City Guide: Ponducherry

It’s easy to see why Ponducherry has a rep as the ex-pat centre of India.  A small city with a relaxed ambiance, Pondy is both comfortably manageable and buzzing with vibrance and variety.  After four days soaking in the colonial French architecture, watching men play boules in the dusty square next to one of the many pastel cathedrals dotted like Easter cakes around the city, strolling through the daily carnival of sunset along the sea front boulevard, biking around the busy streets with my basket full of fresh produce from the market and chatting in french with passing Indian strangers I’m ready to start apartment hunting.  If only I could afford this lifestyle without long term employment.  Dommage ma cherie.  All good things must come to an end.  But in case you ever end up there…

Kailaish Guest House is on the corner of Mission & Vaisyal occupying the three floors above the street in the heart of town.  The loungey restaurant on the first floor is still being completed (a french-indian attitude towards time is doubly languid) but the rooms on the two floors above are clean, inviting and affordable.  You might want to spring for the AC rooms; all north-facing they get oven like after 3pm.  But if you’re on a budget the breezy south facing common area will serve you well with its red cushioned wicker furniture and communal fridge for free access to cold drinks.  The management even provide a clothes drying area and (in what is becoming our preferred perk; India has a serious plastic bottle problem) filtered drinking water.

Kaasa ki aasha on the corner of Surcoof and Captain Xavier is a tasteful boutique selling clothes and handicrafts.  More importantly the shaded roof terrace adorned with sprawling pot plants is a cafe serving the best chapati and dahl I’ve had yet, fresh salads and delicious iced tea and coffee.  The wicker chairs are cozy, the wifi is free and there was even a back issue of the New Yorker in the stack of magazines.

Villa Shanti
If you arrive in the summer prepare to be frustrated by unexpected closures and unposted reduced hours in lots of places.  You could get rather frustrated wandering around in the heat of the day.  In which case you might stumble on this sexy boutique hotel on Suffern Street with an open air restaurant in the columned atrium and a cocktail bar.  Like boutique hotels everywhere it plays trendy music and provides attentive service.  The Indian food is fantastic, the continental fare decent and the frozen mint daiquiris are dangerously drinkable.

At which point you might start to feel guilty about this decadent lifestyle of yours.  Satsanga at the bottom of Labourdonais is a pretty forgettable dining experience.  If you’re planning to eat Continental in India best to modify your expectations; the caprese salad was a plate of deliciously ripe tomato with three anorexic slices of mozzarella and three miniature basil leaves and the cheeseboard in off season? Camembert.  That’s it.  But the venue does have a studio space.  Santeesh has his own studio in Goa but Goa basically shuts down in summer so from May until his Mysore style ashtanga yoga class is available every morning.  Those who know will tell you, Ashtanga is a serious workout leaving you loose and wrung out in ways previously unfamiliar.  So of course you’ll deserve a treat….

Baker Street on Bussy street is a traditional French patisserie and chocolatier of French and German ownership with a trilingual Tamil, French and English speaking staff.  Decent coffee, delicious pastries and freshly baked bread make this the expat breakfast favorite.  I looked up from my newspaper, pain au lait avec pepin chocolat and cafe au lait and realised that 90% of the clientele were speaking french.  Which, having arrived in India from France, was oddly soothing.

Now if you *did* fall so in love with the place that you never wanted to leave there is an option for you.  Twelve kilometers outside Pondy is Auroville, an ex-pat hippy commune that provides a self sufficient new age community for those seeking escape and enlightenment.  I don’t know too much about it because apparently they’re not nuts about tourists.  I kept meaning to drop in but somehow we just never got around to it…


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