Curled up in the yawning arms of the Indian Ocean stands the Galle Fort, a quaint walled city. Bronzed with centuries of tropical sun. Bundled in thick walls guarding it from the land on one side and the sea on the other three. Charmed with dreams of past lifetimes. Softened with incessant waves, drifting and colliding on its ramparts in a timeless rhythm. When my partner and I visited this sultry southern fortified city for the first time all those years back, my reaction was, “ I have a feeling we are not in Kansas anymore.” A heady hybrid of a European town in a tropical place, it greets you like a suited-booted gypsy with the tip of his hat.
An unmissable place on the western coast of Sri Lanka, the Galle Fort is captivating, exotic and packed with history. It is an old storyteller, with the misty breath of the sea on its careworn face, the tides trying to wash its words on sand, but his grim old bones of walls, made of granite and coral, losing none of their stories to winds or wizardry. Legend has it that King Solomon traded in ivory and peacocks from the port of Galle. History has it that Ibn Battuta touched its coast. It has been an important port since ancient times, known especially for spice trading in the last 200 years. A stellar example of a fort city made by Europeans in South and Southeast Asia, the Galle Fort is a Unesco World Heritage site. The “fortaleza” was built by the Portuguese in the 16th century, fortified extensively by the Dutch in the 17th century, and, finally taken over by the British before Ceylon was reclaimed by the Ceylonese (much to the respite of musk rats in the sewers that were exported by the Dutch to extract musk oil).
What is unique about this living heritage is that it is a fully functional town with schools, colleges, government buildings, ancient mosques and churches, museums and mansions of Dutch vintage, low colonial style houses with pillared verandahs, inner courtyards and gables — everything with an atmosphere of the past. It is a city to be explored on foot — the rambling cobblestone lanes like Pedlar St. full of gems and handicraft shops, a large plaza shaded by majestic banyan trees, quirky eateries, atmospheric hotels and stylish art galleries. There are boutique shops like Stick No Bills, selling retro Ceylon prints and seaside cafes like A Minute by Tuk Tuk in the Dutch Hospital, offering the local “arrack sour” cocktail and catch-of-the-day lobsters — the perfect place for a sundowner. The Galle Fort is a European experience in the spiced-up tropics with a whiff of cinnamon in the air.
On our visits there, a must-do has been a walk on the ramparts, from the lighthouse to the Flag Rock, as a drowsy dusk says hasta la vista to a fiercely hot day. The white lighthouse, with the turquoise blue ocean on one side and dancing palm trees on the other, is postcard perfect. The sun touches the sea gingerly before it collapses in her arms, all at once. As the last azaan of the day floats in from the Meeran Mosque that resembles a cathedral, and the sky is streaked with various hues of blood and fire, you may catch a “cliff jumper” leaping backwards from the Flag Rock right into the choppy sea below, making you miss a heartbeat. The Anglican Church on Church Street, crescent moons dotting Muslims’ shops and houses, the Dutch Reform Church with old tombstones, the Sudharmalaya Buddhist temple, the multi-ethnic and multi-religious population of the Galle Fort rolled together over ages might make actor Jack Nicholson shout to politicians, “You can’t handle the truth!”
One of our fond memories of the Galle Fort is sitting on the grassy ramparts of the Moon bastion and watching a match in the utterly picturesque cricket stadium sprawled between the fort and the sea. It has been restored after the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami ravaged this coastline.
Beyond the walled city, the new city of Galle spills in both the directions — fishermen selling fresh catch of the day by the shore, wind-swept beaches, Dutch-style white-washed villas and rivers teeming with wildlife.
A masterpiece of the iconic architect Geoffrey Bawa, Lighthouse hotel is perched on a tall cliff alongside a stretch of beach and mangroves, teeming with mudskippers and littered with colourful shells, where all shapes and sizes of hermit crabs trot in calligraphic paths. With rocks jutting out of the corridors along straight lines, french windows in the rooms framing the Indian Ocean and ochre walls of the hotel designed as the hull of a ship, Bawa’s minimalist style showcases understated elegance and brings nature into your living space. The winding staircase, with a domed top designed by Bawa’s artist friend Laki Senanayake, is probably the most awe-inspiring entrance to a hotel.
Sipping on wine in the ever-mysterious twilight, with the night flowing in as gently as the tide, was a fitting end to our last trip to Galle. The ships were etched on the distant horizon like bygone days. The waves played the accordion. The ancient musings of the dead and dreaming filled the deliciously salty air. And, with the first awakening of dark, came stars.