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Leaving the vast city of Chennai, India, is a slow process. The choking traffic meant my taxi crawled through the suburbs toward the coastal highway. But then we were free, speeding southbound toward a destination that has long topped my bucket list.
Pondicherry — known locally as Puducherry — is a time-honored favorite of travel romantics in India. I had read many accounts of this southeastern city formerly controlled by the French, with its soulful tree-shaded streets and pastel-tinted villas baking in the sun beside the Bay of Bengal. My mind had concocted a vision combining the finer parts of Havana, Shanghai, Nice and Mumbai.
Pondicherry does not disappoint, but clients should note that first impressions must be dismissed. Pondicherry has two personalities: a fast-growing Indian city rushing to construct new malls and apartment towers; and a region celebrating its heritage.
The French quarter arcs gently around the Bay of Bengal. In this heritage district, visitors will find mustard, pink and mint-green villas with Haussmannian colonnades and archways, small cafes in tropical gardens, Indian jewelry boutiques and expertly restored courtyard hotels. It’s an intoxicating melange of Europe and India, and walking along the low-lit, traffic-free streets at night made me feel as if time was standing still.
In recent years, Pondicherry has become a poster child for heritage conservation in India. But the need for sustainable preservation was highlighted in late 2014, when the nearly 145-year-old Mairie administrative building (formerly the town hall) collapsed in a storm.
This iconic seafront spot was destroyed by a combination of long-term neglect, a paucity of restoration funds and a punishing climate. While some of the city’s fine buildings have been restored and adapted, many more remain derelict.
For this reason, a good place to start exploring is on Rue Aurobindo at the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage Pondicherry. The visitor center shows historical videos and provides maps and guided architectural tours of the heritage district. A short walk from here is the tree-filled Bharathi Park, which is surrounded by some grand examples of classic French architecture, including the Cercle de Pondicherry recreational club and the canary-yellow Chambre de Commerce Pondicherry.
The city’s crowning glory is its mile-long seafront promenade, which features some of the French Quarter’s most important landmarks. Statues of Mahatma Gandhi and Joan of Arc draw tourists and locals, as do the French War Memorial and elegant Customs House. Dominating the low-rise landscape is the Bay of Bengal and Pondicherry’s famously decaying lighthouse, which is nearly 100 feet tall. Snack stalls are clustered on the narrow beachfront, and the rooftop restaurant at The Promenade, a colonial-era hotel, is a great spot to sip a cool drink and watch the world go by.
Pondicherry’s laid-back ambience is infectious. I may have crossed it off my must-visit list, but I hope to return in the future.
La Villa ShantiFrench archways and pillars abound in this 19th century villa that has been restored with contemporary flourishes and respect for local traditions. Breakfast in the courtyard surrounded by tropical plants is a great way to start the day.
Le DupleixBuilt in the 18th century as the home of the mayor of Pondicherry, this sleekly restyled heritage building effortlessly blends French chic with tropical Indian trimmings. The courtyard restaurant built around a historic mango tree is one of Pondicherry’s best.
WHERE TO LINGER
Cafe des ArtsThis atmospheric garden cafe serves fresh coffee and pastries. Sepia photos of old Pondicherry and images of Indian movie stars adorn the walls.
Lighthouse at The PromenadeAffording excellent views of Pondicherry’s promenade and the Bay of the Bengal, this rooftop hotel restaurant is a popular hot spot for sundowner drinks.