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Pondicherry

Pondicherry (or Pondi) was an outpost of the French Empire for almost 300 years, and still today it is a small slice of France deposited neatly besides the azure waters of the Coromandel Coast in southeast India. Given the nicknames of "The Indian Côte d'Azur" and "The Riviera of the East", it a haven of French style and refinement which is separated from boomtown India.

The French Union Territory has always had a charm and a style of its own, which is still visible in the old French Quarter (where many visitors tend to spend most of their time), with many remnants of its colonial past still evident. This picturesque part of town is reminiscent to that of a Provençal village; bright Mediterranean coloured houses lining neat, narrow lanes, flower-laden wrought-iron balconies, blue-enamelled street signs, and staying carefully out of the sun, even policemen in red kepis. The old seafront, called Beach Road, makes for a lovely morning stroll, and there is a museum housed in a converted late 18th century villa, several elaborate Catholic churches and 19th century Botanical Gardens planted with around 900 species of plants.

The city was built on a grid system and precisely divided by a canal; the French Quarter, celebrated in literature and legend on one side, and the Tamil Quarter on the other. Away from the ordered geometries of the seafront, deeper towards the heart of town, the Tamil Quarter is a different world, a melting pot for cultures and where a bustling South Indian way of life prevails.

Shopping in Pondi is excellent (taxes are low), with particular specialities being doll making, silk weaving and papermaking. The spiritual heart of Pondi is the exceedingly rich and internationally famous ashram of Sri Aurobindo, whose distinctive light-grey buildings sprawl throughout the town: schools, libraries, shops and restaurants, and they also make paper and books, often beautifully bound in silk. Just north of town, the ashram’s offshoot Auroville, draws a large number of spiritually minded bohemian-chic visitors.

Pondicherry is ideally located to slot into any Tamil Nadu itinerary, although we would suggest it as stop off in between the cultural hubs of Tanjore and Mahabalipuram as a perfect relaxing spot. One can easily visit all key highlights on a day-trip with a private car and driver, however two days will allow one to explore the significant sights, as well as visit the slightly more off beat places of interest at a leisurely pace. 

>> Read our blog: Ampersand's Insider View of Pondicherry

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I can't think of anything that excites a greater sense of childlike wonder than to be in a country where you are ignorant of almost everything.
Bill Bryson

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