Under the ageing brick layers of the fortified city’s walls is a collision of Ceylon’s past, a merge of Sri Lanka’s present, against the backdrop of the Indian Ocean, classic cars, cinnamon and colonial architecture.
On the southwestern tip of the teardrop peninsula of Sri Lanka the Indian Ocean slush and sway against the walls of a fort. The views tempt and beg your eyes for a gaze of appreciation from all directions; white sand beaches let out an idyllic scream with palm trees curving from the stem, an international cricket stadium loudly chants the names of legends who walked the field and the city rhythmically rejoice with the noise of traffic, a prayer call and street food cooking clatter.
The distance becomes a blur and as you focus on what is in front of you, you focus on everything between the walls of the fort, and the outside falls silent as you take a step back in time, a step back in Galle.
In Unawatuna, next to the busy road that leads straight up to the capital of Colombo, I flagged a tuk-tuk down to get to Galle. On a very last minute decision I changed my travel plans for my last night in Sri Lanka; all it took was one a quick wander on the Fort’s walls the previous day, an old Volkswagen Beetle, a hint of old European architecture, a few cups of cinnamon iced coffee and one local storyteller.
Every now and then you come across a special spot that pleads you to give your sightseeing eyes a bit of a rest and to put on your explorer goggles to dig a little bit deeper.
Hold the Fort
Galle is commonly pronounced as ‘gawl’ in good ol’ English but in the mouths of the locals it is ‘gal-le’.
The origin of the name is a mystery wrapped up between a few languages; the Sri Lankan Sinhalese word ‘gala’, meaning ‘rock’, the Portuguese word ‘galo’, meaning rooster (a popular symbol that can still be seen on some buildings) and then, the Dutch word ‘gallus’, translating to a domesticated chicken, a Red Jungle Fowl.
We will never know why the chicken crossed the rocky road but Galle is one of the most ancient ports of the Levant. Portuguese navigators sailed upon Galle in 1505, settled in Colombo and then in 1588, they returned to Galle and constructed a fortification and three bastions to protect their new-found home. But, with a few colonial fingers in a few foreign pies, the fortified town fell into Dutch hands in 1640 and they replaced the Portuguese defenses and added a bastion stone wall to shield their town from other European navigators.
In 1796 the fort of Galle was handed over the English and it remained the administrative centre of the south of Sri Lanka and a few modifications were made to the fort such as the lighthouse on the Utrecht bastion, a tower for the jubilee of Queen Victoria in 1883 and during the second world war the defensive function of the fortifications were restored.
And the Portuguese and Dutch were not the only forces who invaded Galle. On the 26th of December 2004 the Fort acted as a wave breaker when the Boxing Day tsunami forced its way into the city’s newer part, destroying the cricket stadium and bus station, to name a few, and saving the old city, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, from mass destruction.
A Matter of Trust
I threw my backpack next to the staircase leading up to my guesthouse for the night and peeked through the door of the adjacent jewellery store as I asked, “Is it okay to leave my bag here until check-in time?”
Behind the glass window gems in different shapes glittered in a million shades of rupees and the voice behind the magnifying glass answered with a reaffirming Sri Lankan side-to-side swing of a head nod, “Yes, yes of course. No problem.”
I turned my back on my unlocked bag, in which my laptop snoozed, and headed next door to the Royal Dutch Café where the things that lured me to stay a while longer and dig a little bit deeper, awaited me.
Leaving my bag unlocked with valuable possessions is not a common occurrence but my degree of trust was on day seventeen of my Sri Lankan journey; I was completely tranquilised by the locals’ generosity, honesty and sincerity and believing in the goodness of humanity was the only option.
The stories of Galle through a ’62 VW Beetle
Old classic cars, old European architecture and coffee are some of my favourites and the Royal Dutch Café had it all; I started the day with a forgotten bag in an old city, a cinnamon iced coffee and a coconut pancake while Fazal’s driver fired up the old engine of the Beetle.
Fazal Badurdeen, the owner of the car and the Royal Dutch Café – Galle’s first restaurant – is a retired journalist, a storyteller extraordinaire and one of the most interesting characters in Sri Lanka. His ancestors, nine generations ago, were Moroccan traders who set foot on Ceylon’s soil in the 15th century.
The tour started with a bump on the head against the edge of the car as I crawled in to reach the back seat of the Beetle; something I never perfected during one of the dozen times we stopped to get in, out and walk around.
Galle Fort is a popular location for wedding photographers; the walls act as the backdrop while colourful brides strike a pose and smile.
We wriggled our way through the maze of alleyways, stopped here and there while I bumped my head everywhere. The trip continued with a stop at Sri Lanka’s oldest lighthouse dating back to 1848, the Fort gates where the British Coat of Arms still keep a watchful royal eye, the Dutch reformed church, the old Dutch hospital and a Fazal-story of how Mozambican slaves – with padlocks in their mouths – were used to build the walls. The journey carried on to the fish market and a spice market where I stocked up on cinnamon before we ended up at his sister-in-law’s house for a cup of ginger tea. He chose a detour through the countryside and while he showed me the simplicity of life I was left speechless by the number of White Breasted Kingfishers I saw on the way with their bright turquoise backs and signature nose dives to get their catch of the day.
Back in Galle Fort I stayed for another cinnamon iced coffee at Fazal’s café before I went back to my guesthouse where my bag – with all the trust and goodness of humanity still in it – waited for me in my room.
A Galle Gala
Galle is a rich cultural tapestry, a harmonious hot pot of different religions, beliefs and cultures. It is not only a step back in time, but it is a step into a completely different world. Visitors flock to the low-rise streets of the fortified city where unique cafes, galleries and boutiques lure them in with different types of teas, local designer labels, cinnamon products and art.
It is a place worth more than just a day visit and staying over really allows you to experience how the old city goes to sleep and how she wakes up; Leynbaan Villa next door to the Royal Dutch Café is mid-priced (R450) while there are also more high-end hotels and boutique villas.
When the heat gets unbearable a stop at the family run Dairy King is recommended for all your ice cream and milkshake needs. Find one of the local cafés to sample traditional food such as kottu, start your day with the legendary breakfast staple, string hoppers, and venture around to find samoosas, freshly fried peanuts, spicy fish cakes and other street food treats. The Galle National Museum is the oldest building in the Fort while the private Mansion House Museum offers free entry to visitors to showcase its labor of love for the history of the area. If your heart is strong enough stick around the Fort walls close to the lighthouse and witness death defying jumps. Galle’s cliff jumpers don’t only live on the edge, but they also jump from the edge of the 16 meter ramparts into the water just to land between a rock and a hard place – perfectly in the middle of two death threats – before they climbed back up to the top just to do it again.
For a moment, forget about white sand beaches, the lists of things to do and places to see, and find a spot – on a wall or in a café – to just hear Galle’s beat and focus on what is right in front of you, in the moment, fortified between the walls of time.