Galle, Sri Lanka – Colonial romance behind fortress walls

The Many Faces of Sri Lanka. Part 2: The Colonial Town of Galle

The second day of our stay in Sri Lanka we decided to devote to the colonial past of the island. And to this end we went to the ancient town of Galle.

However, “immerse into the past” managed even earlier than we expected: on the way from Koggala to Galle we met three old English manor houses!

The first of them almost immediately attracted our attention with its wonderful palm garden and romantic and peeling stone fence:

Naturally, we could not resist the temptation and looked behind the fence, behind which, quite unexpectedly, we saw a melancholic red cow grazing:

The gate to the second farmstead was wide open. Note the sign on the pole: “Lime house:

Our driver Amit explained that all the old houses left by the British have their own names. This one here is called “Lime House.” We were very amused by the name: after all, “limes” is a nickname Americans sometimes contemptuously call the British.

Unfortunately, the mansion itself is in a very poor condition. It seems abandoned and empty. Near it, as near a haunted house, it was even scary. So we took a couple of pictures and ran away as fast as we could.

And in the third, the largest manor house, whose appearance also indicates that its golden years are over, is now a college. A teachers’ college, I think:

Bastions of Fort Halle.

However, back to Halle. It is known that in the bay of the rocky peninsula, where the old part of the city rises, since ancient times ships have found shelter. In the Middle Ages, according to the famous Arabian traveler Ibn Battuta, the local port became the leading port of Ceylon.

The first Europeans to settle in this area were the Portuguese. In 1505, a Portuguese flotilla wandered off at night and anchored in local waters. It didn’t take long before the sailors heard the rooster crowing (galo in Portuguese) and christened the area after the rooster.

There is, however, another version that the name of the city comes from the Sinhalese “gale” – “stone”. Maybe so, the coastline of the Old Town is very rocky indeed.

The dodgy Portuguese got accustomed to Seilao (that was their name for Sri Lanka) very quickly: a couple of decades and all coastal areas were already under the heel of colonizers. Only the Kandi Sinhalese, who had resisted the foreigners stubbornly for many years, remained independent. In 1589, after a particularly violent clash with the Kandyans, the Portuguese built a small fortress on the peninsula, which they called Santa Cruz Fortaleza.

But, as we know, nothing lasts forever. Especially power. In 1640 the port of Galle was “wrested” from the Portuguese by the enterprising Dutch (naturally, with the help of the Dutch Sinhalese). The Santa Cruz Fortaleza, an earthen rampart with wooden paling, was almost completely destroyed and replaced by a new, more reliable system of fortifications.

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By the 1770s, the 52-hectare town was surrounded by strong fortress walls with 14 bastions, each of which had its own, amazingly poetic name: Sunny, Lunar, Star, Bastion of Neptune (God of the Seas), Bastion of Aeolus (Goddess of the Winds), Aurora Bastion (Goddess of the Morning Dawn), etc.

On the territory of the Moon Bastion still proudly rises a 40-meter high Clock Tower,

which used to be a lighthouse as well.

And the oldest of the bastions is the Black (Zwart Bastion) – left by the Portuguese. To see it, you have to go down the picturesque Church St.

and near the Maritime Museum

turn to Queen St. (ah, what street names they used to have!):

Almost the entire length of the short Royal Street stretches the Old Dutch warehouse (in fact, in its premises and is a museum of navigation):

On the wall of the building one can see through the Old Gate over which there is the emblem of the Dutch East India Company: the VOC abbreviation, images of lions and a rooster, and Roman numerals “1669” (as I understand it, the year of the warehouse construction).

Above the gate is the emblem of the Dutch East India Company, the same one in whose Amsterdam shipyards the Russian Tsar Peter I had a “work apprenticeship”!

Behind the arch gate hides a sandy beach and quay with small piers. Here, on our right, we saw the oldest Black Bastion ,

and on the left, a museum exhibit consisting of parts like this:

and a leather-clad native boat:

Back on King’s Street, we continued our walk and reached Court Square, surrounded by majestic ancient trees. Honestly, I’ve never seen such huge, sprawling trees that look like giant umbrellas in my life!

Beyond Court Square stretched the Old Hospital building

across from it, on a rocky island, was a DOT (it may not be that, but it looks very similar):

Behind the hospital, along the fortress wall, stretches a nice shady avenue called Hospital St.

one end of which goes right into the lighthouse on the bastion of Utrecht:

As I understood the first building of lighthouse was built by the British in 1848. What it was initially I still don’t know, but it is known that in 1883, for the anniversary of Queen Victoria, the building underwent a reconstruction and got a wooden 18-meter tower. Which, however, safely burned down in 1936. Three years later the lighthouse was restored: the wood was replaced by white stone, and the height of the tower was increased to 26,5 m. It remains as it is today:

The lighthouse is working, but it seems that you can still climb it for a fee. We did not try, so I will not vouch for the reliability of the information.

By the way, near the lighthouse there is a small cart from which a local grandfather sells peeled mangoes. Mangoes are unparalleled and cost – kopecks! Do not miss them!

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Summary: Galle Fort (Sri Lanka, Southern Province) – Behind the Walls, Like an Invisible Dome: The Place Where Time Slows Down

When my left heel sikosi-nakosi was planning a trip to Sri Lanka, I had time to read about ancient Galle back home, and I fell in love with the city in absentia. This dictated my desperate impulse to take the old-fashioned (literally) train with a terminus in Halle without any reservations.

To my surprise I discovered that no one in these parts understands me, and not in an existential sense, but also in the most direct sense: at the request to sell a ticket to Halle, they rounded their eyes and asked where it is :)) The mystery was explained simply: the locals pronounce the city’s name as Gaulle, so Russian-speaking sources can be misleading: we write Halle, we pronounce Gaulle (at least when we’re in Sri Lanka).

The city itself made an oppressive impression on me from a distance: a big dusty town. Oh, this is not where I wanted to rest. So the next number of my crazy program was to move to Unawatuna. But the idea of visiting the historic fort was firmly lodged in my mind.

The historic, Junesque part of Halle is on a narrow promontory jutting into the sea. Here it is, as you can see it from Rumasalla Rock in Unawatuna. At a fair approach you can see the mosque and the lighthouse. It’s not a short distance, so it’s better to drive somewhere (bus or tuk-tuk at your service).

Galle, view from the Rumasalla cliffs in Unawatuna

I had planned a long sightseeing trip to the old fort to see it slowly and with gusto: I even booked for one night an old hotel in the suburbs of Galle with a related name, which on our maps is listed as Megal (Megalle, I suppose, again by analogy with the big city).

Rejecting the vain attempts to put me in a tuk-tuk and drive me to the place with a breeze, I proudly walked to the fort: it was necessary to explore the area, especially since I had already seen it from the tuk-tuk (if you can see anything from it).

Megal Village

The suburbs of historic Galle look like any other unremarkable settlement in Asia: harsh concrete buildings and rampant traffic. There is not much to do there. There is a lot of traffic and you can tell right away that life is boiling here, but the tourist glamor is still a long way off.

In fact, it is several settlements, fused with each other and passing into each other without any visible boundaries. The ramshackle buildings are from the rain: the first rainy season washes away any paint, and mold and algae complete their dirty work.

Jakotuwa Bodhiya Temple on the way to Galle

On the way we pass the port with colorful fishing boats, and a lively fish market, seemingly popular with the local population. Freshly caught fish, freshly caught today.

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After stocking up on fresh seafood, the buyers are in no hurry to leave the ocean shore. In general, in those parts I often met people who were sitting on the shore, swimming or just contemplating the ocean (I think you never get tired of it, even if a person has lived on those shores all his life).

Port fish market

Another drive through the city, which is getting busier with each meter. Another market – and again with fresh seafood and fruit. The city is buzzing with everyday, non-tourist life.

Market on the way to Galle

We pass a busy, bustling bus station with a sad fate. This is where the buses depart back to Unawatuna and further south in Sri Lanka. And also buses to other cities in the country: Galle is a major transportation hub, where the railroad and bus routes converge.

Galle Bus Station Road

But here you can already see the city walls of gray-brown granite and shell rock, built by the Dutch in the 17th century. There’s another bus stop and a monument. I rubbed my eyes in amazement because for a moment I thought there was a monument to Ataturk. In fact, it was Professor Senarat Paranavitana, who did a lot for local archaeology.

The fortress walls look monumental. In fact, they have more than once saved the city from conquests from the sea. According to what I have read, they withstood the tsunami in our lifetime: as the historic district is cut into the sea by a dolphin cape, the wave bumped into these walls, didn’t overpower them and preferred to bypass them. The historic buildings and lots of people’s lives were saved. But the central bus station (not the station, which is shown on the photo below, but from which to go in all directions) was flooded from two sides. Probably that’s why the bus station square is so sad and unsightly up to now.

The walls of the Galle Fort

On the mighty walls you can walk. Here in the reviews people walk on the wall immediately on arrival, but I preferred to finish my walk, and first of all I rushed into the old alleys. In my personal history, it was the first compactly preserved colonial neighborhood and it was interesting to see how things were set up there.

This decision was dictated by a simple consideration: if you arrived at the fort in the afternoon, you would have time to explore the inner city in the light (that’s until about 6pm, and regardless of the time of year – the country is almost on the equator), and catch the last rays of sunlight on the walls. Let’s not forget that it gets dark in these parts beautifully, but quickly and relatively early.

Inside the Galle Fort, a bag seller

And the city lived its life. Despite the fact that it is known even outside of Sri Lanka and even protected by UNESCO, it has not turned into a tourist ghetto with renovated and rebuilt at the request of the public buildings and solid souvenir shops.

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Yes, there are tourists wandering around the castle walls – but not in droves. It has souvenir shops and restaurants and a decent number of hotels in old buildings, aimed at all budgets, so if you want, you can stay in the fort for the night.

The streets of old Galle

Inside the walls of the fortress runs an unhurried life: in these old houses, people still live, and time slows down its course. Life here doesn’t seem to have changed much, and compared to the hustle and bustle of modern Galle and its suburbs, it’s an island of tranquility. You get the feeling that the fort is covered by an invisible dome, and people who enter it slow down and are no longer in a hurry to get anywhere.

Life within the fortress walls

In the relatively small area of the historic district there is an incredible number of churches of all religions. I do not know about Orthodoxy, but Buddhism, Islam and Catholicism of different directions are represented here.

For example, the Chapel of St. Joseph of the 19th century: if it were not for a modest inscription, it would not stand out in any way among the surrounding buildings.

St Joseph's Chapel in Halle

Inside the fort are banks, post offices, museums, and colleges (Southlands College’s own temple is pictured below), making the neighborhood a small town within a city with everything you need to live more or less independently. In fact, this fortress and convenient port were the starting point of the settlement, which later evolved into a major industrial and transportation hub in Halle.

Southlands College

There are cafes of every cuisine in the world and hotels in old houses. It is striking how carefully they treat their heritage here. Since the old buildings are decently preserved, no one rushes to rebuild them. Only renew the paint on the walls (which, as we remember, likes to be washed down the drain every year).

Still have the old casings or doors? That’s fine. They’ll just paint them and leave them as they were (are there gaps in the windows? Are the doors a little crooked? Fine, that doesn’t bother anyone much). I’ve always been amazed at the small ventilation windows above the main windows. There are carved wooden panels, and if in the houses the simpler ones are factory stamped, in the houses with richer real woodcarvings are handmade and varying degrees of sophistication. Such panels can be found even in dreadful-looking roadside shop, well, in the historic district, God forbid to have them.

Columns are another trademark of Lankan style. They can also be found everywhere, from roadside cafes and guesthouses to more elaborate hotels. Old Galle has a huge number of columns adorning buildings. If I get to Negombo in my stories, I’ll tell about the local architect (Geoffrey Bawa – after visiting Sri Lanka, I love his style), who used these features in his works.

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One of our countless guest houses

Oddly enough, the layout of the area is quite clear, so to get lost, as in the Turkish Kaleici (where I stay more than once, but always miss “their” hotels), will not work. The whole area is so compact that for a couple or three hours you can leisurely walk around it, zigzagging around, street by street.

The street on the way to the fortress, Galle, Sri Lanka

The neighborhood streets along the fortress walls are probably the busiest, though not overcrowded. One can see that the walls are popular. If the inner part of town is quiet and calm, here you can feel the movement: there are walking people at full throttle.

By the way, on the photo is an antique shop, of which there are a great many in the fort. I was able to make sure that educated Lankans love antiques and appreciate their cultural heritage. For example, the owner of my hosthouse had a couple of antique racks on display where he collected and displayed antiques. My guide’s house had a traditional wood ceiling (it was the same in a hotel in Negombo by Bawa). In general, the traditions live here, they are visibly and tangibly present in life.

Rampart street, Galle, Sri Lanka

And finally, the city walls. To be in the city and not climb them – a great omission. In the evening there is a revelry: after a hard day people come here to admire the old city, the ocean and the sunset.

Climbing the Fort of Galle

Down there, on the rocks themselves, it’s pretty crowded, too. Even if I were adventurous, I wouldn’t go swimming under the walls, it’s full of boulders, and I’ve already understood what the ocean is like in Dalavella. Who doesn’t swim, he walks on the rocks, on the water’s edge, or admires the sunset.

Swimming beneath the walls of Galle

Night descends on a drop of Sri Lanka without sentimentality: it was just sunny – and already pitch black. I headed for the bus station, but before catching a tuktuk wandered more through the streets around it. And for good reason, because somewhere on the side streets I caught this kind of dancing procession.

I have already mentioned that I was in the country for a month of weddings, and similar dances (and about the same costumes) I then saw in a couple of places. But here I didn’t really understand what the procession was, since the bride and groom were out of sight. They danced long enough, ending the show with a scattering of Bengal lights.

The Costume Procession in Galle

Galle Fort is a very atmospheric place. It’s a sin to be in the south of Sri Lanka and not visit it. And then I came here a couple of times: to wander through its romantic streets, look in another souvenir shop (do not buy anything there, because then it is difficult to carry through Asia), to climb the walls and spend the sun.

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