The fortress of Galle is a many layered beast, with multiple levels of architecture adding up to a mysteriously beautiful scrap of urbanity perched upon Sri Lanka’s south coast. It has a history that stretches back a thousand years and a mixture of glamour and dilapidation that is irresistible.
It’s now the sort of place where wealthy Columbo people drive down and take selfies on the terrace above the designer shops in the Old Dutch Hospital complex. On the other hand Galle still has plenty of the scruffy bohemian about it, with arty crafty shops and vegan cafes.
I didn’t have much time to spend in Galle so I opted to engage a guide so that wandering around the ramparts with my family would be more than just an idle stroll enjoying the views of the Indian Ocean. And so we walked with Shanjei from Galle Fort Walks. And talked and listened to historical anecdotes and snippets of humour as the light on the walls became slowly more golden.
I don’t know what that most famous of travellers, Ibn Battuta, would think of present day Galle. In the 14th century, when he disembarked in what he called Quli in 1344, the Moroccan explorer described a bustling port with Moorish vessels in the harbour.
Arabs, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Indians, Malays and Chinese have traded here since ancient times for Sri Lankan goods such as cinnamon, gemstones, ivory, pearls and peacocks. But it was empire builders in search of great wealth that were responsible for the construction of Galle Fort.
It was the spice trade that first attracted the Portuguese in the 16th century. Then the Dutch built the solid fortified walls with their Sun, Moon and Star bastions in the 17th century, and finally the British made a few ‘improvements’ in the 19th century.
One thing Ibn Battuta wouldn’t recognise is the cricket, being played in every clear stretch of grass, as well as in the international cricket stadium across the road. Cricket, the lighthouse and the clocktower – three very British contributions to Galle.
Multicultural Galle is still in evidence, with a large Muslim population, and the mosque, the Dutch-built and British-built churches and the Buddhist temple stand out pieces of architecture – each completely elegant in their own way.
There are also plenty of children around – there are five schools within the fort. This is no tourist enclave, it is a real community that just happens to be in a beautiful World Heritage Site. Long may it continue so.
After saying farewell to Shanjei we drove along the shore road, the sun sinking quickly behind the fort. The fishermen in their traditional outrigger Oruwa boats have already hauled up along the beach and a busy fish market was going on by the road side.
The sun dropped into the sea as we headed off in the dark to our next port of call in Sri Lanka – Talalla Beach.
By Natasha von Geldern
Have you visited Galle? Did you do a walking tour?
Shanjei Galle Fort Walks promises to ‘demystify mystical Galle’ on his personalised tours of Galle. I heartily recommend the experience and was very grateful that he kept my daughter interested by setting her a challenge to spot various highlights along the way. The cost is $25 per adult and $15 per child.