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 around the atmospheric old streets and walls, savouring the easy pace of life and the refreshing absence of traffic – you won’t find a quieter town anywhere else in the island.
For a dose of culture, the previously mentioned UNESCO listed Galle Fort is a landmark that is not to be missed whilst in the area and is often seen as the main attraction of the town. The Reformed Dutch Protestant Church is worth a visit solely for its extraordinary interior and dates back to 1755, a great spot for a history lesson on the islands European influences.
If you are a true foodie, then Galle might be your haven. Seafood is a delicacy here, for obvious reasons. Be sure to try the fresh catches of the day, and the grilled Calamari and seared Yellowfin Tuna is sure to do your taste buds some good. On Sundays, the Galle Fort Market takes place that involves many food stalls and pop-up cafes offering little delights to snack on whilst you wonder listening to the live music and gaining an insight into local life.
Just a short ride from Galle is Unawatuna beach, here you will find palm trees sitting on the sands below rose-tinted sunsets and beside turquoise waters. The waves at Unawatuna are ideal for surfing, as the waves are gentle and frequent. If you are visiting during the right season, then Whale watching trips take you out into the waters to see the magnificent creatures and their Dolphin friends who often entertain by dancing through the waters and showing-off for the boats.
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.
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.
Proof of Galle’s burgeoning cultural credentials is provided by the string of new festivals which have been held here over the past few years. Pride of place goes to the Galle Literary Festival, founded in 2007, which has established itself as a major item on the global literati circuit – the 2012 festival attracted a string of luminaries ranging from Tom Stoppard and Joanna Trollope through to Simon Sebag Montefiore and Richard Dawkins. The other big event in town is the recently launched Galle Music Festival, a three-day music event alternating between Galle (even-numbered years) and Jaffna and showcasing local and international folk musicians, dancers and other performers.
Many of the tombstones which cover the floor and fill the small churchyard of the Dutch Reformed Church bear Dutch names – Jansz, De Kretser, Van Langenberg and the like – dating from the colonial period right up to modern times. These commemorate the families of Sri Lanka’s smallest, and oddest, minority: the Dutch Burghers – Sri Lankans of Dutch or Portuguese descent.
At the time of Independence the Burgher community numbered around fifty thousand, based mainly in Colombo. Burghers had held major government posts under the British as well as running many of the island’s trading companies, although their numbers declined significantly in the 1950s, when as many as half the country’s Burgher families, disillusioned by Sinhalese nationalist laws based on language and religion, left for Australia, Canada or Britain.
Despite their Dutch (or Portuguese) ancestry, the Burghers have for centuries spoken English as their first language. Burgher culture preserves strong Dutch elements, however, and they would be horrified to be confused with the British, despite a certain amount of intermarriage over the years (not only with the British, but also with the Sinhalese and Tamils). Not that there is really such a thing as a single Burgher culture or community. Many of the wealthier Burghers arrived in Ceylon as employees of the Dutch East India Company, while working-class Burghers, more often from Portugal, came to help build the railways and settled largely on the coast between Colombo and Negombo. And to make things a little more confused, there are thousands of Sri Lankans with Dutch or Portuguese names, adopted during the years of occupation, yet who have no connection at all with Europe.
Over the past five decades, the Burghers have particularly made their mark in the arts, both in Sri Lanka and beyond. Geoffrey Bawa, arguably Asia’s greatest twentieth-century architect, belonged to the community (though his family, in typical Burgher style, also claimed Malay descent). George Keyt (1901–93), Sri Lanka’s foremost modern painter, was also a Burgher, as are two of Sri Lanka’s leading contemporary artists, Barbara Sansoni, founder of the Barefoot company in Colombo, and designer Ena de Silva. Overseas, the best-known Burgher is Canada-based novelist Michael Ondaatje, whose memoir of island life, Running in the Family, gives a wonderful picture of Burgher life in the years before Independence.
From the lighthouse it’s possible to walk clockwise around the top of the ramparts all the way to the main town-facing bastions – a good way to get oriented and an enjoyable stroll at any time of day but particularly at sunset, when half the town seems to take to the bastions to fly kites, play cricket or simply shoot the breeze.
The past decade has seen a massive explosion in Sri Lanka’s holiday villa market, with literally hundreds of properties being offered by owners keen to jump onto a potentially lucrative bandwagon. The biggest concentration of villas is in and around Galle (including upwards of twenty historic houses available in the Fort alone, and a dense concentration in Thalpe, about 10km east), though properties dot the coastline as far as Tangalla, and increasing numbers of tea plantation bungalows in the hill country are also becoming available (see Tea estate bungalows). There’s plenty of choice, with villas sleeping anything between two and sixteen people and ranging in price from less than $100 per night in low season up to $2000 for a large villa over Christmas and New Year. Many occupy stunning natural settings, often on unspoilt stretches of private beach, while some show contemporary Sri Lankan design at its finest. In all, the emphasis is on intimacy, style and self-indulgence.
Most visitors to Galle stick to the town and surrounding beaches, although there are a handful of rewarding inland excursions if you fancy a change from the coast, all attesting to Galle’s self-proclaimed status as “Rainforest Capital of Sri Lanka”.
Five kilometres southeast of Galle, the ever-expanding village of UNAWATUNA is now firmly established as Sri Lanka’s most popular resort for independent travellers and remains a pleasant spot to while away a few days, even if rampant commercialization and ever-growing hordes of visitors have now significantly eroded the village’s former sleepy charm. If you don’t mind the increasing hustle and bustle, there’s still plenty to enjoy, including a decent, if heavily developed, stretch of beach, a good selection of places to stay and eat, plus varied activities ranging from surfing and diving through to yoga and cookery classes, while in recent years Unawatuna has begun to compete with Hikkaduwa as Sri Lanka’s beach-party capital, with noisy discos thumping out beats along parts of the beach during the season. The resort also remains busy all year round, making it a good place to visit if you’re on the west coast during the monsoon.
Unawatuna beach is small and intimate: a graceful semicircular curve of sand, not much more than a kilometre from start to finish, set snugly in a pretty semicircular bay and picturesquely terminated by a dagoba on the rocky headland to the northwest, while the sheltered bay gives safe year-round swimming, and a group of rocks 150m offshore further breaks up waves (though it can still get a bit rough during the monsoon).
Unfortunately, the devastating effects of the tsunami allied to years of unchecked development before and after have now destroyed much of Unawatuna’s former appeal, while a massive government-sponsored clearance of illegal structures on the beach in late 2011 has left parts of the bay looking (for the time being at least) a complete mess. The western end of the beach, around the Hot Rock café, is now lined with the skeletons of half-demolished cafes and huge piles of debris, although hopefully by the time you read this the rubble will have been cleared away and the beach hereabouts restored. In the meantime, most of the action has shifted east, to the area around the Full Moon and Happy Banana, which remains lively and loud until late most nights.
At the northern end of the beach, a footpath leads up to a small dagoba perched on the rocks above the bay, offering fine views over Unawatuna and north to Galle.
Unawatuna has a modest range of diving, snorkelling, surfing and other watersports on offer, with two good diving schools: Submarine Diving School, at the western end of the beach, and Unawatuna Diving Centre, around the bay to the east. Both offer the usual range of PADI courses, plus single and introductory dives and wreck and deep dives (there are no fewer than eight wrecks in the vicinity, including an old wooden English ship, the Rangoon, lying at a depth of 30m), though they’re rather more expensive than in nearby Hikkaduwa. Diving is best between October and April.
You can snorkel off the beach at Unawatuna, although it’s not wildly exciting; you might see a few colourful tropical fish, and there’s a little patch of live coral where the waves break in front of the Submarine Diving School. The best two snorkelling spots are Rock Island, about 1km offshore, and around the headland facing Galle at Jungle Beach, where you’ll find live coral and fish. For the former you’ll need to hire the Submarine Dive School’s glass-bottomed boat, which can also be used to reach Jungle Beach. Alternatively, Jungle Beach is reachable by tuktuk, or by foot (though it’s a convoluted 45-min walk, and very easy to get lost; ask for directions locally). Submarine rent out expensive snorkelling equipment, as do a couple of cheaper shacks on the beach nearby. Check all equipment carefully, as there are plenty of dud masks and snorkels in circulation.
A lot of locals surf at Unawatuna, though the waves aren’t nearly as good as at nearby Hikkaduwa or Midigama. Boards can be rented at the Submarine Diving School.
Featured image, Fort Galle - Sri Lanka © Kengoo / Shutterstock