Sri Lanka - Galle
Written by Emma Boyle
Situated on Sri Lanka’s south-west coast, Galle was formerly a strategic port of maritime trade. Famed for its pendant-like UNESCO-protected ‘living’ fortress protruding southwards into the Indian Ocean, Galle’s hinterland of beaches, paddy fields, temples, and jungle provides further draws.
Galle rose to prominence in 1505 when a Maldives-bound Portuguese vessel was cast adrift in a storm and washed up on Sri Lankan shores. Taking refuge in the deep, natural harbour of Galle the crew soon discovered the island’s rich rewards – spices, gold, gems, and elephants – and built the small fortress of Santa Cruz to defend themselves against the rallying Sinhalese.
The Dutch arrived on the scene over a century later and fiercely ousted their fellow Europeans before building the more elaborate rampart-encircled fort that stands today. More than a century later Galle changed hands again – this time peacefully, to the colonising British in 1796. Although they made significant additions – in particular an Anglican church, a lighthouse, the New Gate, and an iconic clock tower, it is the graceful style of the artistically inclined Dutch – high eaves, breezy inner courtyards, and pillared verandas – that prevails.
City of contrasts
Galle’s new and old towns form a striking contrast. Where the fort’s narrow atmospheric streets are quiet, charming, and orderly, the city’s chaotic, traffic-choked lanes are brash, gaudy, and loud. The beloved international cricket pitch bridges the gap (and former watery causeway), between the two, and a wander between them is the best way to experience this cheery diversity. In town, make for the photographic market stalls spilling heaped mounds of exotic fruits, vegetables, and fish onto the bustling pavements before seeking out bargains along Main Street in shops brimming with delights, from inflatable superheroes and Tupperware to saris and gold.
A stroll through the fort is even more rewarding. The entire fort measures 36 hectares and its surprisingly orderly streets are lined with the centuries-old façades of ochre-washed hotels, houses, places of worship, and the former administrative offices
Feasting in the fort
Residents have recently begun cashing in on the fort’s popularity by transforming former front rooms into tiny two-table cafés, and these make atmospheric spots for a coffee stop. Pedlar’s Inn Café on Pedlar Street has been going strong for over a decade, and although coffee and chocolate brownies are still their staple, they now serve hearty fusion meals, and have opened a heat-quenching Italian gelato outlet across the road. Other popular spots include Crepe-ology on Leyn Baan Street for
Last year saw a flurry of new restaurant openings in the fort, greatly enriching its dining scene. Fortaleza, a boutique hotel with gastro-café on Church Cross Street, opened in mid-2012 and serves up mezze platters, table BBQs, and gourmet beefburgers in a highly evocative courtyard setting below patches of bare coral walls, whilst nearby Allora, younger still, focuses on Italian cuisine. Church Street’s Galle Fort Hotel (itself a blissful haven in which to stay) remains a staple foodie hotspot for its Asian fusion dishes, and its new tapas menu perfectly partners the best cocktail list in town.
B&Bs, hotels, and villas are abundant in Galle, and suit all price ranges. For period luxe though, you can’t miss Amangalla. Dating back to 1684, this Dutch governor’s home-turned-hotel in the fort began life as the New Oriental Hotel before being renovated by Aman Resorts in 2003. Their 29 rooms are decadently colonial: there’s a lavish Ayurvedic spa and a surprisingly serene lounger-edged pool. Further down Church Street, The Fort Printers feels more like a private villa than a 13-bedroom hotel as it spreads itself across three neighbouring buildings. There are reading nooks aplenty, a pool, frequent art exhibitions, and a superb in-house restaurant specialising in Mediterranean cuisine.
Picking one of the fort’s many immaculately restored villas for your exclusive use is an excellent option, and the recent influx of foreign buyers means that there are now plenty to choose from. One of the best rentals in the fort is 41 Lighthouse Street. This three-bedroom abode is efficiently managed, convivially designed, and packed with personality – think open-plan living spaces, a pink-lit bar, and pool table, all to yourselves. The food is great too – cooked by your own chef and served by your own staff team onto a courtyard terrace beside a private pool.
Flanked by swathes of palm-fringed sandy beaches and a lush interior, Galle has much more to offer than its fort. Drive inland from town and an emerald landscape of lush paddy fields fringed by jungle, village homes, and centuries-old temples awaits. One of the best ways to uncover Galle’s rural heartlands is to go on a guided bike ride with Idle Tours; trips take you along the quietest nature-flanked lanes and finish up on the beach. For more in-depth inland adventures, Rainforest Rescue, based in Galle, takes you into the lush bio-diverse forest reserves of nearby UNESCO-certified Sinharaja, Kanneliya, and Kottawa.
For a bird's-eye view of Galle, you can now take one of Air Magic’s hot-air balloon rides above the region’s rural villages and jungle-fringed paddy fields. Alternatively, Simplifly’s six-seater GA8 Airvan offers 20-minute Joy Rides above Galle’s sultry coastline this month and will also launch Wings over Whales, for peeking down at Sri Lanka’s famed blue whales from the skies.
Colombo, Sri Lanka
Sri Lankan cuisine
Sri Lankan cuisine can be as fiery as its climate, and the further south you travel, the hotter it gets. Coconut milk plays a leading role in flavouring curries liberally spiced with turmeric, cumin, coriander, and cinnamon, and accompanied by plentiful rice, sambols, and pickles. Vegetarians are well catered for too as dhal (lentils) is a staple served with nearly all meals. Must-tries are crab curry and lesser-known vegetables such as bitter gourd, murunga, and gotukola. For the most gourmet Sri Lankan cuisine, make for The Sun House, a 19th-century Scottish spice merchant’s abode-turned seven-bedroom boutique hotel perched high above town, to indulge in one of their sumptuous curry dinners.
Tourists have shopped in Galle since the first passenger-packed P&O vessels arrived in 1842. The fort is now one of the south coast’s savviest shopping spots, with boutiques selling anything from postcards, pottery, and posters to beachwear, masks, and books. Technicolour, locally crafted handlooms are a Sri Lankan speciality, and you’ll find many creations – cushions, wash bags, and toys – in Barefoot on Pedlar Street. There is also a dazzling number of jewellers in Galle. Laksana and Chrysolite are reliable and you can buy readymade items, create bespoke pieces, or if time is short, select a precious stone to take home.
By the numbers
the number of bastions in the fort
the date of the oldest tombstone in Galle’s Dutch Reformed Church (or Groote Kerk)
the population of Galle