GOING FROM THE HILLS to the southern coast reveals a different side of Sri Lanka. The twisting roads overlooking vast tea plantations are replaced by a highway with views of the ocean, its strong waves crashing to the shore. Palm trees line the beaches alternately filled with sleepy villages and hotels. One minute you’re looking at a rural scene where life revolves around fishing and farming, and the next you’re seeing a party spot where foreigners drink beer and bake themselves under the sun.
The southern coast is really about the beaches, and there’s a lot of ocean-related activities here. But the gateway to it all is Galle, a historic city that’s at once both exotic and classic. Sitting near the southernmost coast of Sri Lanka, the city was built by the Dutch in the 17th century. At its center lies the Fort, a series of large walls that were built to keep invaders away. Within these walls are a network of colorful streets that transport you back in time, if you can see past the motorbikes and the cars.
Galle has a long history, probably dating as far back as the biblical times. Some believe it to be Tarshish, an ancient seaport where King Solomon got gold, silver, ivory, and other valuables. The area also drew traders from Arabia, India and even Southeast Asia due to its strategic location, making the town an important trading hub long before Europeans made their first presence here.
The Portuguese arrived in 1502 and erected a series of fortifications around the port. But the Dutch wrested control in 1640, and improved upon these walls, creating the fort as it mostly looks like today. Following the Napoleonic Wars, the Dutch ceded Ceylon to the British in 1796. The British then initially kept Galle as Ceylon’s principal harbor but later moved most of the trade in Colombo.
With much of the economy centered in Colombo, the city declined in importance following the country’s independence. Even UNESCO’s World Heritage status in 1988 did not do much to revive the city’s stagnation early on. However, in the past decade, as Sri Lanka opened up to tourism and the civil war becomes more and more a memory, Galle has seen a resurgence. Efforts both by the government and private citizens (including some foreigners) has transformed what was once an economic backwater into a cosmopolitan townscape.
The atmospheric lanes are lined with imposing churches and other remnants of the colonial era. And even in the dead of the heat, there’s a sense of an island life here that’s far removed from the rush just outside the walls. You have to blink twice to make sure you haven’t been teleported to some Caribbean island.