There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Monday, 2 February 2015

Galle, Fish and a Fort: Part 14 of Sri Lanka, Isle of Seredip

Sadly the time had come for us to return to Colombo, completing our big circle round central and southern Sri Lanka, and then head home.

We drove west from Marissa, the road no more than a line of palm trees from the beach, a pretty coastline with more fishing boats than sunbathers. If there were few reminders of the devastating tsunami of 2004, it was not possible to erase it from our minds completely.

Stilt fishermen may be unique to Sri Lanka and at one time they were promoted as one of the sights of the island; perched on flimsy bamboo constructions among the breakers they have, or rather had, an unusual though not particularly ancient method of fishing. After the fall of Singapore in 1942 the British feared the Japanese would next target Sri Lanka in a bid to establish a route to the oilfields of the Persian Gulf. To defend the island the coastal waters were extensively mined so the locals, not wishing to be blown up, beached their boats and took to stilt fishing. After the war, when the mines were cleared, stilt fishing lingered on, but increasingly as a tourist attraction. Today, anyone perching on stilts during the hours of daylight is fishing only for tourists.

In this post we travel from Marissa, just west of Matara, to Galle and then on to Colombo
 As reality morphed into pantomime and tourist board promotion declined, the touts patrolling the shore demanding money from gawping tourists became ever more unpleasant and aggressive.

We encountered the largest concentration around the small town of Ahangama though, like coastal strips everywhere, one place seemed to run into another and I was never quite sure where we were. Ravi was reluctant to stop but slowed to walking pace so we could grab the picture below. Taken on the move with a small and distant subject, it is hardly a photographic masterpiece but even in obtaining this we were challenged by touts running towards us aggressively suggesting that we should pay for the privilege of taking a picture in public. Ravi shook his head and accelerated away to the sound of abuse.
Stilt fisherman somewhere near Ahangama

A little further down the road, on the outskirts of the city of Galle, we paused at the fish market. The catch, differentiated by species, was laid out on blankets on the pavement. Some of the stalls were extensive while others displayed only the product of a single small boat.
The fish market, Galle

With just under 100,000 residents, Galle (pronounced 'Gaul') is Sri Lanka's fifth biggest city. It was an important trading post long before the arrival of Europeans; 'a flourishing settlement' according to the 14th century Moroccan traveller Ibn Battuta. James Emerson Tennent, a 19th century British Governor of Ceylon identified Galle with the biblical Tarshish, from where King Solomon obtained gold, spices, ivory, apes and peacocks. The idea is fanciful, though all those goods would have been available.
The Fish market, Galle

A Portuguese fleet sheltered in the harbour in 1505. Hearing the town's many cockerels crowing at dusk they named the city Ponte de Galo, which in time became Galle. This too is fanciful - it probably derives from the Sinhalese gala, a place where cattle are herded - a common element in place names throughout the island.

80 years after they first put in an appearance the Portuguese returned and built a fortress on the easily defended, roughly rectangular headland. The Dutch captured Galle in 1640 after a four day siege and set about a serious upgrade of the fortifications. Their fort and the enclosed old city are a UNESCO world heritage site.

Galle Fort, copyright Galle Media Works, borrowed from Wikipedia
I like to use my own photographs where possible, but this aerial view shows Galle Fort so well I could not resist it
The harbour is on the right with the grassy oval of the cricket stadium behind while on the seaward edge the lighthouse and the white Meeran Jumma mosque stand out. The modern city is mostly hidden in the trees, top right.
The fortifications were never tested in armed conflict; when the British ousted the Dutch during the Napoleonic War little shooting was involved. They did, however prove their worth in the 2004 tsunami, protecting the old town while the new town was devastated.

The massive Sun, Moon and Star Bastions protect the vulnerable landward side. The rather ugly clock tower was added in 1883 during British rule and was paid for by public subscription to commemorate a much loved local doctor.

The clock tower and the Moon Bastion, Galle Fort
On the neck of land between the fort and the new city is Galle International Stadium. Still the home of Galle Cricket Club it was upgraded in 1998 to also become a Test Match venue. Largely destroyed in the 2004 tsunami, it was rebuilt and reopened in 2007. Unlike the Rajapaska stadium in Hambantota, and the Dambulla stadium this is definitely not a white elephant, having staged 23 test matches and numerous one day internationals. From the picture it is not obvious how it accommodates 35,000 spectators, nor why it is unfailingly described as the most picturesque stadium on the test circuit, but the grandstands would give views of the bastions on one side and the Indian ocean on two others.

Galle International Cricket Stadium from the Moon Bastion

From the bastion we headed out to the northern edge of the fortification and strolled along the wall above the ocean.

The walls are dead straight between the sharp angles required to accommodate nature’s reluctance to deliver straight lines. On each angle is a bastion staring defiantly out to sea and providing lines of fire along the sea wall – lines of fire that have never been used.
Looking back at Flag Rock Bastion on the seaward side, Galle Fort
Eventually we turned left across the blunt end of the headland towards the lighthouse on the Utrecht Point Bastion.

Approaching the lighthouse on Utrecht Point Bastion
Across the road, just before the lighthouse, is the Meeran Jumma mosque. The Portuguese allowed no mosques inside their fort, but the Dutch were more relaxed and the first mosque was built in the 1750s. The Meeran Jumma mosque was built in 1904 on the site of the earlier Portuguese cathedral which may or may not account for its strangely Portuguese baroque look.  Two small towers pass for minarets and if it was not for the Arabic writing and the crescent moons on the towers it would not be recognisable as a mosque. I have been unable to find any convincing reason for the unusual design.
Meeran Jumma mosque, Galle Fort

Approaching the harbour we left the wall and dropped into Queen’s Street where we paused at a converted warehouse for an overpriced ginger beer.

A good spot for an over-priced ginger beer, Galle Fort
A little further along is the Old Portuguese Gate, one of the few physical remnants of Portuguese rule. Until the British punched the Main Gate through the wall between the Moon and Sun bastions it remained the only entrance to the fort. The coat of arms over the gate is of the Dutch East India Company with their VOC logo (Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie). The British coat of arms sits on the outside of the gate, rather emphasising the passing of Portuguese power.

The Old Portuguese Gate, Galle Fort
At the end of Queen's Street is the post office where there is still a functioning British Pillar box, the GviR suggesting it was put here between 1936 and 1952.

A very British pillar box, Galle Fort
Built in 1836, the nearby All Saint's church with its strange squat tower is a small isolated fragment of the English gothic revival. I rather like it, despite the Lonely Planet calling it ugly, though I admit it looks more than a little out of place.

All Saints Anglican Church, Galle Fort
The Lonely Planet also calls the interior dark and mildewed, but I think the Burmese teak pews are rather fine. The church still functions and despite the altar standing on the site of the former town gallows it summons up the strange homely charm of the ‘warm beer and spinsters on bicycles' branch of the C of E which never really existed outside John Major’s imagination.

Burmese teak pews and the former site of the town gallows
All Saints Anglican Church, Galle Fort
Further up the road the Dutch Reform Church is a more universally admired piece of colonial architecture. The ‘Groote Kirke’ is the third building in Galle to serve as a church for the Dutch community. Built in 1755 the detached belfry was added 50 years later. It is so detached it is on the other side of the road and we did not even notice it. 

The Groote Kirke, Dutch Reformed Church, Galle Fort

That completed our circumambulation of Galle Fort. Having visited one of the wards of Galle we, like most tourists, left the other fourteen unvisited and continued our drive along the coast. There are 120km of this road before Colombo and as we had already seen plenty of it Ravi suggested we take the motorway. Unaware that Sri Lanka had a genuine stretch of motorway/autobahn/freeway we readily agreed.

On a new multi-lane road, unhindered by much traffic we made short work of the distance. I am old enough to remember a time when motorways were a novelty and people actually went out to service stations to eat. We had lunch at Sri Lanka's one and only motorway service station. It was clean, bright and largely empty but we found a bakery that provided a very satisfactory light lunch.

Lunch at a motorway service station, Galle to Colombo motorway
We arrived in Colombo in the early afternoon. The rest of the day belongs with the Colombo post, the next and final one from Sri Lanka.

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