They shouldn’t still be here — the Gothic churches, historic Dutch shophouses, pretty Portuguese villas, Buddhist temples and mosques.
On Boxing Day in 2004, a destructive mountain of water besieged Galle. In a rare stroke of good fortune amid that tsunami catastrophe, Galle’s most historic precinct was largely unaffected. That was thanks to the ramparts constructed by the Portuguese in the 16th century and strengthened by the Dutch decades later.
The soaring walls of Galle Fort, which enclose the city’s ancient European-style neighbourhood, diverted the waters and saved this charming community from destruction.
Almost 14 years on, this attractive and fascinating area remains the world’s oldest fort community, where day-to-day life continues to play out in its courthouse, post office, market and shops. It is not only a major tourist attraction — with its well-preserved colonial architecture, grand fortifications and stunning sunsets — but a working neighbourhood, elements of which operate independently to the tourism industry. This sense of community adds to the appeal of what is one of Asia’s most engrossing colonial enclaves.
A UNESCO World Heritage site, Galle Fort dates to 1588 when it was built by the Portuguese during their more than a century of rule in Sri Lanka. What started as a modest and crude fortification, was gradually expanded by the Portuguese and then by the Dutch, who took control of Sri Lanka in 1658. By the time the Dutch were finished, the fort occupied the entirety of the small peninsula at the western end of Galle Bay. It was widely considered the finest European fort ever built in Asia and retains that title to this day.
Over my three days in Galle I had a series of contrasting yet equally wonderful moments atop the fort’s thick, lofty ramparts. On my first morning, after enjoying a light breakfast of Kiribath (Sri Lankan milk rice) in a quaint restaurant inside a Dutch mansion, I sat on the fort walls for 20 minutes watching something simple but enchanting. Two young local boys were jumping off a huge, 5m-high rock into the ocean, competing with each other to complete the most spectacular dive.
On my second morning, a little further along the wall, I was handed a wooden fishing rod and invited to join an elderly man who was seeking his daily fresh catch. That night, I took photograph after photograph of couples and families atop the ramparts soaking up a spectacular sunset, their bodies silhouetted against a neon sky. These three experiences represent the kind of simple joys which abound in this peaceful, ancient precinct.
Despite being close to the buzzing heart of Galle city, the fort neighbourhood is wonderfully quiet.
This makes for the perfect atmosphere to enjoy its myriad beautiful religious structures.
Despite being a small area, just 500m wide and 700m long, Galle Fort is home to five churches, three mosques and a Buddhist temple. The whitewashed Dutch Reformed Church is one of the oldest Protestant churches in Sri Lanka, built by the Dutch in 1755. Just a few steps away I find the most imposing church inside the fort walls. Built in Gothic Revival style, the 150-year-old All Saints’ Church still holds regular services.
So, too, does the nearby mosque, Galle Fort Meeran Jumma Masjid. Blinding in the sun due to its white facade, it has the appearance of a Portuguese church rather than of a traditional mosque. It is closed when I visit and so I walk past it along Rampart Street, in the shadow of the fort walls, until I reach Flag Rock. This former Portuguese bastion used to be the site of a lighthouse. These days it attracts locals and tourists who want to make the most of the expansive views it offers.
As an attractive spot for photos, it’s probably the single busiest place in Galle Fort. Not that anywhere here is particularly busy.
This tranquil nook of southern Sri Lanka is the kind of place which threatens to lull you to sleep, even as you’re upright, walking its timeworn streets. Trust me, that’s a very good thing.
- Galle is about two-and-a-half hours by train from the Sri Lankan capital city of Colombo, which is also home to the country’s main airport.
- The best time to visit Galle is between December and March, to avoid the heavy rain that can occur regularly at other times of the year.