The ancient port city of Galle is Sri Lanka's fourth largest town, with a population of around 80,000 people and a history that stretches back hundreds of years. Some historians have suggested that Galle might even be the Biblical Tarshish, where King Solomon's ships called to take on gemstones, spices and scented woods. There's nothing to establish the truth of this rather fanciful tale, but it is at least certain that Galle is Sri Lanka's oldest living city, contrasting with the more ancient--but deserted--capitals of Sigiriya, Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa.
Located on the south-western shore of the island, about 115km south of Colombo and just 18km south of the popular beach resort of Hikkaduwa, Galle was for centuries Sri Lanka's main port, a position which strengthened during the periods of Portuguese and Dutch colonial rule. Galle only lost its primacy in the late 19th century, when the British expanded and developed the harbour at Colombo to become the island's major port. Today Galle Harbour still handles fishing vessels, a certain amount of container traffic, as well as a few luxury yachts. It's a shadow of its former self, though, and this adds to the mellow, laid-back atmosphere of the place.
Although there is plenty of good accommodation available in Galle, as well as some very passable places to eat, many visitors will prefer to stay at one of the nearby beach resorts of Hikkaduwa, Unawatuna or Weligama. A visit to Galle makes an excellent and enjoyable day trip when it seems time to take a break from beach life and indulge in a little history and culture.
Galle was clearly chosen as a port for excellent strategic reasons. It has a fine natural harbour protected, to the west, by a south-pointing promontory--the next piece of land, literally, is the frozen waste of the Antarctic, over five thousand miles distant.
Perhaps the earliest recorded reference to Galle comes from the great Arab traveller Ibn Battuta, who visited the port--which he calls Qali--in the mid-14th century. The Portuguese first arrived in 1505, when a fleet commanded by Lorenzo de Almeida took shelter from a storm in the lee of the town. Clearly the strategic significance of the harbour impressed the Portuguese, for 82 years later, in 1587, they seized control of the town from the Sinhala kings and began the construction of Galle Fort. This event marked the beginning of almost four centuries of European domination of the city, resulting in the fascinating hybrid--architecturally, culturally and ethnically--which Galle is today.
The Dutch captured the city from the Portuguese in 1640, and immediately began strengthening the fortifications. They remained for almost 150 years, until the city was in turn taken by the British in 1796. Not until 1947, when Ceylon gained its independence from the British, did Galle become, once again, an independent city--and by this time the long years of association with European colonialism had left an indelible stamp on the city which makes it unique in today's Sri Lanka. In recognition of this fact, the Old City of Galle--essentially the fort and its surroundings--was declared a World Heritage Site in 1988.
Galle is really a tale of two cities. Inland, to the north of the Colombo-Matara Road, is the modern commercial town characterised by a jumble of bustling stores, warehouses and small restaurants. Here, by the banks of the old Dutch Canal, may be found the railway station, bus station and main bazaar. It's a place to arrive, leave, eat, shop for necessities or change money (though there are also two money-changing facilities within the fort itself). The only building worthy of note is St Mary's Cathedral, built by the British in 1874, and of more interest for the views its provides over the Old Town than for any intrinsic architectural merit. Nevertheless, "New Galle" is the beating commercial heart of the city without which the Old Town would have difficulty surviving, and would lose much of its bucolic charm.
Immediately south of the Colombo-Matara Road, and dividing the commercial sector from the old fort, lies an area of open land which, since 1998, has acquired increasing international fame. Once known simply as The Esplanade, it is now graced with the title Galle International Stadium, an international test cricket venue which continues to grow in stature and reputation alongside the remarkable successes of the Sri Lankan national team [see box below].
Just to the south of the stadium Old Galle begins. Its barriers are unmistakable, as three massive bastions rise up behind the playing field, cutting off the fortified peninsular from the hustle and bustle of commerce--almost, it might seem, from the 21st century.
Galle Fort covers an area of 36 hectares and encloses several museums, a clock tower, churches, mosques, a lighthouse and several hundred private dwellings. Tellingly, there are no major Buddhist temples within the walls--the Dutch may have been gone for more than two centuries, but their cultural influence, best represented by the crumbling Groote Kerk, local seat of the Dutch Reformed Church, remains palpable.
It takes a full day to explore Galle Fort properly, but given this length of time the exploration can be carried out in a leisurely and relaxing manner by foot. The ancient walls, dating in large part from the Dutch establishment of the fort in 1663, are largely intact and make a wonderfully evocative circuitous walk around the fort, especially at dusk when the setting sun illumines the historic western ramparts.
The City Ramparts: Galle's Dutch defenders feared--mistakenly, as it turned out--assault by land from the Sinhala kings more than the threat by sea from their British cousins. Accordingly, three great ramparts were built at tremendous cost in both labour and treasure to isolate the peninsula from "the mainland". Stretching across the peninsula from west to east, these are the Star Bastion, the Moon Bastion and the Sun Bastion. Rising high above the present-day esplanade, these deep, crenellated fortifications must once have appeared all-but-impregnable to the armies of Kandy and Colombo. Today, however--and let the visitor be forewarned--their angular crevices provide privacy for courting couples rather than security for archers and musketeers. Quite seriously, one should approach these outer battlements with discretion for fear of giving offence. Towards dusk there is hardly a recess in the battlements without its pair of cuddling teenagers, often shielded from prying eyes behind a large umbrella!
It takes about two hours for a leisurely stroll around the walls of the Old City. Only once, between the Aurora Bastion and the Main Gate, is it necessary to descend into the fort itself. Yet this is no great hardship, for nearby is the distinguished New Oriental Hotel, built by the Dutch in 1684 as a governorial mansion, where cold beer, lime soda and other more substantial sustenance are readily available.
It's best to make a circuit of the walls clockwise, starting at the New Oriental Hotel. From here it's just a short stroll, beneath great, shady rain trees, to the Aurora Bastion. Continue southwards, with fine views over old Galle Harbour to the east, to reach the 20m-high lighthouse, built by the British in 1934, which dominates Point Utrecht Bastion at the fort's south-eastern corner. The walk continues due west, skirting the Indian Ocean past Triton, Neptune and Clippenburg Bastions--all, more likely than not, with a few courting couples gazing into the setting sunset.
Beyond Clippenburg, as the fortifications turn due north towards Star Bastion and the main northern defences, there is a Sri Lankan Army camp at Aeolus Bastion, which remains off limits to tourists. There's no great sense of military paranoia, but, especially in view of the political instability in the north of the island, it's better to refrain from taking photos at this point. One Sri Lankan army officer, discussing the matter, pointed out that Anton Balasingham, the Tamil Tiger's chief political theoretician, is married to Adele Balasingham, a white Australian militant who figures prominently on the Sri Lankan government's most wanted list. Clearly, being a Westerner is no guarantee of neutrality, so it's always best to exercise discretion near Sri Lankan army bases!
Inside Galle Fort: The real charm of Old Galle lies in the quiet back streets and alleyways of the historic fort, which have changed little--if at all--since colonial times. There are two entries into the fort, the Main Gate, built by the British in 1873 which pierces the main ramparts between the Sun and Moon Bastions, and the more venerable Old Gate, further to the east on Baladaksha Maw (or Customs Road). The latter is distinguished by the British coat of arms carved into its outer stone lintel, while on the inside the initials VOC, flanked by two lions and surmounted by a cock are deeply etched on the inner lintel. This latter inscription is dated 1669, and VOC stands for the Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie, or United East India Company. The cockerel has become a symbol of Galle, and it is even suggested that the name of the city derives from galo, which is "rooster" in Portuguese. Just beyond the Old Gate stands the Zwart Bastion, or Black Fort--the oldest fortification surviving in Galle, and thought to be of Portuguese origin.
With the exception of Zwart Bastion, the interior of Galle Fort is strongly redolent of the Dutch period. Several of the narrow streets still bear Dutch names such as Leyn Baan or "Rope Lane" and Mohrische Kramer Straat or "Street of the Moorish Traders". Beneath the streets an efficient, Dutch-built sewerage system is still flushed out twice daily by the rising tides of the Indian Ocean. Many of the streets are lined with formerly opulent buildings characterised by large rooms, arched verandas and windows protected by heavy, wooden-louvered shutters.
The northern part of the fort is dominated by the British-built Clock Tower and a small roundabout located immediately within the Main Gate. From here Church Street curves away south past the National Cultural Museum (Tue-Sat 9am-5pm; Rs35) with rather poorly displayed exhibits of the city's colonial heritage. The National Maritime Museum on nearby Queen Street (Sun-Thu 9am-5pm; Rs55) is similarly dilapidated, but of more interest than the various fishing and other maritime artefacts is the massively fortified Dutch warehouse in which they are displayed. Old Galle is of much more interest as a "living museum" than for the museums it houses, but it's worth making a quick visit to the Dutch Period Museum on Leyn Baan (daily 8.30am-5.30pm; admission free). This privately-owned establishment houses an astonishing array of Dutch-period artefacts ranging from rare porcelain to obscure bric-a-brac.
Of far more interest than the museums is the dilapidated Groot Kerk or Dutch Reformed Church, located--appropriately enough--on Church Street just south of the New Oriental Hotel. Founded in 1754 by the then Dutch Governor of Galle, Capar de Jong, it's in urgent need of restoration but well worth visiting for the ancient Dutch gravestones, both in the churchyard and within the nave. These are generally distinguished by skulls and skeletons, grim reminders of the tenuous nature of life in 18th century Galle, as well as characteristic of the dour nature of contemporary Dutch Protestantism.
Opposite the Groot Kerk stands the old Dutch Government House, a fine old colonial building bearing the date 1683 and the cockerel crest of Galle over the main entrance. The original Dutch ovens still survive within the building, which is currently used as a commercial office but slated for redevelopment as a luxury hotel; whether this venture will succeed remains to be seen, as the house is generally believed to be haunted.
Further south along Church Street stands the Catholic All Saints Church, built by the British in 1868 and consecrated in 1871. Beyond this, at the southernmost point of the peninsula, a small "Moorish" (Muslim) community still prospers, with a madrassa or Islamic college and two mosques, the most impressive of which is the Meera Masjid. It's fine to enter, but as with similar Christian, Buddhist and Hindu institutions you should be appropriately dressed and respectful of worshippers.
The best way of getting to Galle from Colombo is by either train or bus. Regular CTB and private buses ply the coastal A2 highway. Air-conditioned express buses cost Rs60 (3 hours) and leave every 15 minutes from Colombo's Bastian Mawatha station. The express buses are preferable to the ordinary buses (Rs40) which can get awfully crowded. All buses pull in at Galle's busy bus station opposite the cricket ground. Ten trains leave either Colombo's Fort or Maradana stations daily for Galle. The journey takes around 2 1/2 hours and both 1st and 2nd class seats are available on most trains. From Galle there's a daily train to Kandy (6-7 hours). Galle railway station is slightly to the west of the bus station on the Colombo Road. Taxis at more than RS3000 a trip between Colombo and Galle are an expensive option.
Closenberg Hotel, 11 Closenberg Road, tel: 9-32241. Roughly 2km out of Galle on the Matara Road, this 19th-century colonial villa overlooking the sea is one of Galle's best mid-range hotels. It was originally built in 1858 for a Captain Bailey [see box below]. Decorated with original antique furniture and surrounded by a lovely tropical garden with many trees and flowers. The hotel is built on a promontory and a five-minute descent brings you to a fine sandy beach.
The Lady Hill, 29 Upper Dickson Road, tel: 9-44322, fax: 9-34855, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. A beautifully refurbished 19th century mansion set high above Galle. A popular and efficiently run, up market hotel with good access to the city centre. Great views of the harbour and fort.
Lighthouse Hotel, Dadella (2.5 km Northwest towards Colombo), tel: 9-23744 fax: 9-24021, e-mail: email@example.com. A luxurious beachfront hotel with 60 air-con rooms offering spectacular views. Beautifully designed by famous Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa, the 3 suites are themed: Chinese, Dutch and Moroccan, and the main staircase contains some unusual figures depicting Portuguese settlers in Sri Lanka.
Old Dutch House, 42 Lighthouse Street, tel: 9-34370. A wonderful old Dutch colonial house in the middle of the Fort area. A hugely atmospheric place with a number of historical items dotted around the building.
Rampart Hotel, 31 Rampart Street, tel: 074 380103. As the name suggests it's located right next to the old walls to the south west of the Fort. The owners have a jewellery and handicrafts showroom in the same building. The 2 rooms are comfortable, but plain and contain old four-poster beds.
Sun House, 18 Upper Dickson Road, tel: 9-22624, web: www.thesunhouse.com, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. The Sun House was originally a spice merchant's house built on a hilltop overlooking the town. It's renowned for its superb cooking and excellent service. One of Sri Lanka's very best accommodation options, though predictably it's not cheap.
EATING AND DRINKING
Some of the best places to eat in Galle are the various guest houses and restaurants scattered around the Old City and Fort. Nearly all will provide breakfasts, as well as simple but tasty curry-and-rice lunches and dinners, though it's sometimes necessary to order in advance.
In the heart of the Fort, the New Oriental Hotel offers curries and tiffin in a rather faded colonial atmosphere--the chicken and coconut milk curry is a house speciality and can be highly recommended.
In New Galle cheaper rice and curry restaurants can be found in the area around the train and bus stations. One of the best, the Sydney Hotel, serves an excellent selection of curries for as little as Rs60--truly a bargain. In the same area, both located on the east side of Havelock Place, are the Chinese Globe and New Chinese restaurants. Both offer substantial portions at reasonable prices--The Globe, in particular, is something of an institution, having survived at its present location for at least three decades. As with just about all "Chinese restaurants" in Sri Lanka, however, the food is somewhat less than authentic, with menus listing Fish & Chips or Boiled Egg (!) alongside more familiar Far Eastern specialities like Sweet & Sour Pork or Spring Rolls.