A TRYST WITH THE PAST
Words: SHEENA DABHOLKAR
Photographs: JEREMIAH CHRISTANAND RAO
GREAT FROM Bangalore, Chennai
GREAT FOR History and architecture
Every café serves croissants, and each one of its tranquil streets is referred to as a ‘rue’. Known as a former French colony (mostly because it was one), not many know of this quaint South Indian union territory’s fascinating history. This peaceful city was once fraught with conflict. The French set it up in 1674, but, before it became a part of independent India in 1954, it also changed hands between the Dutch and the British, who destroyed it during the Anglo-French wars in the early 1760s. The town was rebuilt later that decade under French rule and, today, as a result, Puducherry’s stay options are varied and unique. Many structures have been painstakingly restored to their former glory, while other owners put a contemporary spin on the buildings. Regardless of which style you fancy, expect informal luxury that won’t break the bank. Hotel de l’Orient, in the French Quarter, occupies a heritage mansion. Originally belonging to a French family, it was later turned into Instruction Publique, the city’s education department. The hotel’s 16 rooms are scattered along passageways, and decorated with antique furniture, Savonnerie rugs, vintage photographs and rare lithographs. Pack a book to read n the sunny lounge on the first floor – it’s atmospheric, and you’ll feel like you’re reliving a bit of history.
Further along Rue Romain Rolland is Gratitude Heritage, a sunshine-yellow 19th-century house. The rooms, built around a leafy courtyard, are uniquely styled with colonial furniture. With its owners, and often, writers-in-residence, it functions more like a home than a hotel. It’s tranquil and perfectly lovely, and a welcome nod to simpler times. Practise yoga on the lovely terrace, enjoy a hearty breakfast and commune with other guests, or explore the town – the breezy promenade is only a short stroll away.
If you’re interested in a glimpse of life outside the French Quarter, sign up for a cycle tour at SITA Cultural Center. The tour zigzags across the town, from the Muslim Quarter all the way to the fisherman’s village of Kuruchikuppam, ticking off a couple of its major sights along the way. Ask to stop off at KBS Kofi Barr for a filter kaapi that will jolt you awake. If you want a less strenuous activity, SITA also offers a cheese-making class at which you can learn to make your own mozzarella and ricotta under the guidance of a French specialist. If you’re a guest at Villa Shanti, you can borrow bikes at no cost and go for a spin at your leisure. An avant-garde interpretation of the traditional Pondy hotel, Villa Shanti has a central courtyard, but shares little else in common with the others. Instead, it feels a little bit like a design hotel – the revamped building, lacquered in shades of beige and white, punctuated with kitschy bursts of pop art, and rooms featuring typically Tamil materials such as Chettinad tiles.
The café bar at Villa Shanti is the liveliest place in town, drawing a mix of travellers and locals – so hang around for a well-crafted cocktail. But, if you’re looking for a peaceful and quiet getaway, Puducherry won’t judge. This sleepy enclave will keep your secrets.