11 Jun Secrets, Stories and Scenes of Galle Fort’s Historic Streets
Wandering through the labyrinth of Galle Fort’s narrow, cobbled streets feels like taking a peek into the past. The facades and alleys bearing the names of long-lost trades, old families and forgotten icons date back to the period when Portuguese, Dutch and British ruled the coast of Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka), with Galle as its undisputed cosmopolitan hotspot. Fort’s history lives on in its street names; each street has its own distinct character and stories to reveal. The mood around town changes with the sun, from early morning until late evening. What a difference a few hours make… Join us for a culturally curious exploration of this unique city — which was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988 — that has over 400 years of history, memories and other tales to tell.
Sunrise. Fort wakes up, and the massive moss-dappled ramparts instantly transform into a blissful playground. Early-morning joggers enjoy a casual conversation. Muslims and Buddhists greet each other on their way to morning prayer or go for an invigorating swim at ‘Lady’s Beach’ near the Lighthouse that overlooks the sacred Rumassala headland.
Sunset. At Neptune Bastion, the ramparts are wide and green, and the sea breeze still feels warm. Kids fly kites under the watchful eye of their aunties, who enjoy a leisurely picnic. Cricketers play ball, their cheerful chirps of banter drift across the cool green grass. At Flag Rock Bastion, tourists start to gather, anxiously waiting for local rock divers to perform their courageous stunt dives. Meanwhile, at a narrow wooden bench near Triton Bastion, two young lovers kiss as the golden orange sun sinks in the ocean.
An old couple walks along the quiet Hospital Street. Their pace is brisk. They pass a police station — little do they know an old Portuguese fort is hidden right behind it. They find shade under a beautiful breadfruit tree, which so happens to be the oldest in the country. They pause at the lovely Lady’s beach and take a rest on a stone slab, only to find out they are sitting on an old gunpowder storage building. If only stones could speak… Nothing here is what it seems.
Once upon a time, sailors and soldiers got treated for seasickness, malaria, dengue and missing limbs here. In hospital wards, colonial officers could recover and enjoy a welcome respite from duty. Makeshift medics experimented with herbal remedies in the adjacent herbal garden. The entire white-washed colonial complex has long been converted into a chic shopping and dining destination. Only its name — Dutch Hospital —never changed throughout the centuries.
The sound of giggling and chattering girls, lots of them, fills the air. Dressed in crisp white uniforms, golden skin and plaited hair, they hurry from their tuk-tuks to be in time for school. They are proud to be schooled at Southlands, like the many generations before them were since 1814.
An old man cycles through the narrow end of Lighthouse Street. He heads towards the ocean, where the lighthouse once stood. The street is quiet. He leaves behind the bustling part of the street, at the other side of Pedlar’s. Girls and boys swarm out of school, locals hang out at the Buddhist Association and visitors wander and wonder at the elegant colonial and Art-Deco houses, home to some exceptional family-run boutiques and B&B’s.
Sunday morning. Locals from around Galle flock to one of the two churches, dressed in their Sunday best. Choirs sing, and church bells ring on this serene and sacred morning. Iconic and proud stand these two signposts of changing times. The sober white-gabled Dutch Reformed Church — its massive stone slabs carrying more than two centuries of stories of life and death — and the gothic Anglican All Saints Church, its stained-glass windows and grand arches a forever convivial anchor in the local community.
Pre-dinner cocktails at the stylish front porch of the luxurious Amangalle — the old Eastern Oriental — or in one of the old merchant mansions and shipping offices-turned-boutique hotels. The palm-shaded street-side veranda of Galle Fort Hotel is the place to be, the equally smart neighbouring Fort Bazaar is also a popular choice. Chic sundresses, straw hats, the sound of laughter and ice cubes tinkling in tall glasses. Why not stay for dinner?
Leyn Baan Street
Primetime at Court Square, slowly a queue forms at the Magistrate’s Court. People find shade under the big banyan tree while waiting for their cases to be heard. It’s the busiest time of the day for the lawyers, letter writers and photocopiers who take office in the narrow saffron yellow buildings dotted around the square. A last-minute flustered rush to get ready before the 9.30- morning court sessions begin.
A white-capped man hurries along Leyn Baan Street on his way to evening prayer. As he gets closer to the majestic white Meera Jumma Mosque, the street’s personality changes. In sight of the Moorish minarets, the street narrows and the front porches shrink. The discreet shop windows leave nothing to the imagination. This is the gem traders and goldsmith’s part of town.
Fort’s workers — librarians, court typists, museum caretakers, rugby players, policy officers and ice-cream sellers — pass through the narrow the gate in the old spice warehouse on Queen’s Street. They travel by foot, tuk-tuk or motorcycle, usually in pairs. Their colourful dress is a cheerful addition to the backdrop of the saffron-coloured building.
Tuk-tuk drivers stop at the small gas station — the only one in Fort — next to the Governor’s Residence, which was built in 1683. They get fuel, have a light snack or a friendly chat in the welcoming shade of the crumbling building that was once the most important one in Fort.
A boy sits on the front porch of one of the stately mansions in Middle Street. He has parked his bicycle and reads a book in the soft morning sunlight. No traffic, no noise, this hidden street is for quiet contemplation.
A family gathers under the big banyan tree in front of the Amangalla. The dense branches filter the sunlight. They spread out a blanket and lay out curries on a large banana leaf. They share spicy fish, sweet chutney, fresh mango and lots of laughter. A true Galle fort ‘picnic rice’.
A bowl of simple rice and curry at Ameen Hotel, string hoppers and short eats from the vendor at the corner with Rampart Street or an artisan pizza with organic salad at the Heritage Café. Locals and visitors mix effortlessly during lunch rush hour. The speciality shops are like trinket treasure troves filled with gold, art, fabrics, books and craft, Fort style.
The streets of Fort have gone quiet, but Pedlar Street is still a little pocket of energetic joy. University students eat ice-cream at Pedlar’s, a well-travelled couple relaxes in the intimacy of Fort Printer’s courtyard, and a group of backpackers hang out in hammocks near where the old market was, refreshing margaritas in hand.
The head monk of the bright white Sri Sudharmalaya Buddhist Temple at the end of Chando Street makes his rounds. He starts the day with a quiet morning walk on the ramparts. He relishes the meditative moment of calmness ahead of a busy day.
A gentle kiss, a flick of shiny black hair, a shy smile and cameras click… The quaint, perfectly preserved terrace houses in Chando Street with blossoming flowers and leafy trees make the ultimate backdrop for wedding photos.
A husband and wife begin the day by lighting incense to cleanse their store at the corner of Parawa and Pedlar Street. Soon after, sweet-smelling loaves of bread are delivered. At 6 they roll up the shutters. Just in time for the first regulars who pick up a fresh loaf with their morning newspaper.
A joyful, unpretentious vibe roams around where the South Indian Parawa fisherman used to live. Now the narrow street lined charming small houses are home to cute spas, hostels and cafés and lots of potted plants.
Wondering what else there is to see and do in the streets of Galle Fort?
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