Writing and photography by Pigalle, originally published for The Fabulous Times.
Step Back In Time
Historically Galle historically was an international hub for Asian-European trading along the silk route. Grand ships the world over sailed into its bustling harbour, resplendent with goods to barter in exchange for the island’s precious gems, opulent pearls, exotic spices, and scented woods, leading Marco Polo to rhapsodise over Sri Lanka as “the finest island of its size in all the world“.
On my visit to Sri Lanka I am regaled with alluring stories about the fortified town of Galle, from whispered tales of King Solomon’s ships sailing in, to breathless accounts of Sinbad the Sailor. Curiosity draws me to the southern tip of the country, 119km south of the capital Colombo, to find a magical place which more than lives up to its fabled reputation and UNESCO World Heritage title.
I lose myself in its maze of narrow streets, amongst white washed pillared verandas and fretwork windows throwing latticed shadows. Time is suspended, caught between the citadel’s past and evolving future, dilapidated grandeur perfectly captured as a sepia freeze frame. Weather worn posters peel away from aged walls in cracked layers, the heady scent of bougainvilleas perfumes the air, frangipane bushels sprout pink tinged flowers, and I overhear the tinkle of piano keys wafting out of hotel doorways, all adding to the sense of walking through a bygone era.
The Fort Printers: The Fort Printers captures my eye with the grandness of the ‘London’ embossed printing press stationed at its doorway. Originally an 18th Century mansion turned printers, it has since been renovated into a hotel comprising of five highly desirable suites, the interior perfectly balancing a harmonious blend of clean contemporary lines and meticulously picked antique pieces.
The Historical Mansion: A veritable Aladdin’s cave of dust covered antiquities. Past the horse drawn carriage nestled in the entrance, I find a magpie hoard of colonial artefacts. Rows on rows of glass cases are set under restored 17th Century teak beamed rooms, brimming with long stilled typewriters, Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie / Dutch East India china and ancient sea faring equipment. Artisan crafts men and women fan around the central courtyard, applying centuries old skills. A jeweller gently taps away, carefully inlaying amethyst stones within silver band settings, a gem cutter smoothes down rose garnet and quartz edges into polished veneers against a rotary blade, and a lace maker deftly weaves intricate knots with bobbin spindles secured to a pinned paper pattern.
Artistic renaissance: Behind its faded glamour Galle has quietly been rising back to prominence, with a growing influx of artistic, literary and bohemian British and Europeans settling on its seductive shores. Galle’s new found artistic renaissance has been instigated in no small part by the indefatigable energy and influential drive of British ex pat Geoffrey Dobbs. Drawn to the splendid beauty, unrivalled history and charmed lifestyle of the southern coastline, Geoffrey was inspired in 2007 to launch the Galle Literary Festival. Attracting leading novelists such as Gore Vidal, Germaine Greer and Richard Dawkin to participate in discussions, readings and workshops, the festival attracts Sri Lankans and Europeans the country over to the attend. Since inception it has been listed in Harper’s Bazaar as one of the sixth most appealing literary festivals, and is widely credited for the boom in tourism for the area. Geoffrey is also a leading supporter of the charitable foundation Adopt Sri Lanka established after the 2004 tsunami, with projects ranging from turtle conservation, a global school partnership and community swimming programmes.
As dusk starts to fall I join families streaming in unison from their homes towards the fort walls. Festive bonhomie takes over as children strike up cricket matches, young lovers are silhouetted under umbrella canopies and the gentle lull of a ukulele drifts through the air, the player’s legs dangling nonchalantly over the precarious precipice. We are all joined together in expectation, viewing the horizon in cinemascope as the swollen sun blushes the skyline with coral hues, and then slowly melts into the Indian Ocean with a final magnificent sigh.