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Pondicherry: India's brightest new travel star
The success of "Life of Pi" has cast a spotlight on this little known Indian enclave with a heavy French presence
India isn't known for being cool, calm and collected.
So wandering along the seaside promenade at Pondicherry, I'm enjoying the unexpectedly quiet dignity of the place.
The sea is lapping gently on my left, whilst on my right a set of aristocratic buildings line up along a road that has no traffic; amazingly, this seaside promenade is pedestrianized.
A family walks past, looking every inch like local Tamils, but my ear picks out something unusual: they're speaking French to each other.
And here’s a beachfront café, with a menu that includes croissant au beurre and poisson du jour.
Toward the end of the road is more evidence: a big Alliance Francaise, and across the way a grand old building with Hotel de Ville emblazoned above its arches; these days it's sadly neglected, but it was once the nerve center of what was once an outpost of France.
A seaside town in Tamil Nadu, three hours’ drive south of Chennai, Pondicherry also served as the setting for the award-winning book and movie "Life of Pi."
A day after the film directed by Ang Lee nabbed four Academy Awards, the local government tourist office announced plans to develop all 18 sites used in the movie into tourist attractions, according to a report in the Financial Express. Though no statistics are available on the number of tourists inspired by the film to visit Pondicherry, a surge in interest feels inevitable.
More on CNN: How movies boost tourism
Pondicherry was once a rare thing -- a French enclave on Indian shores.
And while the French may have left more than half a century ago, "Le Pondi" still has a distinct identity, the product of the collision of three different worlds.
French colonial enclave
As a "Life of Pi" pilgrim, I’ve come to see the place where Yann Martell’s eponymous hero, Pi, started his extraordinary physical and spiritual journey.
Christened Piscine Molitor Patel, after a Parisian swimming pool, the hero rebranded himself "Pi" to escape his school nickname -- "Pissy Patel." He described Pondicherry as "one of the most beautiful places on earth."
It still has bags of elegance.
Many of the scenes from the movie were filmed in Pondicherry’s French-built seafront colonial quarter, in broad streets shaded by avenues of light-fingered neem trees, lined with shuttered houses, some of whose owners live partly here, and partly in France.
It's such a unique location that it's regularly used as a movie backdrop by Bollywood, Tollywood (Tamil Nadu) and Kollywood (Karnataka). Now it’s made it big in Hollywood.
This colonial district -- filled with the sound of birds, not motorbikes -- hosts small restaurants and unusual boutiques.
The Botanical Gardens, where Pi’s parents had their zoo, was also founded by the French.
I enter by the main gate to be greeted by a sign warning me not to "enrage the honeybees."
Inside, the gardens seem run down and practically deserted, and the heavily advertised "Musical Dancing Fountain" turns out to be neither musical, nor dancing, nor a fountain. I can’t spot any honeybees, not even any slightly grumpy ones.
The trees, though, are superb.
Giant African mahogany, towering silk cottons with enormous roots, tangled peepuls and flaming jacarandas. Weaving between them travels a little blue train, with a handful of small boys dreaming of becoming engine drivers, and setting off, like Pi, into the outside world.
The Tamil town
The colonial district is divided from the Tamil town by what locals call the "canal," which is actually more of a storm drain than a permanent watercourse.
Cross that, though, and suddenly life speeds up, particularly along the main artery Rue Jawaharlal Nehru. Streets are narrower, gaudy temples spring up and houses have verandas out front where residents and passersby gather to chat.
One of these properties, the Maison Perumal, has been converted into an elegant boutique hotel.
The largest buildings here are the churches, particularly the Sacred Heart Basilica, where it's standing room only during Sunday services.
Occasionally, a herd of goats is driven through town, a reminder of how close the countryside is. The unlucky ones among them may be heading for the Grand Bazaar, a big covered food market just off Jawaharlal Nehru, where vendors sit behind their piles of fruit, fish and flowers -– and where Pi himself was filmed, pushing through the labyrinth of sights, sounds and smells, following the girl of his dreams.
The meditation zone
The third and final part of Pondicherry is actually on the northern outskirts of town, and it's the focus of another kind of spiritual journey.
The ashram of Auroville ("City of Dawn") dates back almost to the time of the French, when it was founded as a place where man could come to contemplate his position in the cosmos.
The drive into the multinational "experimental township" is up a sinuous rural road, and you know you’re getting near when the frequency of foreigners on motorbikes thickens into a steady stream.
Cars are excluded from the main center, so visitors have to park and walk the rest of the way into what feels like a university campus, albeit with some rather unusual architecture.
Around 300 people live here, but there are many more guesthouses lining the access roads, so there can be as many as 12,000 visitors on site on a busy day. Not that it feels like a crowd, because Auroville is widely spread and incorporates 14 farms.
Its focal points are its meditation centers. The one that everyone heads for is the Matrimandir, the temple of the mother, a huge golden globe which looks like something that has just landed from another planet.
Although Auroville is happy to receive drive-by visitors –- I was there for a couple of hours, nosing around, looking at the notices, people-watching, drinking tea in one of the cafés –- you don’t get to go inside the Matrimandir without committing to a couple of days on site.
Pondicherry (Puducherry) is 135 kilometers south of Chennai in Tamil Nadu, and can by reached by express bus and train. A car service in Auroville (www.aurovilletransport.com) does airport pickups from Chennai for around US$35.
Heritage organization Intach leads guided walks (+91 (0)413 2225991), as does the Pondicherry tourist board (+91 (0)413 2339497).
Auroville is 7 kilometers north of the center, off Chennai road. There's a visitors center on site with exhibitions, information and bicycles for rent. Anyone wanting to stay overnight should email email@example.com.