Perched on the coast close to the island’s southernmost point, the venerable port of GALLE (pronounced “Gaul”) has grown from ancient origins into Sri Lanka’s fourth largest city. At the heart of the modern city – but strangely detached from it – lies the old Dutch quarter, known as the Fort, Sri Lanka’s best-preserved colonial townscape, enclosed within a chain of huge bastions which now guard the area from modernization as effectively as they once protected Dutch trading interests from marauding adventurers. The Fort is Sri Lanka at its most magically time-warped, its low-rise streets lined with Dutch-period villas, many of which retain their original street-facing verandas and red-tiled roofs, and dotted with a string of imposing churches and other colonial landmarks. There’s not actually much to see (a few unusual museums excepted): the main pleasure here is just ambling round the atmospheric old streets and walls, savouring the easy pace of life and refreshing absence of traffic – you won’t find a quieter town anywhere else in the island.
Galle is thought to have been the Biblical Tarshish, from whence King Solomon obtained gold, spices, ivory, apes and peacocks, and the combination of its fine natural harbour and strategic position on the sea routes between Arabia, India and Southeast Asia made the town an important trading emporium long before the arrival of the Europeans. In 1589, the Portuguese established a presence here, constructing a small fort named Santa Cruz, which they later extended with a series of bastions and walls. The Dutch captured Galle in 1640 after a four-day siege, and in 1663 expanded the original Portuguese fortifications to enclose the whole of Galle’s sea-facing promontory, establishing the street plan and system of bastions which survive to this day, as well as introducing marvels of European engineering such as an intricate subterranean sewer system which was flushed out daily by the tide and is still in use today.
The British took Galle in 1796 during the islandwide transfer of power following Dutch defeat in the Napoleonic Wars – ironically, after all the ingenuity and labour they had invested in the town’s defences, Galle was finally surrendered with hardly a shot being fired. The city continued to serve as Ceylon’s principal harbour for much of the nineteenth century but Colombo’s growing commercial importance and improvements to its harbour gradually eroded Galle’s trade. By the early twentieth century, Galle had become an economic backwater, lapsing into a tranquil decline which happily, if fortuitously, allowed the old colonial townscape of the Fort to survive almost completely intact.
Independence and revival
In the years since independence, Galle has recovered some of its lost dynamism. Despite playing second fiddle to Colombo, Galle’s port still receives significant quantities of shipping and there are usually a few enormous container ships parked offshore waiting to dock. Most significant, however, has been the dramatic revival in the Fort’s fortunes over the past decade, as expats (mainly British) and members of the Colombo elite have bought up and renovated many of the area’s historic properties. This remarkable influx of foreigners and cash has transformed the formerly sleepy and slightly scruffy old town into Sri Lanka’s most cosmopolitan enclave, home to a sizeable foreign population and now awash with boutique hotels, cute cafes and chic shops – a fitting turn of events for Sri Lanka’s most European settlement.