Hello again one and all and welcome to the 12th portion of what is going to turn into a body of writing to rival any of the Norse sagas, not in quality it goes without saying, but in sheer volume. Regular readers will know I have a propensity towards verbosity and if that is not a good title for a song I don’t know what is!
22nd January, 2014.
Yes, as I promised in my last missive here, I was going to get on the move today and so could not lie in bed half the day as is my wont but why I had to rise at 0620 is a complete mystery to me. I know this because of my images but I shall spare you yet another one of my lovely bathroom at that hour!
The train I had to get would pass not 100 yards from my room but I had to go into Fort Station in central Colombo. The reason for this was that I was booked on a “fast” train to Galle although the concept of a fast train in Sri Lanka is something of an oxymoron. There are no fast trains, there are merely trains that are less slow than others.
The railway infrastructure was built by the British in the early part of he 20th century and, apart from essential maintenance, it has not been upgraded since. Don’t get me wrong, I love Sri Lankan trains but they are never going to get you anywhere in a hurry. What I mean by fast in this case is that it did not stop at many stations, certainly not Wellewatta which I could have walked to. It may have stopped at Mt. Lavinia, a little way down the road but I had not even checked that.
Into town on the bus then (about an hour in non-rush hour conditions) and boarded the train with no problem. As the image above shows, it was fairly comfortable rolling stock although pretty full which probably explained the need to book well ahead as I explained in a previous post. It was a pleasant enough journey, following the coast for most of the way and it strangely reminded me of the British West Coast line to Cornwall in many ways. Not a bad way to spend a couple of hours.
Alighting at Galle station, which was much smaller and less frenetic than Fort, I instantly felt a little more relaxed. It was not as if I had felt in the least stressed in Wellewatta or even central Colombo but this just somehow seemed more laid back and this was to be a feature of Galle, a place I came to love.
Very unusually for me I had booked accommodation ahead. I had looked on Hostelword,com which is a site I use a lot. Don’t let the name put you off, it does not just deal with hostels but includes homestays, B&B’s and cheaper hotels. It is a great resource for the budget traveller. I had found the Galle Centre Home, which looked reasonably central and was very reasonably priced and from here I shall allow my original contemporaneous notes to take over, including the title which just about sums up the place.
Brand new and brilliant.
“I am not sure I should even post this tip as the establishment I am going to write about is going to get so popular and I am not sure I shall be able to get a reservation if I return!
On arrival in Galle I had decided to walk to my guesthouse as it was only a short distance from the station and managed this with luggage in about 15 minutes, although a tuk-tuk should only cost 100LKR from either the train or bus stations, which are adjacent. I had memorised my map (no technological GPS stuff for me, I couldn’t use it anyway) so I was slightly unsure of what to make of the pretty rough unpaved track that I encountered.
Still, dragging the no longer rolling rollalong (one of the wheels had gone) down the lane I came on what looked like a rather large private house although the sign for the English School confused me even further. When I walked in and saw all the paraphernalia of education I was quite sure I had the wrong place but I shouted a hello anyway.
A lady appeared from the back and welcomed me warmly. This turned out to be Marga, the delightful Dutch woman who runs the place with her Sinhalese partner Eranda who is equally wonderful. She spoke to me in perfect English as most Dutch people do and this is a good thing as she is indeed an English teacher here. Allow me to explain.
The couple had taken the premises to run the school but as it has about seven bedrooms they decided to maximise the space and live downstairs whilst letting out the upstairs rooms. They had started to do this on 27th December 2013 and I had arrived just less than a month later so it really is a new venture and obviously not in any guide books yet although they do have an online presence.
After the formalities Eranda showed me upstairs along a delightful verandah and into the spacious and beautifully appointed living area you can see in one of the images. The five bedrooms lead off, each door being designated by it’s own little symbol. I was in the chilli room (see the image) which suited me nicely.
Having been shown to my room which was simply but very tastefully furnished as you can again see, I was all set and very happy. It was a fan room which I prefer to air-con anyway as air-con tends to give me a bad throat. There is no TV but there is a large one in the communal area although I never saw it switched on the whole time I was there. People tend to sit around and chat or go online for which purpose there is a fast wifi connection that works all over the premises.
A quick further tour revealed the two wetroom shower / toilets and the kitchen which is equipped with a fridge and kettle but no cooker. The owners don’t really want people cooking here although you are welcome to bring your own food back and consume it. There are tea and coffee making facilities.
A word about the bathrooms. There is one double room that has an en-suite but the rest of the rooms use the two facilities mentioned. I should say that the friendly staff keep them spotless and as there are only a potential seven people using them I never had to wait for one.
The whole establishment really feels like staying at a friends home and that is what you are effectively doing, staying in someone’s home. As it is in many people’s homes home, smoking is not allowed indoors but it is pleasant to sit with a cup of tea and a cigarette on the verandah and watch the many little squirrels scampering about on the powerlines or watch the sun going down over Galle.
English or Sinhalese breakfasts are available at a cost of $4US although it is not a meal I usually take so I cannot comment on that.
The situation is very central although the off-road position ensures that traffic noise is never a problem. I used to walk everywhere in town and the Fort area, which is the major attraction in town and is easily reached in 15 minutes. Should you want, Eranda can get you a tuktuk whose driver isn’t going to rip you off to go wherever you want in the area.
Coming from further afield, airport pickup is available at a cost of $70. You can bring your own alcohol here although none is served. Should you wish to go out and not go as far as the Fort there are two excellent hotel bars a short wander up the hill.
One little anecdote may serve to summarise the type of place this is. I had been extending my stay on a more or less daily basis as I was enjoying the accommodation and the city so much and on the last night due to some computer issue or another and double booking Marga asked me very nicely if I would mind changing rooms for that night and coming downstairs to stay in her personal guest room (not usually let out).
No problem as I was probably partially the cause of the problem anyway and I was given a lovely en-suite single and encouraged to use the owners personal kitchen if I wanted to make tea or coffee.
That is the sort of place it is, clean, friendly, comfortable and laid back. It really does deserve to succeed and I have no doubt that it will”.
It really does not get much better and my time here still ranks amongst my happiest travel memories. I try my best to relate my travels to you but this is one of those occasions where “you just had to be there” to fully understand.
I am sure that other adventurous souls will have similar stories and I claim no monopoly on experiences like this, it was just brilliant and travellers will get it. Perhaps more importantly, if the constantly mutating virus is ever controlled (doubtful for a very long time) then the non-travellers as yet will be able to do so and experience such joys. Sadly, I do not see it happening in my lifetime.
I cannot remember exactly what this beautiful room was costing me although $15 US springs to mind. I know from my original notes that it was less than $20 US and well worth every penny, or should that be cent or even rupee?
The day was going exceptionally well now, no problems with the train and a bed which was beyond my expectations for half nothing, so it was an obvious choice to go out and see a bit of Galle and I can do no better than to reproduce here my original notes, dated as they are. Again I should point out the references to Virtual Tourist / VT and “tips” etc. are remnants of a sadly bygone and much happier blogging age.
“Prompted by another members page here on Virtual Tourist in 2013 I recently checked to see how many UNESCO World Heritage sites I had actually visited and I must say I was a little disappointed with the results. I have therefore determined to make a concerted effort to visit more of them as I continue to travel and so I was looking forward to seeing Galle as it has that coveted status. I am so glad I did as I really enjoyed it.
The jewel in the crown here is undoubtedly the Fort area, a defensive structure begun by the Portuguese, continued and expanded considerably by the Dutch and finally administered for many years by the British until the independence in 1947 of Ceylon, as it was then called. As such, it covers the entire period of European colonialism but there is more to it than that.
When Colombo, the modern day capital, was a sleepy little village, Galle was already a thriving seaport due to it’s excellent anchorage facilities and had been for centuries. It is suggested it may even be the biblical Tarshish where King Solomon sourced all sorts of wonderful things. Whatever the truth of that particular claim, it remains a wonderfully atmospheric place where you can wander around in a delightfully preserved, although still very much functioning, piece of history.
Perhaps this is Galle’s greatest charm. It is absolutely steeped in history but it is not some sorry old collection of stones. It is still very much alive and kicking and I would suggest that it should be high on any potential itinerary of Sri Lanka. Do yourself a favour and get there”.
I think that more or less summarises my feelings about Galle and my choice to use my original notes means that my impressions are not subject to the “rose-tinted spectacles” of long memory. This was probably written within a day of arriving there and Galle remains, rose-tinted specs or not, a favourite of mine in Sri Lanka.
My first “port of call” as it had been for the Portuguese centuries before was to go down to the sea, the natural harbour and the Fort that oversees it.
I got to the sea , as many potential invaders had but what I saw was not intimidating at all, as the image shows. This is one of the many bread vans that run about all over the island. I remember as a child going on holidays to my Aunt and Uncle’s house in the charming village of Pencaitland in Midlothian in Scotland where the local baker delivered fresh rolls to the door (outside) early in the morning so they were ready for breakfast.
Just recently I have been reading an excellent blog, which I am going to plug shamelessly here because it is so good. It is by a South African couple who have walked several “caminos” i.e. religious pilgrimage walks on the Iberian peninsula. They remarked on their amazement at seeing loaves of bread hanging in polythene bags on the front gates of houses and not being stolen. This is the Sri Lankan equivalent and many a morning I have been awoken by the raucous noise they make on their loudspeakers. I had never actually seen one up close until this point and I think it is quite attractive.
At this point, and I know it is a huge diversion from my main narrative, much like the 20 mile or so diversion my friend Lynne and I had to take along an unpaved roads in Canada in an aged campervan (RV) to avoid about 200 yards of unattended roadworks some years later and which will form part of a future series here, you may be thinking I have lost the plot completely.
This is understandable but I am going this way to make a point. Sooner or later all my apparently unrelated and often only vaguely coherent ramblings come together. This diversion is to do with the blog I just mentioned and am enjoying hugely.
You will know that I detest the cult of celebrity and that being famous for being famous really repulses me. I do, however, provide links to occasional other blogs that I have found to be exceptional. One example that I have quoted frequently is my dear friend Sarah who writes beautifully, takes images I would happily die for and is one of the most intelligent and well travelled people I have ever met.
I am not breaking any confidences here when I tell you that the couple who write the newly discovered blog are called Berto and Corna, a very devout South African Protestant couple and I give their religion here for a reason.
A few years ago they decided to walk the Camino Frances and then the Camino Portuguese the year later. For those of you who do not know, Caminos are old pilgrimage routes which often end at the Cathedral of Santiago (St. James) in Compostela (Spain).
Their journeys on these long and arduous trails probably tell you more about travelling than I ever can. They were walking and interacting with people of all faiths and none (like me) but effectively the joy was in the travelling, even if the routes they were so often painfully walking were so much associated with the Roman Catholic faith. For me it is a hugely appropriate blog as it does fit in well with my narrative about travelling merely for it’s own sake.
The Fort area is like a town within a town or, more properly, a town without a town and I use the word without in the proper sense here, I should probably say outwith. It overlooks the modern sprawl of Galle and was built as a defensive and therefore “apart” place.
As a lesson in the history of the island that now sits amongst other nations as Sri Lanka, this was an education, a “Beginners Guide to Sri Lanka” if you like as it covers all periods of the nation’s modern history.
Firstly, you have to get into the Fort and that means, in the ways of fortresses everywhere, that you have to negotiate a gate, in this case British. This is rather different than what you might expect of the earlier Portuguese and Dutch influences which I was to see precious little of on the island generally although there is rather more Dutch than Portuguese.
Colombo and Galle are the exceptions to this general rule with the Dutch Quarter (the hip restaurant bar area in Colombo 1) and a lot of Galle Fort displaying Dutch influence as we shall see.
Another notable exception to this general rule is the large number of surnames obviously from Portugal like Fernando, Pereira, Almeida etc. My Sri Lankan friend has a Portuguese surname which I choose not to publish here for her personal online security. Whilst there is little physical evidence of Portuguese occupation here, the influence certainly lives on in this way at least.
Here are my original notes about the gate.
The rather imposing entrance to the Fort area you see here is known as the Old Gate and dates back to the 17th century, of which more later, and until 1897 was the only entrance into the fortifications. As the images show, it is slightly shabby looking on the outside and rather better looking on the inside where massive refurbishment has obviously taken place. I would have thought that on the principle that you never get a second chance to make a first impression that a little work on the outside might have been an idea.
Apparently it had a portcullis and was a second line of defence to the moat which the Portuguese had built previously and the Dutch then reinforced. There is no evidence of the portcullis now but walking through it (watch the traffic as there is no footpath (sidewalk)) you can appreciate just how thick these defences were.
Here then lies the mystery and if anyone can clear it up I would be most grateful and amend this tip with due acknowledgement. My best efforts on the internet have failed to bring a result.
I know that in the colonial history of Sri Lanka the British came after the Dutch so why does the British coat of arms on the exterior bear the date 1668 whilst that of the V.O.C. (Dutch East Indies Company) on the interior wall bear a date a year later, if my schoolboy Latin numbering system does not desert me. Answers on a postcard please!
Well, it is no longer a mystery! Thanks to the excellent internet research of VT member alza, who directed me to a wonderful blog, all becomes clear. The 1668 date on the outside of the gate was apparently put there by the Dutch and when the British took over they were too gentlemanly to remove it but rather put their own royal coat of arms above it, so now I know”!
If you look closely at the coat of arms you will see the letters VOC which we encountered before in the Dutch Museum in Colombo.
VOC stands for Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie which roughly translates as Dutch East India Company which, like it’s British counterpart was partly a commercial enterprise and partially a paramilitary force. The VOC were hugely successful particularly in the spice trade form their possessions in Southern, Southeastern and Eastern Asia.
Galle Fort was just about everything I travel for laid out in front of me and I give you fair warning, there will be further posts about it. It is a small walled fortification commanding a position to repel sea attack, which is what it was likely to be in those days as the indigenous peoples did not have the wherewithal to rebel and attack from landside.
As you walk round the old area of Galle, which is not a museum piece but still a thriving part of the city, you get a sense of what it must have been like to live behind it’s stout walls in days past.
The image above demonstrates several things. Firstly the use of English by the professional classes to this day including the “English” term LL.B as a legal qualification although strictly speaking it is Latin.
Lawyers, I fear, are ubiquitous but thankfully, on my initial walk round the Fort area on this day, they were far from my mind. My time in Wellewatta and my journeys into Colombo had proved very fruitful and, in truth, if I had just decided to stay there for the whole 90 days allowed on my visa I would have undoubtedly come home a happy man and pronounced myself content with my journey. I knew, however, that there was so much more to the country than this and here I was walking it.
Just about everything in Galle is old as the fairly decrepit and apparently unused gateway above demonstrates. It has every right to be decrepit as the date on the left hand post illustrates, it was over 300 years old.
Apart from signs on lawyer’s offices, English is still well represented, notably on these charming old-fashioned street signs.
I am going to go off on another little discourse here and that involves travelling. There are a thousand over-worked quotes I could throw at you now about travelling and all of them, whilst clichéd from vast overuse, are true.
I know travelling is completely off the radar for most of the world now for reasons that I do not need to go into as they are well documented. All I would suggest is that, if such is ever possible again, you travel.
It doesn’t matter if you are flat broke, just buy a bus / train / ‘plane ticket to somewhere, anywhere, and go for it. Even if you are only allowed to go to a neighbouring state / province / country, hell, even a neighbouring town you have never visited under the current restrictions just do it and, before a certain overpriced leisurewear firm think about suing me for using that phrase – just do it. Travel is the greatest education you can have but back now to Galle Fort.
Just about everything in the Fort area seems to be historical. Look at the example above, a fairly prosaic Police garage and even it was nearly 100 years old. Interestingly the garage seems to predate the police station by a decade which seems a little odd.
The building you see in the images is the Akersloot Bastion which lies to the Southern side of the Fort facing the sea and some more original notes
This is how the Dutch got here.
“This is the story of a man called Willem Jacobszoon Coster, a Dutchman born in 1590 and in 1638 in the employ of the V.O.C. (Dutch East Indies Company) who we have already encountered. In 1637, King Rajasingha II, King of Kandy, had already asked the V.O.C. to help him oust the occupying Portuguese from the country and an Admiral named Adam Westerwold was dispatched.
Westerworld was subsequently joined by Coster and his force and they succeeded in first capturing the Fort at Batticaloa. In 1638 the Dutch
and the King made another agreement and proceeded to do exactly the same thing to Galle with the defeated Portuguese being transported to the Coromandel Coast of India.
The entire Fort was named Akersloot after Coster’s birthplace and his wife sailed to join him in 1640 making her one of the first Dutch women in the country. Coster was subsequently raised to the post of Governer of
Things then went badly wrong for him. He returned Trincomalee to the King but refused to give back any more land and so the King had him murdered on 21st August 1640. His poor wife arrived after his murder and so turned straight round to return home. Be careful who you deal with!
You cannot actually enter the bastion but it is interesting to look at it and learn about the history”.
The next place of interest I discovered was the lighthouse and again you can have my original notes.
For those in peril on the sea.
Whilst you are walking round the Fort area in Galle, you will certainly notice the lighthouse, it is certainly big enough at 26.5 metres. Unlike it’s sister building in Colombo this structure is still operational although it is nowhere near as old and, frankly, not quite as aesthetically pleasing.
Although an original structure was built on this site in 1848 it was destroyed by fire in 1934 and the present light dates from 1939. I dread to think what might have happened to shipping in the intervening five years. As it is still in commission, you cannot enter the building but it is still a notable landmark in the delightful World Heritage site of Galle Fort. Even if you cannot enter, it is certainly worth a photograph, which is just what I did”.
Religion never seems to be far away from my travel writings and it has already featured in this post so it is hardly surprising that I stopped to admire the building you see below and, yes, more original notes accompany the image.
A very impressive mosque.
“It is not difficult to see that the Fort area in Galle is predominantly Muslim, particularly on Friday, the Islamic holy day when the citizens all seem to don traditional Islamic gear in order to go to Friday prayers.
Even on other days of the week, the Islamic influence is very obvious and there are numerous buildings obviously associated with that faith. I even saw an Arabic College. I have seen these elsewhere and I am unsure as to to what their function might be, I suspect it may be for the teaching of the Arabic language, the better to facilitate reading of Holy Qu’uran.
Anyway, back to the Mosque. I knew from my guidebook that it was not open to non-believers and that is fair enough, I would never profane anyone else’s religious beliefs but it did make me wonder why. I have been in mosques in other parts of the world and indeed been invited into them and treated with the utmost hospitality. I really am unsure if this is specific to this building, Sri Lanka in general or for some other reason but if I ever do discover the reason I shall amend this tip accordingly.
I am sure that Islamic travellers would be perfectly at liberty to enter for prayer or just to look around.
Being of no religious faith I had to content myself with a photograph of what is a fairly impressive building although t did strike me that architecturally it looked rather more like a European Christian church than a mosque.
It is not of huge historical importance having only been built in 1904 on the site of the old structure dating to the mid 18th century but it is a pleasant building to look at and like the lighthouse (see above) although inaccessible to me it was certainly worthy of a photograph before moving on”.
Naturally, in the course of a day’s completely unscripted wandering there will be things seen that do not easily fit into a particular category and that is what the collage above is about. In no particular order it shows one of the monkeys that seem to be everywhere in Sri Lanka outside greater Colombo. I spent many a happy hour watching their antics in various places, not least the verandah of my accommodation here in Galle.
Two of the other images show my absolute addiction to photographing trees, I never tire of it. A further image shows a beautiful old tiled roof and the final one is a piece of military history from the ramparts, it is the base for a cannon allowing it to be traversed easily. I just thought I would share them with you to give you an idea of the feel of the old Fort.
By now it was getting to late afternoon and I needed a drink and a bite to eat in that order. I have mentioned that the Fort area is predominantly Moslem and so there are not many opportunities for drinking and I had to settle for a pretty upmarket hotel which is not really my scene but it worked out well as I met an American guy called Mike who had been in town a few days and knew his way about. He said he knew a great place to eat nearby and would I care to join him? Absolutely, and here’s what happened next.
“I was initially introduced to this place on my first night in Galle by another traveller who had been there for a couple of days and I am very grateful to him for that as it became a great favourite of mine and I place I returned to several times.
The restaurant is attached to the guesthouse of the same name and is up a flight of stairs which regrettably makes it inaccessible for mobility impaired travellers but this really is the only drawback.
The man who runs the place is very friendly and his good lady wife does all the cooking at which she excels. I tried various dishes here which were all of the highest quality and not overly expensive. It is a fairly simple place as the image shows although pleasant enough and with a cooling breeze.
The menu is a fairly standard Sri Lankan one with Western or Sri Lankan breakfasts, various pancakes, salads, soups, omelettes, sandwiches and so on as well as a selection of curries, chopsueys, fried dishes, noodles and rices. I am actually surprised at how common what I would describe as Chinese food is on menus here.
Naturally there are an assortment of desserts and beverages.
The first night we visited, my new friend Mike did the sensible thing and didn’t even bother looking at the menu but asked the owner what was good that day. We were told that prawn curry was recommended and he ordered that with me following his lead.
Well, Mike obviously knew what he was about and I am always willing to take a recommendation from the proprietor. Besides, I love prawn curry! We were asked did we want it spicy or not and I opted for spicy as I do like a bit of a kick with my food but, even then, it was not ludicrously hot as can happen here sometimes.
On another occasion when I visited alone, I asked for a suggestion, a practice I had more or less adopted as standard here as it never failed, and was told the fish was particularly good that day. The owner even brought it for inspection before I decided to order and it was certainly fresh. It duly appeared cooked to perfection and served with chips (fries) and salad. It was absolutely gorgeous. (( This will feature in a future post)).
Incidentally, the salad was tossed in a vinaigrette that had pineapple juice in it which I had never had before and it was absolutely divine. Definitely something I am going to experiment with at home and again, hopefully the image does the whole dish justice.
I really cannot speak highly enough about this place and suggest the traveller seeks it out”.
I think that about says it all and after that it was home for an early and very much appreciated bed in what had almost instantaneously formed in my head as “home”.
In the next few posts I shall show you around more of the wonderful city of Galle so please stay tuned and spread the word.