From Mamallapuram we headed south to Puducherry along the ECR – and here the stay was in sharp contrast! We had a comfortable, but austere room inside a convent. This was the fallout of the fact that I failed to find a single room in the “White Town” (the French part of the town) in late September. This particular place was recommended to me by a local contact. It was a large, old French style house, in which the Sisters had had 5 rooms for rent. The convent was known as the embroidery house, and it provided employment to more than 30 women of all ages who spent the day doing exquisite hand embroidery. It was obvious that the shop, selling these works of art, was not doing so well – and the decision to rent rooms to augment the income, must have been a difficult one for these Ladies of God!
The house was situated on a quiet road, just opposite the famous De L’Orient ( Nimrana group hotel) and offered basic amenities (no room service, for one) at 25% the cost. At the heart of the French quarter, and a street away from the sea front, it suited us fairly well. The cafes and restaurants within a few steps from the door were many and so the lack of room service was not really missed.
This part of the town, still retains quite a few of the original buildings, partly I think because a substantial number of the buildings belong the Mother’s Ashram. The Ashram itself is one of the biggest draws of the town, although we did not venture to visit it – we were there on 31st December and 1st and 2nd of January – since the town was teeming with tourists, day trippers and the lines to enter were winding down the street. It was also the season of the bougainvilleas, and the shaded streets with the characteristic European colors on the houses, have an old world charm about them.
The Seaside promenade is another attraction of the town. It is one of the few ‘traffic-free’ zones anywhere in the country – albeit only for 2 hours in the morning and 2 in the evening. One morning I had a wonderful morning walk and a cup of filter coffee, and then of course a couple of leisurely strolls at other times of the day as well. It has the mandatory Gandhi, Nehru, Ambedkar statues, but also an old lighthouse, the cathedral and a few other interesting buildings.
Across a small canal, which is now dry, lies the rest of the town, including the original Tamil part. In earlier times, the two would have been tightly segregated with the ‘servant’ class living in the Tamil part and crossing the bridges to work for their French masters. The Tamil quarters are less well preserved, although a couple of streets do give a flavor of a Tamil theruvu.
Within the quiet streets of the White town are also a number of interesting shops, many of them selling the wares from Auroville. A visit to Auroville itself should be on the list of things to do in Puducherry, but somehow we felt a quick day trip may not be sufficient and so postponed to another time. But on the whole, a few days in this town are really relaxing, with the many restaurants serving excellent local Creole food, the many cafes and bakeries, the shops…… how I wish, it could be possible to make this whole section free of vehicles – I am sure it will add to the tourist lure!