As a lone woman travelling to the South of Sri Lanka, Galle Fort offers a welcome respite from the type of hectic environment typically associated with the country’s other towns and cities. Hailed as a hub for culture, arts, and crafts, visitors can marvel at the eclectic clash of Dutch, Portuguese, and British monuments set against a backdrop of Sri Lanka’s distinct essence. A short jaunt down any of the main roads reveal a wealth of art, multiculturalism, and bling!
Reaching Galle Fort is easy as the central bus and train stations in the port town of Galle are within easy walking distance of the Fort entrance. Another option for those with thrill seeking issues would be to hire a moped from neighbouring touristic regions such as Unawatuna or Hikkaduwa, avoiding the hassle of public transport, favouring the exhilarating, typically white-knuckled, Sri Lankan coastal roads. Once inside, the Fort offers a truly unique insight into colonial bygone eras with a tropical twist; mandatory on any tour of the island.
One view that locals, expatriates, and visitors alike are united on is that the best time to visit the Fort is during the evenings. From here you can walk the immaculately preserved ramparts of the UNESCO World Heritage site; take in the scenic views; watch locals fish or play cricket; and marvel at the Indian sun when it does its uniquely Sri Lankan disappearing trick. Thrill seekers need not be disappointed either as there are a group of local boys who will gladly throw themselves, seemingly suicidally, off the sides of the ramparts for tourists’ entertainment.
Intrinsic to this ambience is the fact that the Fort is a safe destination. Women can walk around freely, day or night, with no risk of unwanted attention. That alone affords time to really unwind; enjoy sampling the cornucopia of exquisite cuisine available from all around the world; rummage through the wonderful antiques on display; or marvel at the smorgasbord of culture and history.
A common misconception is that the Fort is complicated to navigate but this is really not the case with the peripheral streets running parallel to the iconic ramparts. The entire area is some 36 hectares, defended by fourteen individually named bastions, making it the largest Fort built by the Dutch Colonial Empire in Asia. For history fanatics there are tours readily available, but simply perusing the plethora of galleries, cafes, restaurants, museums, and gem shops within the Fortress can be just as thrilling.
The Fort was originally constructed by the Portuguese in 1588 before being further fortified by the Dutch in the C17th. Further modified after the British colonial takeover in 1796, it was returned to the Sri Lankan people when they were granted independence in 1948. The final result is a diverse collection of European historical monuments for history enthusiasts to revel in. Some key monuments include the Dutch Reformed Church that was started in 1752 and dedicated in 1755. The Church still houses the original 1760 organ donated by the Netherlands, which was subsequently moved from its original position on top of the church balcony to the main hall by the British in 1796. Furthermore, the Fort contains the 1871 All Saints Anglican Church; the Methodist Church; 1707 clock tower; the National Maritime Museum (formerly the Old Dutch Warehouse); and the 1832 Galle Library certainly holds appeal for those wanting to learn more.
On the Asian side, prevalent landmarks include the 1904 Meera Mosque; the 1892 Arabic College – the only one of its kind in Sri Lanka – though ladies be warned; women are banned from entering the premises, though a chat with the teachers from outside gates is still fascinating. There is also the 1886 built Buddhist Temple where Reverand Panangala Hemalake will happily show you around this sacred, psychadelic shrine.
For those wanting to delve further into the Asian culture the Galle Muslim Cultural Association located close to the Meera Mosque is certainly worthy of investigation. Here they run a host of programs aimed at helping impoverished Muslim communities in Sri Lanka. They also run programs aimed at promoting what the General Secretary Shazly Hasseen describes as “intercommunal harmony” between the Muslim majority, Buddhists, Christians, Tamils, and other minority religions within the Fort.
Both Muslims and Buddhists alike are keen to emphasise that there are no barriers between the religions in the fort – an important measure given Sri Lanka’s violent history. There is also the YMBA (Young Men’s Buddhist Association), YMMA (Young Men’s Muslim Association), and the YWCA (Young Women’s Christian Association) – all of which are open to all people of any religion. Members of the YMBA report of frequent inter-religious gatherings to play snooker and billiards together.
The Fort has undergone extensive restoration following the 2004 tsunami as part of an initiative set by the Sri Lankan Government’s Ministry of Cultural Affairs and the Galle Heritage Foundation. Additionally, other venues have been bought by international investors and expatriates who have independently taken charge of renovations themselves. Consequently, the area is now left with a distinctly cosmopolitan, up-market feel compared to the rest of Galle. This is primarily due to the fact that, according to estate agents here, approximately 75% of the area is now owned by foreign investors.
Critics argue that the loss of the Sinhalese working community has meant that the Fortress has become a commercial tourist destination, thus losing some of the distinct Asian/European mishmash which has always made the place so extraordinary. Gone are the traditional style gem polishers, the mysterious lace makers, and wood carvers – those remaining being placed as reminders of an older era for the benefit of tourists. There are even those who argue that the foreign influx has impacted the nature of the religious presence within the Fort with attendance at religious festivals having lessened by all accounts. There are also additional concerns over managing the increasing amounts of traffic that the narrow roads within the Fort simply cannot accommodate.
Contrary to this however, the influx of foreign investors has not only brought more revenue to the region, which is crucial to helping Sri Lanka recover as a whole. It has also been hugely beneficial to local business owners who have chosen to stay. Additionally, it has opened doors for oppressed local people thanks to the work done by organisations such as the Galle Muslim Cultural Association or the Shoba Display Gallery on Pedlar Street. Founded in 2005 by Chamanthi Liyanage; the gallery is aimed at providing income to local women left impoverished by Sri Lanka’s recent history.
Only time will tell what the future holds for the Fort. Some believe the Fortress will become under the control of rich foreigners as all the Asian community will eventually sell up; meaning Galle Fort will lose one aspect that is intrinsic to its unique allure. Others are less pessimistic, believing the remaining locality will stay and embrace the increased tourism. Either way, the Fort is set to change in the coming years, and with Sri Lanka being listed as Lonely Planet’s number one destination for 2013, two words spring to mind; get involved!