’s village. If you are early enough, you can see the fishermen bringing in their catch! Baby sharks, octopus, pink salmon, lobsters, crabs, pomfret and shrimps — all on sale in the local fish market. Visit the Goubert Market to experience the abundance! One part of the market houses the fish market with a fascinating array of fish on sale. Goubert Market also has provision stores, fruits and vegetable and, of course, flowers. You’ll be blown away by the profusion of tropical fruits — pineapple, papaya, watermelon, melons, oranges, grapes, passion fruit, sitaphal and many varieties of banana!

Foodie’s delight

If there is a paradise for foodies, it is this! For one, there’s ample diversity. Two, it’s reasonable (excluding the high-end restaurants, of course!) and three, it is delicious! You can choose from South Indian delicacies from the ‘tiffin joints’ (dosas, idlis, vadas, ‘variety rice’, sapad (Tamil meals), Malabar parottas with korma or Chettinad cuisine, French cuisine and Creole cooking. Pizzerias abound, and so do ice-cream parlours. Local bakeries are definitely to be checked out. The kiosks stock local biscuits (Rs 2 each) which can give any high-end patisserie a run for its money!

The heritage hotels house some beautiful restaurants and bars. Dress up for a Creole meal at Villa Shanti, occupying a 100-year-old French Villa or a French dinner at La Villa. Alternately, you could try an evening of music at The Storytellers’ Bar at the Promenade Hotel or try some French and European food at the colonial style Satsanga with its peaceful terrace seating. You can never go thirsty with wonderful ginger-flavoured tea or filter coffee with extra ‘pal’ (milk) or fresh fruit juices, besides coconut water sold at convenient corners. 

Shopper’s stop

You’ll find some of the most beautiful boutiques here. The real fun of bargain shopping, however, lies in the local streets! Vendors put up stalls overflowing with clothes — factory seconds or rejects that they get from Tirupur. You can pick up trendy Tees, dresses, tops and shorts for a song.

On a spiritual journey

The place offers myriad spiritual experiences! The awe-inspiring churches — Eglise de notre Dame des Anges built in 1851; the 300-year-old Immaculate Conception Cathedral and Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Jesus with its Gothic architecture — are all beautiful. The colourful temples with painted walls and ceilings and ornately carved stone walls are places of pageantry. The Varadaraja Temple is a fine example of Chola architecture. You can watch the evening pageant in the temple of Manakula Vinayagar, which has 40 different forms of Lord Ganesha. Meditate in the silence of the samadhi of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother in the Aurobindo Ashram — a haven of tranquility and spirituality. The perfect icing on the cake!

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