Old Town of Galle, Sri Lanka
In my stories about Sri Lanka, I have written a lot about the ancient histories of the island – the great cities of kings and the religious expressions of the Buddhist culture. But no look at the country is complete without examining the role of Europeans.
In the city of Galle, we can see an excellent representation of the story of their involvement.
Galle was built as a fortified coastal city with large walls along the seashore.
It was designed with a European way of thinking – that attacks from colonial competitors could come from the sea as well as the land.
Battlements along the walls provide the means for defence in case of an invasion.
It started with the Portuguese in the 1588 and, at that time, the land borders of Galle were the most important sides to be protected because the biggest threat was from the locals.
The Portuguese built the town itself in the style of their homeland with churches as the most important buildings in the new settlement.
Galle fell to the Dutch in 1640 and the walls along the sea were fortified at this point. The French, the English, the Danish, the Spanish and the Portuguese were all vying for supremacy of the seas in this part of the world. An assault could come at any moment from one of the nations looking for a new stronghold in South Asia.
The settlement that the Dutch built inside the walls is what mainly remains today. The grid layout with wide roads and low buildings is reminiscent of the architecture in Holland and the time.
The geography of the two lands is different – as are the climates. And so regional variations had to be incorporated into the way the town was constructed.
When you wander around today and see the buildings, the most obvious aspect of difference is the open verandas supported by columns and the gardens attached to each house.
It may technically be European architecture but there are strong South Asian traditions incorporated into it.
At its peak under the Dutch, Galle was home to about 500 families. It had public buildings, administration centres, warehouses and (of course) churches.
There were also military facilities like barracks and weapons factories. After all, this was primarily a stronghold for Europeans in a strange land a long way from home.
Galle was handed over to the British in 1796 and they proceeded to make a number of changes to the city. Nothing fundamental, but some building and gates were added and a tower was erected to celebrate the jubilee of Queen Victoria.
These changes are still part of the city today.
What is also clearly part of the city today is tourists. They are everywhere. And you’ll get more out of your visit with a guide. I have a few suggestions here:
Although Galle as a city is the ninth largest in Sri Lanka (with a population of 100,000), almost all of these people live outside the fortified walls of the Old Town. This seems reserved mainly for guesthouses, restaurants and cafes.
Some homes are nestled in between but they seem to be outnumbered by the groups strolling the streets with their cameras or the people sitting in the terraces of restaurants with a cool drink.
For a nice hotel in the fort area at a great price, have a look at Southern Comforts Guest House.
For a nicely-designed hotel right in the fort area, 56 by Deco is a great option.
And if you are looking for luxury, I think one of the best hotels around Galle is Jetwing Lighthouse.