GALLE, Sri Lanka — The Fort stands over the town of Galle like the hull of an enormous, grounded spaceship. Its walls seem to stretch clear to the horizon with bell towers and clock towers sticking up in the middle like guardhouses. The town of Galle is southern Sri Lanka’s anchor and its pulsating bus station, colonial train station and beach-side market give it more of a breezy air than some of the other suffocating cities down here.
The Fort gives it a touch of royalty.
I don’t like tourist traps. No real traveler does. But sometimes they are tourist traps for a reason: They’re worth visiting. The Fort is definitely a must see in Sri Lanka.
In 1589, the Portuguese built a small fort on the harbor to protect itself from the increasingly annoying Kingdom of Kandy located in the cooling Hill Country almost smack dab in the middle of the country. When the Dutch, who had arrived in Ceylon in 1602, took possession of Galle in 1640, it built the massive Fort that still stands today. The Fort established Galle as Ceylon’s main port for 200 years. During that time, the Dutch dominated the spice market, transporting Sri Lanka’s luxurious cinnamon all over the world along with other spices. The Dutch even installed a legal system Sri Lanka still partly uses today. Too bad the Dutch were assholes. The Kingdom of Kandy never did succumb.
The Fort is huge. It covers 90 acres. And it’s not just a log-cabin structure with a flag sticking out of the top. It’s like a city that still functions. The stone walls stand about 30 feet high and stretch along the odd-shaped peninsula sticking into the Indian Ocean. I walked through a huge gate that immediately separated me from the grime of South Asia and introduced me to clean, colonial 19th century Ceylon. Everything in the Fort is spotless. It’s like the Fort is Galle’s one gem and they polish it every day. Even the souvenir hawkers look cleaner. You could eat off the narrow roads that meander past the Dutch colonial-style buildings.
I took Lonely Planet’s walking tour which is usually an exercise in maddening frustration. Lonely Planet is by far the best guide book series available but its walking tours are more confusing than Rubik’s Cube. (Hint to editors: Don’t use east and west designations. We don’t carry compasses. Write, “Facing the clock tower, go left …”) Nevertheless, I started at the clock tower which sticks up right near the entrance. Go up a slight incline and below the clock you can walk along the wall for magnificent views of Galle and its harbor. The harbor is still used but more than anything it’s a backdrop for Galle’s cricket ground. A game was being played before a smattering of fans sitting in stands seemingly a kilometer away from the action. I stopped to watch. I had to. I was a sportswriter for nearly 40 years and have a natural curiosity about anything organized and athletic, particularly when it includes a bat and a ball. In 1978 I saw Essex play Sussex at Lord’s Cricket Ground and some on TV in New Zealand. I know one thing about cricket.
I don’t get it.
Picture baseball where the batter doesn’t have to run if he doesn’t like where he it. I’ll wax poet more about this later but standing 500 meters away from cricketeers sweltering in their long white trousers in suffocating heat didn’t add to its appeal.
I walked along the other side of the wall and saw beautiful views of the sea. It’s remarkable how Sri Lanka, so close to filthy India, could have such beautiful water. It was almost the turquoise of French Polynesia. Water slammed against the Fort’s walls and pounded against the rocks. I missed Goyambokka badly as sweat started to soak my black golf shirt.
Adding to my heat index, I got hopelessly lost.
The Fort is not preserved for prosperity. It’s a working community. There’s a bank, a post office, administrative offices, hotels and some high-end tourist shops. What it doesn’t have is street signs. I had no idea where I was going. A security guard asked me where I wanted to go. I said, “Church Street.”
He waved his hand up and down the street. “You’re on it,” he said.
I was one block from the Amangalla, which the Dutch built in 1684 for its governor and officers and was renovated into a hotel in 2004. It is the epitome of high-end, snooty, colonial wealth. You could almost see Rudyard Kipling sitting with his notepad on the veranda sipping a gin-and-tonic. The guests drinking cocktails more expensive than my hotel bill looked so tight and cleanly pressed they look airdropped in for lunch. I walked in, as scruffy as a “Survivor” contestant with my faded purple cargo pants, untucked black golf shirt and Merrills. A pretty Sri Lankan lady in full colonial native garb approached me with her hands together in prayer and said, “Welcome.”
“Hi. I just wanted to look around.”
“You can look in the lobby,” she said, throwing me scraps from her silver trap.
I walked in and saw beautiful chandeliers, stained-wood furniture and another couple eating off plates so shiny they could see their perfectly white teeth in them. I also saw the hostess staring at me. Unnerved, I left, thirsty and hungry but much cooler from the needed shade and whippy ceiling fans.
I walked down the narrow paved road and bought stamps in a post office that hadn’t been renovated since the 18th century. Three people sat in a huge, dark, dusty room with a whole bank of postcards on the wall.
Outside were two pristine, preserved Dutch colonial churches but my hunger and thirst were reaching dangerous levels. I would’ve joined the Dutch army for a Lion Lager. I went to Mama’s Galle Fort, a Fort institution housed in a tiny house with a little roof-top dining area under cooling fans.
No alcohol. Nothing.
I ordered a coconut juice which looks inviting served in a giant, carved-out coconut but it has no flavor and is the temperature of whatever air it’s served in. I ordered two Cokes and Mama’s famed rice and curry. Although the Sri Lankan cuisine is starting to get repetitive — rice and curry, fish and rice, rice and fish, curry and rice — it’s as filling as a bowling ball. Out came a giant plate of rice with individual bowls of chicken, beans, sambol (a chili-based condiment) and some other substance that looked like coconut shavings. I didn’t want to leave. I was the last person in the room and languishly looked outside. I looked at the rising humidity (it must be over 90 percent) like an approaching tsunami. I didn’t want to go back in it.
But I finished the walk, going up along the back side of the wall, past the 1938 lighthouse still in use and the Dutch hospital. It’s a sprawling complex facing the water, which was probably a nice view for all the Dutch soldiers who died from the plague after crossing the Indian Ocean. The soldiers wore wool and never washed them. Nice. As I stopped to watch a pickup cricket game played by young teens, I could ring out my golf shirt into a Slurpee cup.
On the way out, I saw the Dutch Governor’s House on a corner. It had a plaque reading 1693 over the door with Galle’s cock symbol. A nice guard opened the locked gate and showed me around. It’s dark, dusty and huge. I saw the dining room which could feed a party of 30. the kitchen and garden out back. Yes, no wonder the Europeans stuck with colonialism for so long. I didn’t flinch when the guard rubbed his fingers together. I don’t know if I was happy about the mini tour or that I was heading back to the beach but I gave him 100 rupees (67 cents) and a hearty “Is-TOO-tee!” (Thank you!).
On the seemingly endless ride back, the sun was setting. In its romantic, warm shadow I saw Sri Lanka’s famed stilt fishermen standing precariously on stilts sticking out of the water and plying the waters with crude wooden fishing poles. I need a picture of them at sunset but, alas, I’m not renting a car or scooter here. I can’t pry myself off the beach which is exactly where I’m headed now.