Visiting Galle should be an absolute given when on the Sri Lanka travel track; it’s a place that combines classic beauty and artistic revival with the tropical lure of the South Asian coastline.
While Colombo’s colonial architectural charms are sporadically scattered amongst the sprawling modernity of the city, Galle’s historical treasure trove of centuries old history is beautifully preserved amongst the small grid-like streets, set within the still-standing old fortified walls.
Galle – A History Preserved and Reinvented
Just over a two-hour train journey from the Capital, Galle Fort – the once flourishing main port of Sri Lanka – is now an open museum of colonial old days and a playground for the artistic new continuing the town’s trading history. A UNESCO World Heritage site, it is here that you can step back in time to its simple Portuguese beginnings in the late 1500’s as a means to guard the harbour, to the Dutch fortifications and architectural style of the early 1600’s that dominates today.
Expansions made by the British, including the Main Gate in the 1800’s, are also still present for those on the history trail. I used the 18 metre high lighthouse in the Eastern corner as my navigation point, where I soon found myself in the slow drift of a stroll alongside others, and quickly drawn to the laughter emanating from the rocks as people jumped into the choppy sea.
A popular day trip, Galle deserves more than a few hours because you’ll soon be charmed by it and drawn into its narrow streets and long lanes that house a variety of Portuguese and Dutch architectural styles, their white and pastel hues now housing boutique clothing stores, eclectic cafes and renovated hangouts. It was hard not to stop at every window and enter every door to see what it contained.
The former Dutch hospital now serves as a collective of upmarket bars and restaurants that draw in the evening crowds and old courtyards lure you into spaces that are part store, part exotic hidden hideaway. Attracting a variety of creative types, including writers and photographers, fashion designers and painters, these discerning arty types quickly return and formulate a space or product of their own, making it one of Sri Lanka’s top expat havens.
The beauty here is that tradition and the new generation sit side by side. Within the walls, at sundown, the soft rumble of the evening’s socialising stirs amongst the soft glow of the entertainment spaces. Outside of the walls, before sunrise, you can watch the fisherman bring in their catch at dawn and listen to the sounds of men heaving in synchrony while dragging in their boats while others bellow the prices for the catch.
Jazzing Up Galle
Galle was undoubtedly the perfect setting in Sri Lanka for the country’s first major Jazz Festival in November 2014. I was invited to cover the ‘Galle Jazz Fest’ in Association with the boutique Galle Fort Hotel who hosted myself and three blogger colleagues alongside the artists, in what marked a brand new experience in the Sri Lanka arts and music scene, where Jazz is growing in popularity.
The town’s central Court Square was the heart of the action, pulling in international Jazz acts including French quintet Olivier Franc, Music Matters, and incredible local talents of the alternative band, Noctua – a group of young men quickly carving themselves an international reputation who I had the pleasure of sharing a ride with on the journey from Colombo.
It was a space where you were free to come and go as you pleased; to meander the streets of Galle as the beats of Jazz lingered distantly in the air, and enjoy the variations of sound and the mix of classic and modern twists that alternated throughout the days. The intermittent rain Sri Lanka is known for did nothing to dampen the spirits here with a backdrop like this.
Galle is Sri Lanka’s magnet for the culturally curious and creatively minded. Like me, you may soon find yourself covering ground many times over in the hope you haven’t missed a historical hotspot or a boutique bargain. It’s this juxtaposition of classic and old being reignited in a modern artistic revival that most certainly defines Galle – an Old Town that will long be enjoyed for many more centuries to come.