From Tissa, I headed to Galle, a historic city on Sri Lanka’s southern coast. It was founded by the Portuguese in 1505, when one of their fleets was blown off course and took shelter in the harbour there. The Portuguese built a small fort but were soon replaced by the Dutch who rebuilt the fort in the 17th century; it still stands today. Galle was Sri Lanka’s main seaport and trading centre for 200 years, before losing its crown to Colombo in the 19th century. Today, it is Sri Lanka’s second largest city with a population of 133,000 and sprawls out over a few kilometres in all directions from the original fort.
As we reached the centre of town, I saw a small booth with anti-government slogans. During three weeks of travelling, it was the very first sign I had seen of the protests that had toppled the previous president, had made headlines in the western press and scared many tourists away from Sri Lanka.
At the central railway station, the road turned off to the sea through gates of the old Portuguese fort, and we reached a peninsula surrounding by defensive ramparts. It felt like going back in time by a few centuries – low rise buildings, narrow lanes and little traffic. Many of the houses were originals from the Dutch period, or were the homes of the Muslim spice traders that also settled in Galle.
My hotel was in a typical old building, with a veranda facing the street, and a large shady interior with a courtyard. The owner had upgraded my room (as had usually happened in Sri Lanka) to a large suite on the upper floor.
After settling in, I set off to explore the town. The fort area was a typical popular traveller destination, with many small shops, bars, tea rooms and restaurants – but very few visitors.
Several tuk-tuk drivers proposed their services to me with what seemed like a hint of desperation in their voices; a third year with few tourists has hit many people very hard here. Away from the larger lanes there were even smaller, quieter residential side streets where people lived and went about their daily business.
These quieter areas were a popular place for couples to have wedding photos taken.
After enjoying the centre of the fort area, I made the classic circuit of the fort’s ramparts, which is popular not only with tourists but also locals, especially courting couples. There were fine views of the fortifications, Galle lighthouse and the sea.
There were also many green spaces, which were invariably occupied by people playing cricket – the national sport and passion. Finally, I reached the Dutch church, dating from 1752.
There are no spectacular sights in Galle that would make anyone’s “bucket list”, but its mix of interesting old buildings and relaxed feel makes for a very nice destination to spend a couple of days. It is a place to sit back and enjoy life, whether that means drinking spiced tea, shopping, or snacking in one of the many restaurants – which is exactly what I did on my first day.
I stayed two nights, and on the second day made the short trip to Unawatuna beach. Sri Lanka has countless beaches like this dotted around its coasts, some deserted like my earlier destination of Nilaveli, some a bit more developed like this one. Behind the beach itself, but well hidden from it, was a street packed with tourist hotels, restaurants and spas offering massages.
I returned to Galle in the mid-afternoon to avoid spend the hottest part of the day in my air conditioned bedroom, before heading out again in the evening for another stroll and dinner – this time in a restaurant called “Indian Hut”. The meal was excellent – Indian rather than Sri Lankan cuisine for a change – and a nice way to spend my penultimate night in Sri Lanka.
My stay in Galle felt like the end of my holiday even though I had one more night to spend in Colombo. Many travellers skip Sri Lanka’s capital city but I wanted to stay somewhere closer to the airport to be on time for my morning flight back to Europe. To be honest, Colombo did not make a great impression on me but perhaps you need to give it more than the half day that I had available. In contrast I found the rest of Sri Lanka to be a wonderful travel destination, easier to travel around and safer than many other places in Asia (or Europe for that matter). My final post in this series will be a summary of my thoughts about the trip.