French Toast on the Coromandel Coast
Call it fondly Pondy or Puducherry, its official name. This is a city of contrasts. One part of the city is quaint and quiet, a little France; the other part is bustling and boisterous, a typical south-Indian city. Then, as you drive a little out of town through narrow, meandering streets is Auroville, a world all its own.
We took the air-conditioned, sleeper coach from Bangalore, hoping to get some rest. But thanks to the bumpy roads and loud snores, I hardly caught a few winks. When day dawned, the bus screeched to a halt and my sleepy eyes spotted a large sign board – JIPMER (Jawaharlal Institute of Post-Graduate Medical Education & Research). That was something Pondy was famous for, at least in my view, and of course the French connection. Okay, and Life of Pi was partly shot there.
At the next stop, we got off the bus and hopped into a waiting yellow autorickshaw to take us straight to ‘Gratitude’, a heritage home on Rue Romain Rolland in the French quarter. That would be our home for three days. There are many such heritage homes that have been carefully restored by conservationists, some with the help of INTACH. Thankfully, the Franco-Tamil style architecture has been retained incorporating some modern features to make life easier in today’s frenetic world.
Sights to see
Pondy is not one of those places with many touristy spots. Yes, it has a museum or two, old temples and churches, parks and gardens and beaches on the Coromandel coast of the Bay of Bengal. But given the hot and humid weather, outdoors is not the best option. Even in late October it was muggy and sticky, the sun was harsh.
So, with fleeting visits to a little museum and a crafts fair, a peek into the Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, a quick stroll in the Botanical gardens while chomping on fresh guava with salt and chilli powder, and late evening walks to the crowded ‘rock’ beach we were done with sightseeing!
Then what do you do in Pondy? Don the hat of a Flaneur. As is said a thousand times or more, Pondy is a pretty hangover, not from the great French wines or cognacs but from a French colonial past. And what better way than to simply eat, drink and be merry in the cool ambience of one of the beautifully restored houses.
Gratitude – a charming villa
Which brings me to Gratitude where we stayed. It is a charming old-world villa, painted yellow, the windows and doors accentuated with white paint, the front partly covered with the hanging branches of the two trees, lending a certain freshness and beauty. The rooms are set on two floors around the central, open courtyard with trees providing enough shade. The wide arches, high columns, the Madras terraced roof and open corridors give the place an airy feel.
Our room was clean and compact and had a ceiling fan. The vintage furniture in the other rooms was hand-picked by the owners with each piece making a statement of its own.
While the bathrooms have showers, there’s the option of having the great Indian bucket bath as in bygone times. Bathing from water stored in a brass bucket with the aid of a chembu (brass bowl) has medicinal benefits according to Ayurveda. What’s more, it saves energy and water. I loved it. As I poured the lukewarm water over my body, it brought back memories of my childhood when I last had such a bath.
Gratitude provides only breakfast. Guests gather around the large dining table like family members to break bread; rather partake of whatever is homemade, which includes south-Indian as well as Continental bites. What it may lack in variety, is compensated by food for thought as guests chat about themselves, their adventures or mis-adventures in Pondy or just about anything. Meeting new people can be interesting, more so when the owners of Gratitude too join in. And some surprise visitors too. Like the big green ant that crawled up on our table, circled around my plate and went its way. Needless to say, it was a fascinating moment.
Sampling the food
Post breakfast most guests head out to explore Pondy but for someone who enjoys a long, lazy morning, nothing like reading the newspaper or a book on the antique swing in the courtyard in the shade of a mango tree. And for those less inclined to sway in a swing, there’s the option of being comfortably ensconced in an easy chair or a wooden seat or perhaps stretch out on the cool, clean floor. If you’re lucky, a colourful winged visitor might just drop down and chirp ‘hello’ before flying away.
That Gratitude doesn’t serve lunch and dinner is a blessing in disguise. On a holiday, who doesn’t like to eat well and sample varied local cuisine, be it freshly baked baguettes, croissants or salads from a French Patisserie or the famous Kamatchi or Karaikal biryani on green banana leaf or even plain rice with spicy rasam and pepper chicken? Chic restaurants and swanky bars – Celine’s Kitchen and Spice Route to name just two – in the French quarter with eclectic menus are just a stone’s throw away.
One morning we decided to aimlessly stroll around. It was worthwhile. The architecture may be the same but every rambling bungalow is prettily different with little gardens and some unique characteristic that made us go click, click with our phone cameras. Walking around gave us a sense of the place and the people too. The French and Tamil street names still exist, ancient trees and many neem trees continue to spread their branches, providing shade and throwing dappled shadows on the ground.
When fatigue got the better of us, we refreshed ourselves with tender coconut water from a female vendor who impressed us with the professional manner she sliced the top portion and opened the hard shell. It was our first encounter with a female tender coconut vendor. Talking of females, it was truly a delight to see many women cycling quite habitually and that too in saris even on crowded roads, a sight that has long disappeared in some other cities.
Around noon we walked into Cluny Convent in the French quarter to see the embroidery centre functioning within the colonial building with a beautiful garden. The centre provides training and employment to women who create extraordinary work of embroidery such as table covers, runners, napkins etc. There’s plenty on sale and it does seem pricey but for the perfect, quality work done with skilful hands it is not a big price to pay.
Visit to Auroville
Auroville, less than an hour’s drive from Pondy, also has boutiques that sell loads of fantastic handmade stuff but there’s more to this little township that claims to be a ‘universal town’ where anyone from anywhere can live in peace. There’s much to experience in this “spiritual utopia” but on our flying visit we walked around the main campus area and from a distance, saw the giant golden golf ball or Matrimandir that sits in the heart of Auroville.
From art to education to organic farming this township is a hub of sustainability and green practices where over 2500 people from across the world live in pursuit of their dream. But for the buzz of tourists, a serene atmosphere prevails in this forested area.
We couldn’t wait to drive back on the narrow roads to a famous bakery, Boulangerie, nearby. The aroma of freshly baked bread and the sight of the stuff displayed tempt you to buy everything – cakes, cookies, croissants, tarts, sourdough bread, apple crumble and what have you. We picked up some stuff and went across to the attached restaurant for lunch.
The Tamil Quarter and back home
A trip to Pondy is incomplete without a stroll around the Tamil quarter that is across the canal from the French quarter. Teeming with people, there’s vibrancy, energy and colour as people go about their business. Here the houses are smaller with a mix of traditional and modern terraced ones, the streets narrower; the traffic is chaotic as motorists dodge a cow lazily crossing the road or stray dogs scampering for cover. There are restaurants aplenty for idli-vada chutney, pongal or rice and sambar and you could stumble into the Gelato Factory, a cosy place that serves many flavours of ice cream and desserts.
From this citified chaos it was back to our peaceful refuge – Gratitude. To pack our bags and brace ourselves for our six-hour, bumpy, night drive back to Bangalore.0