Galle is a living time capsule. When I started putting my 'must visit hit list' together Galle was at the top from day one. I love history and I love architecture, especially old architecture that defines epochs. Originally founded by the Portuguese in the 16th century and expanded upon by the Dutch, Fort Galle was declared a UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) World Heritage Site in 1988 as the best European built example of a fortified city built in south and south east Asia. It was also noted for its blend of European and Asian architectural styles. That's one of the official reasons for Galle being a must see, usually if UNESCO has inscribed a site you know it's worth a visit, but UNESCO aside, being x-military I have an affinity for old military installations...so a sojourn in Galle was a given.
Most historic 'walled cities' can be divided into two, an old quarter and a new quarter. The old quarter usually lies within the walls while the newer more modern counterpart lies on the other side. Galle is no different and as we were staying at the Galle Heritage Villa by Jetwing we were in the heart of the Old Town, and less than a five minute walk from the lighthouse and a ten minute walk to the newly renovated old Dutch Hospital. We have some UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Canada, Old Quebec City and Lunenburg among them, but when you add palm trees, a spicy local cuisine, and daily heat that warms between the toes a certain level of exoticism can't be denied. Walking the ramparts of the beautiful old walled city it's easy to imagine a bygone era where wooden hulled sailing vessels dotted the horizon instead of modern tankers. Leaving the ramparts behind and walking the cobblestoned streets that meander through a cityscape devoid of modern angles and limited to heights not exceeding the highest palm trees Galle offers a real insight into the past.
There is a real sense of opportunity in Galle. Yes, the outer city is the usual hodge podge of rapid growth, but the historical Old Town is a major draw and those that own property there know it. With the end of the civil war in 2009 and a new sense of optimism in the air buildings are being brought back from crumbling vestiges of their Colonial past to 'stops' on a uniquely Sri Lankan cultural walkabout. Cobblestones, single and double stories, fresh paint and local wares are the new focus. The churches are not exempt either as scaffolding indicates a willingness to play along with the regeneration theme. One of the best examples is the Old Dutch Hospital which has been renovated and split into different business enterprises. Want a beer, go to the hospital, need a bite, it offers that too, all on the edge of the ramparts with a beautiful view over the water. White walls, clay roof tiles and wooden beams, European accents to an Asian island in the Indian Ocean.
Galle is also a shoppers delight. Some of the stores offered very creative designs, some were simple while others were quite imaginative. Some were cutting edge modern while others dabbled in the past. I explored many, not to buy anything as my space was limited, but just to see what was on offer. It was quite extraordinary what I found and my second afternoon I wandered into a store after filming the lighthouse and met a man that reminded me of Omar Sharif. He was a storekeeper historian with time to spare an inquisitive film guy. He was Muslim, as was the majority of the Old Town's populace, and garnered great delight in sharing Galle's past with me. He pointed to old photos on the wall and told me about different developments through the times, he explained to me what 'Burghers' were, descendants of Portuguese and Dutch ancestry that had perhaps married with locals, and he talked of Sri Lanka today and how the best gems in the world were from his country. He was a real pleasure and I came away with a feeling of quiet contentment. My days had been hurried and stressful but in the half hour I spent in his presence I was put at ease, there was something about his storytelling manner that made me forget my worries.
For my last night in Galle, Prasanna, my contact at Jetwing Hotels, moved me over to the Landesi by Jetwing. Landesi had been my first choice but availability had been a problem. That's what happens when you offer incredible boutique properties with lower room counts. The reason I had wanted to stay at the Landesi was because of its architectural merits. Galle was an old Portuguese/Dutch town with a decidedly European flair and looking at the Jetwing website the Landesi looked to embrace all those attributes. To me it seemed sacrilege to stay at a modern alternative when in a place like Galle, one should maintain historical context, even in accommodation and the Landesi offered that.
Staffed by only three employees, at least that I could see, the Landesi is a very different approach to accommodation than I am used to. I was attracted by its architectural underpinnings so was surprised by the level of service. It's not set up in the usual fashion of staff with different functions, instead, as there were only three rooms, the staff functioned as 'butlers.' I had a hard time getting my head around that fact. Want anything, just ask, and it will happen. The three young men, dressed in similar attire, were as friendly as I'd come to expect from Sri Lankans. I had a couple of interesting natters with them and their pride of employment was evident, they loved working with Jetwing. But it was their sense of national pride that really struck me. I've already mentioned the civil war, one cannot ignore that two and a half decade long piece of history. But it was over now and the country was moving forward and here at the Landesi was further proof. One of the staff was there to learn the ropes, he was a Tamil from up north and was slated to go work in a new Jetwing hotel opening in the most northern town of Jaffna. During the conversation it was made clear to me that it wasn't only possible for Tamil and Sinhalese to work together, but they could do so quite happily. People were moving on in a collective positive light.
I must confess part of my time in Galle was spent simply wandering the grounds of the Landesi, which means 'of Dutch origin.' I can easily lose hours and sometimes days when I happen upon creations of immense beauty and craftsmanship. What I didn't know about the Landesi was that it wasn't built during the Dutch era as I'd believed, instead it was only three years old, and built as a homage to the past. This fact surprised me as quite often many of the old techniques and crafts have been lost to lack of practice, so to find a place that had been built to the highest standards evidenced in the Landesi proved to me that those craftsmen were still practicing their passions, that excited me very much. In my mind a style becomes classic when that fine balance of design and function merge so that one does not usurp the other. They create a space that flows and feels right without aggrandizement. Every piece of wood compliments the one next to it, every hinge provides beautiful transitions from one material to the next. Even the chains carrying water from the eavestroughs to ceramic planters below do so in long vertical lines that compliment the horizontal lines of the veranda and roof line. I marveled at the thoughtful design that went into the Landesi. And the service was exemplary!
Galle did not disappoint. If one has the good fortune to venture to Sri Lanka they should definitely visit the town. Sunshine and palm trees are nice, very nice, but add a cultural timepiece that helps tell a story and the destination fills in many of the blanks from an 'origins' perspective...plus, one can't dismiss those beautiful sunsets!