“What time is the pool open?” I asked.
“It’s open all hours of the day. You can swim anytime you like,” he answered.
“Ah ok,” I said, barely able to conceal my glee. “And what about breakfast?”
“It will be served in the restaurant. You can eat anytime you’re awake.”
Our night made by this affable man, we decided to forgo the swimming pool in favor of our suite’s massive jacuzzi, leaping into the frothy waters like the mad cliff jumpers of Galle Fort to make up for our lack of beach time.
We woke up to the sound of crashing waves the very next day, stunned by the beauty of not just our surroundings – our room has a massive balcony that overlooks a shallow lagoon, home to a variety of birdlife and the occasional fisherman wading knee-deep in its waters -…
…but by the villa itself, which was redolent of a bygone era.
We trudged into the villa’s only restaurant – a small but top-notch establishment, its cook a viable contender for Masterchef Sri Lanka – and asked if we could have breakfast and lunch served to our room, so we could dine in our daybed and fancy ourselves as maharajahs. The answer was a resounding yes, of course.
By the time we managed to haul our asses to Galle’s UNESCO Heritage Fort, we were well rested, well fed and ready to take on the world, even if that world is really just a huge boiling furnace under the midday sun, made pretty with swaying coconut palms and a smattering of graceful Dutch architecture and hipster joints selling overpriced designer junk.
We walked the crumbling, blindingly white ramparts – not a recommended midday activity unless you enjoy being scalded alive – which offered fine views of both the old and new quarters. These Portuguese-and-Dutch fortifications were apparently strong enough to keep out even the strongest of aggressors: the 2004 tsunami, which swept in with the might of an English battalion and obliterated parts of the new town.
We sought shelter from the sun’s merciless gaze in the austere confines of the Dutch Reformed Church, its floors and walls covered with ornately carved plaques dedicated to the town’s first colonists who had no doubt died of various illnesses caused by the ferocious tropical weather, if not malaria, judging from their lamentably brief life expectancy.
The antiquated Post Office looks positively haunted but is still functioning. Opposite it is, legend has it, the dullest museum in Sri Lanka, the Maritime Archeology Museum, with exhibits consisting of bits of rope, pots and terrifying waxworks to rival Colombo’s Saint Nicholas.
The only place worth a peek is the Historical Mansion Museum, a collection of antiques and curios belonging to one Mr. Gaffar, the country’s second biggest hoarder after Colombo’s head monk. An elderly guide who looked like a Sri Lankan version of my late godfather showed us around the lovely little building, which has a courtyard in which you can see several local artisans at work.
Of course, the main objective of the museum was to lure you into Mr. Gaffar’s gem shop, filled with jewelry that only someone like Liberace could love. I pointed to a pair of snazzy earrings I thought was nice – 2,000 Sri Lankan rupees also seemed like a reasonable price. But the man behind the counter looked at me as if I was a nut job.
“That’s in US dollars, m’am,” he corrected.
I scurried out like my bum was on fire, but was accosted by my guide, whom I was still terribly fond of despite the attempted daylight robbery.
“Why? Is it too expensive for you, m’am?” he asked, looking genuinely surprised.
Speechless, I dropped 500 rupees into the tip box, flattered that they thought I looked like a gazillionaire.
Evenings were a lot more forgiving in Galle. The setting sun cast its last rays upon the centuries-old building and people and, as tourists retreat into the swanky restaurants and hotels that dot the colonial townscape, Galle reverted to the somnolent backwater it once was. We had a nice time just walking around, watching locals playing kickball by a working lighthouse, as the call of the muezzin rings out from the town’s Muslim Quarter.
Once, we even managed to tear ourselves away from the hotel restaurant to have dinner at The Tuna and the Crab, an upscale Japanese eatery. Like its sister restaurant, the Ministry of Crab in Colombo, it is located in the Old Dutch Hospital and just as preposterously priced. Of course I had my reservations about eating sushi in Sri Lanka – but it turned out to be one of the best meals we had in the country. I mean, how come I’ve not thought of crab with avocado before?!
As much as we liked Galle, the gentrified old quarter felt a little too contrived after awhile. The tidy streets, the moneyed foreigners and noiseless, orderly way in which people go about their day made it easy to forget you were in Sri Lanka. You tense up, until the sight of a grinning toothless tuk-tuk driver or a whiff of rotting fish from the outdoor market reminded you that this was the country that Googled ‘sex’ more than any other country in the world (FACT!).
And you start to giggle.
- Galle lacks proper shade, so be sure to bring sunscreen and a hat for your little ‘uns or avoid going out at noontimes. The fort is more enjoyable on balmy evenings anyway.
- There are several lovely hotels within the fort including Amangalla but prices are high for what you get. Staying outside the fort gives you more bang for your buck.
- If you want to swim, the town’s only one stretch of sandy beach is located below the lighthouse. It is usually crowded.
- Beware of the fort jumpers: they only do it in exchange for cash. Lots of it.