We travelled here by bus, a one and a half hour teeth rattling, spine jarring 30 rupee ride south from Mamallapuram, warm air and traffic fumes blowing in through the open windows, arriving at a bus station in the centre of a city as jostling, noisy and chaotic as any other in India and, having done a particularly bad job of negotiating a good price with the cartel of drivers, got an auto rickshaw to the French Quarter and our hotel, the very unIndian sounding Le Chateau.
How to pronounce it? With a French accent? Or Franglais? The driver understood neither so we gave him the name of the street – Rue Romain Rolland – and drove along it until we spotted the hotel and pointed it to him. ‘Ah, Lee Chatty!’ Now we knew.
The French Quarter lies in the area running back from the seafront and its promenade, white and yellow ochre painted buildings dating from the French colonisation of the city (the French were in charge until 1954) and roughly separated from the modern bustling Indian part by a rank smelling, rubbish filled canal which presumably gets flushed clean in the annual monsoon rains.
The narrow streets of the French quarter are shaded by tamarind trees, jasmine, frangipani and bougainvillea, there are courtyard Arts cafes selling good fresh coffee and baguettes, rooftop restaurants and antique shops, boutiques selling clothes and objets d’art. Surprisingly there are number of derelict colonial buildings too and, behind high walls, abandoned and overgrown gardens.
It ought to be a peaceful area of the town and relatively speaking it is. There’s very little traffic but what there is – mostly scooters and motorcycles – seem unable to ride for more than 20 yards without sounding their horns at approaching crossroads, passing pedestrians, fellow scooter riders, parked cars and stray dogs, shredding the tranquility of what ought to be a quiet pleasant place to stroll in. My instinctive reaction as they pass with a hand on the horn is to knock them off their bikes and scooters. A more modest proposal for the authorities here in Puducherry is that the horns be removed and replaced with bicycle bells or those squeakers they have in rubber ducks and soft toys. Everyone would be happier. The Promenade which runs along the seafront is an antidote in the evening however. At 6 o’clock the barriers are erected and all traffic stops until 7.30 the following morning and the world and his wife come out to stroll along in the cool of the evening.
We spent a pleasant idle four days here, taking in the main sights on the first day: the cathedrals built by the French missionaries, the French Consulate and Hotel de Ville and the cool green space filled with picnicking families that is Bharathi Park. We’d been looking forward to spending a morning in the Botanical Garden, started in 1826 by the French colonists to explore what might be grown in the region and handed over to the city in 1960. What a disappointment. Our visit to the fabulous Botanical Garden in the Bangalore had raised expectations, a genuine green oasis in the centre of a busy city. The Puducherry Botanical Garden was a sad affair. Apart from a display of bedding plants at the entrance and a hothouse with orchids it was dirty, tired, neglected, strewn with litter and abandoned building material and, unsurprisingly, almost empty of visitors. We stayed no more than half an hour.
There’s a limit to the amount of time you can spend lounging about in cafes and walking on the Promenade so we signed up for the cooking class at Sita, the South India Traditional Arts centre. What a good decision. There was a trip to the Goubert Market to buy spices, pulses, vegetables, banana leaf plates and fish, twelve sea carp, which were then taken along to the ladies to gut. They sit all day in front of a bloody chopping block beside a basin of discarded fish heads and intestines, quickly and deftly cleaning the squid and descaling and gutting fish that customers have bought elsewhere in the fish market. In our case the service cost 15rps.
Back at the Sita centre we set to as directed by the tutor chopping and grating vegetables, soaking and squeezing out the tamarind pods, adding spices and jagaree to pots of bubbling lentils or sizzling ghee, stirring and poking and then sitting down to eat what we had cooked: fried fish, coconut cabbage, dhal, coconut fish curry and, for dessert, carrot halwa. The dishes set out on the banana leaf plate, it tasted a great deal better than it looked.
On to Kanchipuram tomorrow.
The photos here were taken with a mobile phone. Check out my travel and landscape photos taken with a camera at