Our driver pulled into the entrance to Hotel le Royal in Pondicherry. The curved drive led to glistening glass doors and a liveried doorman. We stepped through into air conditioned, marbled elegance. A step up from the austere room at our Chennai Hotel and yet cheaper. We only picked the hotel because it had a small pool.
Pondicherry is now called Puducherry, but most still call it Pondicherry. It gained its significance as The French Riviera of the East after the advent of French colonisation in India. Actually, the colonial background is a mess of European exploitation, battles and ownership. The Portuguese started it, the Dutch took over before ceding to the French. But then the bloody English flattened the town during the Anglo-French war in the early 1800s. Somehow the French regained control and rebuilt the town. As a consequence, the seafront area and about four and five streets deep all retain the French flair for boulevards and elegant buildings. We knew all this, but hadn’t realised that the city had spread beyond the French buildings, to be a normal Indian city, full of the usual traffic chaos.
After the long journey we opted for a swim, followed by beers and snacks in the hotel bar, accompanied by a game of Scrabble. We were the only patrons, and it didn’t take long before the barman followed his curiosity and started watching us play. He was a bit confused, so we offered simple explanations, which seemed to satisfy, and he remained our audience of one for the remainder of the game.
Refreshed and cleaned up we set off for evening entertainment. I had identified the Catamaran Brewing Company, a microbrewery in the heart of the city, as worth a visit. According to Miss Google it was about a twenty minute walk, so we wandered out into the busy night. The hotel was on a main road into the heart of the city. It was packed with traffic, and as we tried to keep to the intermittent pavement, we occasionally had to skirt the edge of the road. That sounds insignificant, but it is a fact that motorbikes and scooters don’t always stick to the right side of the road. They often sneak up the inside, opposite the traffic flow, and into our passage. All the distraction led to a near disaster.
I was only aware of the metre square hole after I had stepped over it and my back heel had caught the edge of the darkness. I stumbled a bit and recovered my balance. Maybe my peripheral vision had seen the hole and with unconscious guidance avoided the potential disaster. I could so easily have been on a different step and disappeared into the blackness. Ganesha was working.
After crossing the stinking river, dodging traffic, we decided to get off the main road, and disappeared into a maze of safer lanes. Reaching the micro-brewery, we climbed the stairs to the main bar and ordered a flight of their brews. We got a Belgian style wheat beer, a pils, a dark lager, a strong IPA and a cider. All good, even if IPA is not my favourite style. Having discovered which beers we preferred, we made our choices and ordered food from a varied menu: Mediterranean (pizza and pasta) and Indian. It was all excellent and was so good we went back the next night to their rooftop bar and entertainment from Stereophonix the Band. Unfortunately, their namesakes’ songs did not feature. In fact as we walked in, a man, who I had assumed was a punter singing band karaoke, was killing an Elvis song; lyrics on his handheld phone. He turned out to be a band member. He and another man alternated with the lead female singer. She sang local Tamil Nadu traditional songs, whilst they did a variety of Indian and UK classics with the words on their phones. The backing members on keyboards, drums and lead guitar were good though.
In between the two pub visits, we explored town. We took in the long seafront boulevard and no swimming guidelines. The beach was policed by an enthusiastic man on a motorbike, whistling at the guilty paddlers. Lunch was taken at Bread and Chocolate, above a vegan restaurant in Marine Street. How very European, and the food matched. The menu offered a range of Mediterranean, Mexican and Asian bakes, cakes, toasties, and bowls. It was all delicious and just around the corner from our next temple visit.
Arulmigu Manakula Vinayagar Devasthanam, is a Hindu temple, dedicated to Ganesha. We didn’t know that at the time, but how appropriate for Dinah’s interest in their deity of good fortune. We deposited shoes and wandered inside. It was decorated in yellows, pinks, oranges, blues and greens. The usual shrines were attended by lines of people waiting to pay respects. We sat, propped on one of the colourful pillars and watched the locals go about their beliefs, or sit and eat their lunch.
The next evening we were due to depart to catch the night bus to Madurai. Before departure we had a few more hours in the town. We wandered, taking in the local park and museum. Finding somewhere for lunch proved challenging. The town was packed with people. Every restaurant was full. We searched the boulevards with no luck. Then we passed a hotel with a rooftop restaurant. Reasoning that most people were lazy we ascended to the top floor with three Indian young men and found an empty table.
Dinah’s food arrived promptly. She’d finished when my Biryani arrived; they’d cooked it from scratch. It was gorgeous and has inspired me to replicate it at home. Meanwhile Dinah had been watching the young men. They had ordered a variety of dishes, which were all shared. Soup, carbonara pasta, fried chicken, curry and a roti were all consumed as they arrived. Eclectic eating.
We made our way back to hotel, via the usual tuk-tuk and waited for time to pass. The minibus to our coach would depart at 6:30pm. It was going to be an adventure.