If there is one place where you can see the rise and fall of western empires, it must be Galle in Sri Lanka. And nothing encapsulates that better than Galle Fort.
It was originally built by the Portuguese in 1588. Then along came the Dutch who fortified it further from 1649. The British, not wishing to be left behind, went about with their own modification from 1796. It was finally the Sri Lankans who, immediately after the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, went about restoring it to its present glory.
Today, Galle Fort is unlike any other place in Sri Lanka. Recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it’s a melting pot with a multi-ethnic and multi-religious population, and heavy European influence especially on its architecture.
Walk on the ramparts
It’s the best way to appreciate all that Galle Fort has to offer. Built by the Dutch, the ramparts are so wide that you can walk along them. While you can do most parts in a few hours, if time is the essence, then I suggest that you choose your spots.
One of them should be the Moon Bastion. It’s located close to the entrance of the fort and is hard to miss. From here, you get fantastic views of Galle International Cricket Ground. Time it well and you should be able to go through a test match or an international ODI.
At the southernmost end is the Flag Rock Bastion. In the olden days, the submerged rocks around here have claimed many a ship. It’s also the perfect spot to catch the setting sun or watch locals leaping into the waters, or simply waiting for a catch.
Walking along the ramparts is also an excellent way to meet people. Take time off to catch up with strangers, on topics as varied as cricket (the game that is), life and other earthy matters. And with good luck, they’ll allow you to take a photograph too. Just as a nice reminder of this chance meeting.
The Galle Clock Tower
The Clock Tower was built in 1883, in tribute to Dr Peter Daniel Anthonisz, a popular burgher doctor of his time. The construction of the tower was financed in full by the people of Galle. It is situated immediately inside the fort ramparts. It also makes for a fabulous Instagram worthy snap
While you are here, don’t forget to walk to the Star Bastion with a few canons to welcome you. It was formerly a slave quarters and is located to the left of the Clock Tower.
The Galle Lighthouse
It is Sri Lanka’s oldest lighthouse, going back to 1848. However, the original tower was destroyed in a fire in 1934. The existing one that you now see was built barely a 100-metre from its original site, in 1939. While it’s been guiding ships to the safety of the harbour since then, this beautiful white lighthouse also has a secondary role. It makes for a perfect prop for your picture-perfect Instagram snaps, complete with palm trees. However, it was rebuilt in 1939. Interestingly, the original light was provided for with a glass prism lens that floated in mercury, thereby reducing friction.
It’s a short walk from the lighthouse. With its facade whitewashed, this century old mosque blends in well with the surrounding structures, and you could very well mistake it to be another church. It was built in 1904 by a wealthy and devout Muslim, Ahmed Haji Ismail. It is believed that it stands on a prayer area that has been around for more than 300 years, when Muslim traders would come to meet the ships that docked at the ancient port. As with most mosques around the world, it is built facing in the direction of Mecca.
The Dutch Reformed Church
Also called Groote Kerkis, it is one of the oldest Protestant Churches, and the third oldest building within Galle Fort. Originally built in 1640 close to the clock tower, it was relocated to its present location around 1752. For those with time on hand, make your way into the well-manicured garden and the graveyard, with tombstones dating back to the 17th century.
Depending on where you’re based, ideally you are better off hiring a tuk-tuk for half the day or full day. Decide on the duration and rate before hopping in. The driver will take you to the main highlights around the fort, which is what I did. Once at the main gate of the fort, there are clear signs indicating the ‘Fort Walk’, which more often start from the Clock Tower. A word of caution though. The heat can sap your energy, even in December. Make sure you are well nourished.