Glorious Galle and Good-bye

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What a wonderful end to our trip — here we are, perched on the ramparts of the historic Galle Fort, a reminder of each colonial group that has passed through Sri Lanka and an active community today. The Portuguese built it and called it Galo, the Dutch over ran it, strengthened its defenses greatly, and ironically lost it to the British with nary a shot fired following the Dutch defeat in the Napleonic War. Eventually it lost its status as a major port to Colombo and sank into a tranquil decline which allowed the fort area to remain unchanged. The modern city of Galle just outside the citadel has grown and become typically congested and unpleasant, while the area within the fort walls preserves its sleepy ambiance.

We are living on the top floor of a family home with our room and terrace at the same level as the top of the ramparts where in the mornings and evenings the fitness freaks of Galle jog and power walk during the cooler parts of the day. During the day vans and buses disgorge gangs of tourists for very brief strolls to view the waves pounding the ancient walls. From our bedroom we hear the rolling waves, a sound we have now been enjoying from our beds for 19 days from Tangalle to Mirissa to Galle, and each evening we watch the sun set into the sea from our grassy roof top. Best view in Galle and a shiny comfortable room for the princely sum of $32!

The ramparts are vastly thick and encircle the old city. They are constructed of coral as the basis for the cement (no thought of coral conservation in those days, they’ve just started to think belatedly about it now) as are the walls of many of the old Dutch era buildings. The streets are charmingly narrow, with names like Peddlar Street, Lighthouse Street, Church Street, surviving from colonial times. It is fun just rambling around peering into the old warehouses and mansions, some having been beautifully restored, others seemingly beyond repair, though in actual fact if we come back in a couple of years there will be many more of them restored. It has become quite the thing for wealthy expats to buy them up, restore them according to heritage standards, then rent out a couple of very upscale rooms to help with the upkeep while lavishly decorating the rest for themselves. Despite that the traditional life of the fort continues, with groceries delivered to tiny shops by oxcart in the mornings, vegetable sellers going door to door, and men in Muslim regalia racing to the mosque as the call to prayer sounds. The population is about 90% Muslim who, as I had mentioned previously, came to Sri Lanka from many areas of the world hundreds of years ago as traders. Many of them are extremely wealthy jewelry brokers and it seems that every second building has a small gem shop in it. Nothing cheap enough for your frugal correspondents, and nothing quirky enough either.

A British woman who came here as a journalist to cover the tsunami, Juliet Coombe, has written a very interesting book containing a series of interviews with a cross section of the fort inhabitants, chosen in such a way as to highlight the various facets of fort life and some of its most interesting historical anecdotes. The book is called Around the Fort in Eighty Lives and her photographs adorn it. As we walk through the streets we recognize many of the faces from her book. She ended up marrying into one of the old families here and gives most interesting walking tours of the area, one of which we joined a couple of days ago. She prides herself on exposing the “hidden fort” so it was fun and anecdote filled, and we met many of the people she interviewed and photographed, as well as entering many of the old buildings to see various of their historical features.

Last night we had our big splash out of the trip and dined at the historic Amangala Hotel. It was formerly called The Oriental and was the first hotel in Asia in 1864. Run by the same family for three generations, it was a complete wreck when it was taken over in 2003. It has been stunningly restored, all of the original wood refinished and most of the lovely old cane and wood furniture repaired and restored. It seems more like a stately home than a hotel, as you walk up the steps to the wide verandah with its original Dutch tile floor, and lazily revolving ceiling fans, and through into the salon with its wide plank flooring of jackwood and its candles reflected in dozens of antique mirrors. Hidden behind though, is a modern pool and a number of extremely luxurious rooms and suites which start at $750 per night! We had a lovely evening there, starting with our bottle of white wine (second wine of the trip) on the verandah with gorgeous complimentary miniature spring rolls. Our personal waiter poured our wine in little sips, and promptly at 7:30 ushered us to our table in the stately dining room. The original chandeliers have been beautifully refurbished and electrified, and antique furnishings abound. We ordered the traditional curry dinner, and it was the absolute most delicious of all the many many curries we have had on this trip, edging out Faesz at the Sharon Inn. Each individual dish was so meticulously spiced, with the chili present, but not overwhelming the cinnamon, cardamon, and other exotic ingredients with which these dishes are prepared. At the end of the meal, a small serving of the traditional pudding dessert watalapam was accompanied by a tiny scoop of coconut ice cream with drizzles of local honey on the plate. Sweetness is believed to nullify the heat of the curry and if you are suffering through a fiery one, the sugar bowl is often produced so you can carry on for another round. (Not in this high class establishment however.) Our waiter served out our dollops of curries, and rushed forward every time we threatened to replenish our own plates, similarly he managed to make our bottle of wine last the whole meal, a record for us! Well worth the price of the meal, which we reckon is about the same as what we will pay the next time we go out for sushi at our local joint — the wine however was the same price it would be at home (Australian sauvignon blanc.) Well worth it, we staggered home with stomachs bursting through the totally deserted streets. They pack it in early here, the place is a ghost town by 9:30, luckily no worries about safety, we would never have dared to walk those streets in Guatemala. 

This has been a great trip with so many varied experiences packed into 7 3/4 weeks. Temples, Buddhas (never see too many) archeological sites of astonishing antiquity, wildlife, birds, jungles, tea plantations, beaches, historical buildings…and the list goes on. The best thing, and this is not a cliche, has been the extreme friendliness and hospitality of everyone we have come in contact with. These guys have joined the Lao and the Burmese at the top of the world’s nicest people list. We covered pretty much the whole island with the exception of the Jaffna peninsula. I regret that omission but we were put off by the prospect of 2 eight hour bus rides through road construction and remaining military check points. In retrospect we wish we had though. Oh well, there is always something more that could have been done, and 8 weeks is just not quite long enough!

We return to Negombo tomorrow, where we spent our first couple of nights, as it is near the airport. We fly out at 1 am the next day so take pity on us spending two whole nights in a plane, with a boring half day in Hong Kong airport. Sadly we can’t even really abandon ourselves to sleep on the first leg of the journey as we land in Singapore after 3 hours and have to get off for an hour, then get back on for another 4 into Hong Kong. Whose idea of fun is that? Well worth it though, for the great time we’ve had. Thanks for sticking with us through yet another trip, see you all soon, Carol and Doug.

Sent from my iPad

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