From its colonial architecture to its kepi-hatted policemen and the ready â€śBonjoursâ€ť of its shopkeepers, the former capital of French India still retains a good measure of Gallic charm. Often likened to a Mediterranean sea- side town, Pondicherryâ€”officially Puducherry, but more commonly known as Pondyâ€”lies within easy reach of Chennai (a two-and-a-half-hour drive to the north) and offers a unique Franco-Tamil identity that beckons exploration. Hereâ€™s how to make the most of a two-day visit.
Wake up at the delightful Palais de MahĂ© (4 Rue de Bussy; 91-413/234-5611; doubles from US$185) and order a traditional Tamil breakfast of dosas and sambarâ€”just the thing to fortify you for a stroll around Pondicherryâ€™s old French quarter (the backdrop for many scenes in the movie Life of Pi). INTACH, the local arm of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage, leads informative walking tours through streets lined with color-washed villas sporting louvered shutters, wrought-iron grilles, and ornate cornices. Among the highlights is the beautifully restored, salmon-pink Church of Our Lady of Angels on Rue Dumas, built in 1865.
Break for a lunch of Creole fish curry at the Hotel de Lâ€™Orientâ€™s atmospheric courtyard restaurant, Carte Blanche (17 Rue Romain Rolland; 91-413/234-3067). From here, walk 10 minutes north to the Puducherry Museum (1 Rue St. Louis; 91-413/222-3950), which occupies a century-old mansion across from leafy Bharathi Park. The holdings range from ancientâ€”Pallava and Chola sculptures; Roman pottery recovered from the nearby archaeological site of Arikamaduâ€”to colonial, with French-era bric-a-brac interspersed among escritoires, comptoirs, and a bed once slept in by the 18th-century governor-general Joseph-FranĂ§ois Dupleix. Then unwind at one of Indiaâ€™s oldest botanical parks, the Jardin Botanique (West Blvd. and Lal Bahadur St.), laid out in 1826 over some nine shady hectares.
Do what the locals do and stretch your legs along Goubert Avenue, a seafront promenade lined with cotton-candy hawkers, ice cream carts, and monuments including a four-meter-tall statue of Mahatma Gandhi. Nearby, the circular Customs Office and an 1836-built lighthouse recall Pondyâ€™s faded maritime glory. End the day with an alfresco dinner under a 200-year-old mango tree at Le Dupleix (5 Rue de la Caserne St.; 91-413/222-6001), a colonial-governorâ€™s residence turned period-style boutique hotel.