Galle (pronounced ‘gawl’ in English, and ‘gaar-le’ in Sinhala) is the big unmissable destination in the south. It’s at once endlessly exotic, bursting with the scent of spices and salty winds, and yet also, with its wonderful collection of Dutch-colonial buildings, a town of great beauty. Classic architecture melds with a dramatic tropical setting to create a reality that is endlessly interesting.
Above all else, Galle is a city of trade and, increasingly, art. Today the historic Fort area is crammed full of little boutique shops, cafes and hotels owned by local and foreign artists, writers, photographers, designers and poets – a third of the houses are owned by foreigners.
Built by the Dutch, beginning in 1663, the 36-hectare Fort occupies most of a promontory that’s surrounded on three sides by the ocean. Just wandering the old walls and streets at random yields one architectural surprise after another as you explore the amazing collection of structures dating back through the centuries.
Its glories have earned the Fort status as a Unesco World Heritage Site.
A key part of the Fort’s allure, however, is that it isn’t just a pretty place. Rather, it remains a working community: there are administrative offices, courts, export companies, lots of regular folks populating the streets and a definite buzz of energy in the air.
The reason for going to Galle is to see the fort. It is easy to walk around its ramparts or along its streets, but don’t forget there can be cars and other traffic during the day. On the right after entering through the main archway is the clocktower and various vaults and access up a slope to the ramparts. If you turn left you can walk to the Amangalla Hotel and to the cultural museum next to it. This was once part of the hotel and is a bit dull.
There is a Christian church at the other side of the hotel, built in 1775 on the site of a Portuguese Capuchin convent. Opposite stands a Dutch belltower whose bell was tolled hourly in the 18th century, timed by an hourglass. A walk down the road by the belfry will bring you to the original archway entrance leading up from the sea. A national maritime museum has been opened within the fort wall.
Opposite is the fort’s village green, now paved over, with the law courts and administration buildings around it. Hospital Street leads off it to the lighthouse that, if you meet the right caretaker in the right mood, you might be permitted to climb.
From the top there is a splendid view of red-tiled roofs and purple bougainvillaea bursting from the concealed gardens of hidden courtyards. The rampart walls are riddled with a warren of cells, and gaps through the battlements to turrets, like pepper pots, protruding at strategic corners. Solid half-moons in the grass mark the foundations of gun emplacements.