Whether its the azure Indian ocean waters, equatorial forests, spice and tea gardens, mountains or ancient monuments and temples, Sri Lanka has it all. And yet, nothing quite prepares you for the beauty of Galle, Lanka’s fourth largest city on her South-West coast.
It is perhaps the beauty of this sleepy picturesque place that serenades. Not suprising then that Chinese, Indians, Persians, Arabs, Greeks, Romans and Malayans have all come here to trade. From ancient monarchs in the tenth century (who called it Gimhatirtha after the river Gimganga) this strategically located port town has been a hive of activity sought by rival colonial powers like the Portuguese (1505) and the Dutch (1640) and then the British (1796).
While many prefer taking an air-conditioned mini bus (from either Maharagama or Fort station in Colombo Rs 150 like I did on my return because of a train strike, which I am told are fairly common) for three journey, I decided to take the train. It cost only half as much and is also a lovely way to get to know the country. While the third class would be cheaper, it has fewer seats and would be packed like the locals in Bombay. There is no first class. (The sooner the railways in India drop this pretence on the local trains the better it will be). The British era train chugged out of Colombo passing swathes of slums, cricket grounds, rice fields, lagoons and was often so close to the ocean that one could almost feel the spray from the waves. What made it more homelike was the steady litany of hawkers who came selling masala peanuts, bhajiyas, dried shrimp (in a spicy bhel form) and “codreengs” (sic) like ginger ale and coke.
On the quick, metred-trishaw, ride (Rs 45) to the hostel, my heart leapt Galle’s spectacular attraction. The solid granite fort, which the Dutch built abutting the ocean in 1663 and its three bastions, sun moon and star, have withstood the vagaries of time. Thanks to the British who maintained Dutch structures as official administrative buildings, many are still working government offices, police headquarters and courts. In fact this quarter houses the maritime archaeological museum which is a must visit. Though the 18th century building and the collection it houses was damaged in the 2004 tsunami, it has since been refurbished.
In fact just past the majestic light house (originally built in 1848), is the spectacular Meeran Jumma mosque whose facade could pass of as Dutch church, if it weren’t for the droves of devout from the sizeably large Muslim population in this port town, who turn up five times day for prayers.
Do go across to the fishing village past the light house and see fishmongers and locals haggle over the fresh catch of tuna, mackerel, seer, sprato and squid. Or haggle and buy some yourself. Some shacks down the road are glad to cook it for you in the fiery hot and sour curry style or marinated and fried in flavours that will immediately evoke Kerala.
While most places inside the fort are at walking distance, remember the weather is equatorial. Which means, nearly 27 degrees. And very high humidity. Summery cottons and knee-length shorts (any shorter are frowned upon by local custom and this could spoil your chance of going to some religious places) with a hat or cap should make walking around comfortable. Also remember to arm yourself with a water bottle since perspiration can dehydrate you.
Hire a tuk-tuk (haggle and you may get one for as little as 500 for half a day) and go visit the Koggala Lake and its neighbourhood. A catamaran hired for two hours for (Rs1,000) can take you around the several islands, a must visit among which are the temple island and the cinnamon island. While the former, like its name suggests, is home to an ancient still-in-use Buddhist temple, I came upon trainee monks as young as eight.
At the latter you begin smelling the cinnamon as soon as one alights from the boat. Not only are you taken around the lush forests where you see cinnamon trees, the locals will demonstrate how cinnamon is extracted and even offer you some relaxing warm cinnamon tea. Prices for most products will be touristy. So haggle keeping in mind India prices and the conversion rate.
Do ask the boatman to point out the huge basking crocodiles, which seem surprisingly shy of the boat motor.
The next stop should be Hikkaduwa where there are plenty of snorkelling options (Rs1200). Instead of agreeing to the first option ask around and haggle since rates can vary. At the reef, you will get to see huge turtles lazily feeding away apart from other underwater flora and fauna.
If turtles are your thing, on the way back you can stop at Habaraduwa turtle hatchery (Fee Rs125). Here a conservation effort sees eggs being bought from locals who dig them out from nests to eat or sell. These are incubated and the young are then allowed to grow to a certain size before being released back into the sea. The guide encourages tourists to pick the fully grown turtles as he pints ou the characteristics of each of these species.
Five kms before Galle, you will come across the picturesque uncrowded Unawatuna beach. Point your camera in any angle and you are bound to get a breathtaking shot. Small restaurants with hammocks invite you to loll around sipping beer (Do try the local Lions lager) or seek a massage (Rs 1,000-1,500)at the many ayurvedic spas.
For food you are spoilt for choice with the options. I had a Sri Lankan breakfast at the Young Men’s Buddhist Association canteen which gave me some egg-curry, dry shrimp chutney, dal and a choice of red rice or Kerala style noodles for as little as Rs 58. Having scrimped on the first meal I decided to have a tuna salad but followed by grilled lobster (fresh and sweet tasting) for lunch washed down with a glass of red wine. This cost me Rs1,400!
My adventurous dinner was at a kottu roti street stall in the main bazaar which was crowded with locals. The options were pork, chicken and fish. The cook would stand with two skivvies attacking a pre-cooked rotis on a hot plate chopping them to bits even as he added chopped portions of the flesh of your choice with herbs and spices, all for a mere Rs50. Divine.
All in all, gall or no gall, come to Galle.