In the coastal city of Pondicherry, we find heritage hotels that offer a slice of history peppered with a dash of the contemporary
On your next visit, look beyond the beach, night life, liquor and seafood, as the French town beckons with a cluster of elegant and classy heritage hotels. From Le Dupleix by Hidesign to De L’orient by Neemrana and the newest, La Villa by Sylvain Ségiyane Paquiry, there’s plenty to choose from. Hoteliers like Dimitri Klein and Paquiry, who believe that there’s more to a building than bricks, talk to us about what it takes to breathe new life into old walls. Read on:
By Preeti GT, Mrinalini Sundar, Ryan Peppin
Seeing potential for adaptive reuse and heritage conservation tourism in the country, India-born French citizen, Sylvain Ségiyane Paquiry, is making waves one hotel at a time. Raised in Pondicherry by parents of Indian origin, Paquiry was 18 when he decided this would be his calling. “It was an age where I sought an identity for myself — shuttling between two countries, it was India that tugged at my heart,” says Paquiry, who initially wanted to convert beautiful ancient havelis in Rajasthan into comfortable hotels. But facing a curve ball with every step in an unknown state, he decided to emulate his concept in the beautiful French colony of Pondicherry. Thus was born La Villa Shanti, which developed a following in no time. And in August, together with French architects Tina Trigala and Yves Lesprit, and Spa Housing and Constructions in Chennai, Paquiry formed a team that restored a 19th century colonial home, turning it into a six-suite boutique hotel, La Villa.
With a mid-segment heritage property already established in La Villa Shanti, Paquiry hopes to offer luxury with La Villa. He explains that it is “modern, yet nostalgic, with ideas that are young, fresh and inspirited.” La Villa’s restoration took four years and has resulted in a colonial building fused with contemporary chic — large, open and clutter-free spaces, high ceilings, thick walls, and the use of modern materials like mosaic and iron. It is refreshing to find the bygone eight-faced pillars alongside earthy teak wood and humble linen, merging well with western design elements of glass and metal. “Our vision was clear — build a product that has soul. We wanted to bring about modernity with a local identity, using the property as a platform to showcase this and more,” Paquiry explains.
True to his words, we find unique ideas punctuating every square inch of this 6,000 sq ft property. Kalimadu wooden doors from antique shops are reincarnated as furniture at the hotel (beds, desks, tables, chairs, etc) and the famed Karaikudi tiles from Kanadukathan form the flooring. The corridor floors are made of a coloured oxide, in a traditional red-white and modern silver-grey colour scheme. For shade, the property relies on mango and Ashoka trees that are 100-years-old, while the interiors are radiant, with natural ventilation and antique silver cutlery.
With chequered lungis for curtains, the decor borrows directly from the streets of Tamil Nadu, and the hotel uses only locally- sourced ingredients in its food. The food is simple and tasty, but enhanced by the use of techniques like sous vide. If you want to take back some of the lovely things you see at La Villa, the boutique at the hotel is full of interesting knick knacks. Handmade aluminium door knockers, intricate handicrafts and more, seem like precious gifts one could cherish forever.Rooms are from Rs.12,000 to Rs.14,000 inclusive of continental breakfast and Wifi. All rooms are for adults only. Details : 0413 2338555 and 2348555
On your plate
All CGH Earth hotels and resorts focus on serving food that is local and seasonal. “Our food reflects Tamil culinary traditions as practised in Pondicherry. The curry leaves grown on our terrace are the key ingredient in our house special — karuvepilai varutha meen,” Jose points out. Taking a step towards promoting local cuisines, Maison Perumal offers cooking demos for guests every day. “Introducing guests to local ingredients and local cooking utensils, the class is a window into the traditional kitchens of the region. As part of the class, we teach and encourage our guests to cook with local and seasonal produce,” she adds.
CGH Earth, Maison Perumal
CGH Earth always has a little heritage attached to its buildings. Maison Perumal, on Perumal Koil Street, originally belonged to a Tamil Chettiar and, at one point, was the registration office of the local government. “With the help of INTACH Pondicherry, we restored the structure back to its original residential form. The traditional Franco-Tamil architecture of the building was retained, while giving it new life in the form of a hotel,” begins Mridula Jose, the group’s vice president of product development and media. There is another property in the French town, Palais de Mahe. Each time the Kerala-based hotel chain works on a property, restoring the heritage and culture of the region is always key. In the industry for several years, Jose shares that tourism can play an important role to show the owners of these old buildings alternative ways to protect their beautiful but dilapidated structures. “There are government bodies like the ASI that protect and conserve the more prominent structures, but what happens to the small house owners who cannot afford to maintain their old homes? This is where CGH sets an example to show the economics of protecting and preserving our heritage,” she elaborates. With Beach Gate Bungalows in Fort Kochi being their latest offering, the CGH Group hopes to expand to other cities soon. Cost of room at Maison Perumal is Rs.5,500 for a night. Details: 0413 2227519
Considering his mother was the go-to person for byzantine icon restoration in Paris, it’s not surprising that Dimitri Klein has turned expert revivalist himself, with projects like The Dune, Tanjore Hi and Elephant Valley to his credit. But he insists that getting into the business of reviving heritage structures happened only by chance. “My mother had a workshop at home and I grew up around artefacts of the 10th and 12th century. But I got into reviving when I came to India,” begins Klein, who used to run an advertising agency in France. “I was helping Hidesign with branding and ended up partnering with Dilip Kapur to work on Le Dupleix and Promenade,” he adds. But that was 13 years ago and needless to say, Klein found himself hooked and gave us his first solo project, The Dune Eco Village & Spa.
The Frenchman says he is proud of having reclaimed three mandapams. “These structures were built along the roads of Tamil Nadu as shelters for pilgrims on their journeys,” he explains, adding that today, hundreds of these structures are destroyed or disappearing. “We reclaimed three and rebuilt them at Dune. One is the reception and the other two are guest houses now. These are made of 50 tonnes of stone and each structure took us a year to dismantle and reassemble,” he shares.
Klein’s view is that today, everything is getting lost, which is why he believes that vocational education is the need of the hour. He runs Artisan Academy, a nine-year-old NGO that gives youngsters a choice of two verticals — hospitality or fashion — with job placements at the end of their training. Also an advocate of organic farming, he has his own nursery at Dune (that happens to be his home as well) and takes his orchids seriously. “I have a collection of 500 from around the world,” he smiles, promising us a tour. And when he’s not busy reclaiming something, Klein beams that his three children keep him occupied. Rooms at Dune cost Rs.5,500 per day. Details: duneecogroup.com
After his latest project — Spice Fort in Kochi, a landmark building from 1868 that is now a hotel with 27 rooms, displaying and explaining the history of a spice each — Klein is coming up with a health resort that he promises will be a “unique one in Kerala” and should take a year to launch.
They love Auroville and they love their cheese. Max Laederich takes a minute to count the different varieties of cheese on offer. “We have 10 and Blue cheese is most popular,” he smiles, adding, “It was Olivier Laederich and my father, Arnaud , who came to Auroville 10 years ago and started this hotel, Mango Hill.” Lost in nostalgia, Laederich says that they wanted a separate cheese cellar while building the resort, “because we did not want to make cheese the industrial way. We wanted to make it the artisanal way, promising good quality. That is how it is made in France.” For the past two weeks, French cheese-making expert, Marion, has been organising a cheese making workshop. The class is Rs.2,500 for a day. It ends with a cheese and wine tasting. Rooms from Rs.2,400 onwards. Details: 0413 2655491