The Galle Fort is hot in every sense of the word. July is monsoon season on the South coast of Sri Lanka and after each downpour the air is dense with humidity, like a sauna. But that’s not the only reason this is the hottest destination in Asia right now.
“Ten years ago nobody wanted to come to Galle” says Devinda my host at Villa de Zoysa in Boosa 10 minutes from the Galle Fort. Even four and a half years ago when I visited for the first time, this place felt like a quiet, undiscovered jewel where time had simply stood still. But since the end of the 26 year-long brutal civil war, tourism is booming here, as everywhere, on the tear-shaped island.
Many of the historic buildings and crumbling colonial mansions in the Unesco listed 1600th century Galle Fort have been renovated and turned into stylish boutique hotels, shops and cafes.
This is the kind of place you want to visit soon, before it looses its unique character. There are still enough dilapidated buildings waiting to be rescued from tropical decay after decades of abandon to make you realise that you are walking through a place that has only just burst onto the tourist map. But wait a few years, and this place might feel just a little too crowded, just a little too touristy.
History of the Galle Fort
Boom and bust, that is the short history of the Galle Fort. Founded by the Portuguese in the early 16th century and captured by the Dutch East India Company in 1640, for one hundred and fifty years the Galle Fort was one of the most important trading ports along the spice route and an important link between Bativa (now Indonesia) and Europe. It was a cosmopolitan hub where Arab, Chinese, Indian, Persian and European merchants came to trade gems, silks, pepper, nutmeg, cloves and cinnamon, the most valuable spice of all. A gram of cinnamon back then was worth the price of gold.
The British took control of the Fort in 1796 in a peaceful handover and remained in charge for another one hundred and fifty years. During that time the Fort’s importance as a trading post declined, as trade became more focused on Colombo. But by the second half of the 19th century the Galle Fort experienced a second golden age as an international tourist destination. Wealthy international tourists, traveling first class on steamers sailing East kept the Muslim gem merchants busy. At the time when the Grand Oriental was converted from a garrison to the town’s most famous hotel in 1863, there were twelve first class hotels inside the Fort.
But by 1880 with the opening of the new, fortified Colombo harbour and in the wake of the coffee crisis which put many British planters out of business, the Galle Fort began to decline and gradually turned into an insignificant backwater. When the first modern-day tourists came to Sri Lanka in the late 1970s and early 1980s, they bypassed the crumbling Fort altogether in favor of the nearby palmfringed beaches.
Incredibly, this cosmopolitan hub which once was one of the world’s most important trading ports of the world’s first and most successful multinational company, the Dutch East India Company, fell into a slumber that lasted well into the 21st century.
And suddenly, with the end of the gunfire, the boom is back on and fortunes have been made once again in the Fort as real estate prices have spiked over the last few years. Jo Eden, fashion designer and cafe owner, is one of the many expats living in the fort and driving its make-over as a hip new tourist destination. In 17 years she has seen crumbling mansions that sold for under $20,000 skyrocket to $1mio. Most of the change has occurred in the last 3 years she says.
In early 2011 when I first visited, there would have been 10 jewellery shops. Now there are more than 80 and I wouldn’t know if they sold me glass. So I go with Jo’s recommendation, Mr Ameen Hussain, a second generation jeweler who proudly runs the oldest shop in the Fort. He shows me the business cards he’s collected over the years. From foreign ambassadors to every luxury magazine travel writer to the captain of the Chelsey football team, Mr Hussain is the jeweler of choice.
He estimates that about 80 houses inside the Fort are now owned by foreigners. The property boom has also driven a lot of Muslim residents out of the Fort, taking advantage of inflated prices and doubling, even tripling, their money by buying in Colombo. Traditionally 90% of the Fort’s residents were Muslim, today, he estimates 50% to be Muslim.
It’s this ethnic mix and the unique architectural mix of Dutch, Portuguese and British architecture ingeniously adapted to the tropical climate that makes the Fort so interesting. Dutch colonial style of tiled roofs and gables combine with Portuguese inspired colonnaded courtyards and large porches with deep overhangs that protect from harsh sun. Traditionally coral was a cheap and readily available building material that had the added bonus of keeping houses cool as the porous material retains water.
Incredibly, the 17th century Dutch built ramparts – made from coral, sand and lime – protected the Fort from the 2004 tsunami. Strolling along the 3.4 km ramparts is one of the pleasures of visiting the Galle Fort. This is the place to hang and watch the world go by. I could have continued strolling around the Galle Fort for days and I’ll certainly be back soon, before it becomes too hip and looses all of its authenticity.
I stayed at Villa de Zoysa 10 minutes away by tuk tuk. I loved doing yoga every morning and evening. And I will come back to this wonderful place. But next time I will also spend a few nights inside the Fort itself.
Here are my recommendations of places I’ve checked out:
Amangalle It doesn’t get any better than the renovated Oriental Hotel, now part of the exclusive and very stylish chain of Aman hotels. Alas it’s beyond my budget and I’ll stay here only in my dreams.
Mango House: This is a hip renovated colonial mansion with a wonderful courtyard, bright colours and old movie posters on the walls. Loved the look and feel of this place. And it’s down a quiet side street. http://www.mangohouse.lk/
Ten years ago you wold have struggled to find more than a handful of places that served more than rice and curry. These days there is a wide variety of sophisticated restaurants, funky cafés and everything in between. Since my stay at Villa de Zoysa included my evening meals, I only tried a few places for lunch.
Poonies Kitchen: I kept coming back to this funky and hip little café owned by expat Jo Eden. Great organic food and cakes. It’s behind a couple of fashion boutiques that stock Jo’s creations – not cheap – but they’ll see you through the entire day, beach to cocktail wear is the shop’s motto.
Pedlar’s Inn Café: This is a wonderfully sprawling mansion with cool spaces inside and a nice street-level veranda where you can eat and people watch at the same time. It’s also a jewelery shop and fashion boutique.
Amangalle: The room prices may be prohibitive here, but lunch and high tea are priced so that you can still treat yourself to this Galle Fort institution, without going broke. Do yourself a favour and come here at least once. Even if it’s just for a refreshing lime soda (and they are amongst the best I’ve had in all of Sri Lanka) and for a steaky beak around this Galle Fort Institution, the former Oriental Hotel.
The Amangalle Hotel has a luxurious spa that wasn’t in my budget. Instead I visited the Galle Fort Spa in Pedlar Street right on top of Poonie’s kitchen. I had them send up passion fruit cheescake while I had my nails done. Pure Indulgence!
With nearly 100 shops to choose from, I was too overwhelmed to even try shopping around. I went straight to the Fort’s oldest shop, Laksana, at No. 30 Hospital Street.
Have you ever been to a place that was just bursting onto the international travel scene? Feel free to share your experience.
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