Colonial Sri Lanka: Visiting Galle’s Dutch fort tourist town

Where patients would once have convalesced, diners today enjoy alfresco meals on the covered terrace overlooking Galle’s beautiful natural harbour. Just a few metres away from the waves crush on the rocks, the restaurants and bars that can be found in the old Dutch Hospital complex are perhaps the best place to be in the town when the sun sets over the Indian Ocean.

This wonderful spot in southern Sri Lanka is where the Dutch built their biggest fort in the world in the 17th century. But unlike the Fort district in Colombo where the defensive walls have been destroyed, here the metre-thick construction survives intact. You can do a full circle of the ramparts – which stretch for 1.8 miles and enclose an area of 130 acres – in around an hour. Three sides of the defensives of the old town are surrounded by the sea, making for a picturesque stroll.

Ramparts of Galle’s old fort

Galle is an ideal excursion from Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital, which can be reached by a pleasant two-hour train journey along the coast. Within the original fort walls, you’ll find that many of the old Dutch townhouses have been turned into trendy boutique hotels, art-filled shops and restaurants. Galle’s annual literature festival attracts people from the world over. Its hard to imagine that this was once the island’s most important port and an important stopping-off points for boats travelling between Europe and Asia.

For many Unesco World Heritage sites around the globe entrance fees are charged and visitors are restricted to fixed opening hours, but Galle is a living town that can be enjoyed throughout the day. There are tourists a plenty, however you also encounter important administrative functions, such as courts and government offices. Schools hold their assemblies outside on the grassy ramparts. Pupils also practice their cricket skills in nets within the old fortified area.

European explorers

Galle has been attracting explorers for centuries, but it was in 1589 that the first Europeans – the Portuguese who wanted to enter the spice trade – arrived here and built a fort. That structure has pretty much disappeared and has been replaced by the much larger later Dutch construction.

The Dutch East India Company – which managed to displace the Portuguese and made Galle the island’s most important port – started building their fort in 1663. Several structures were built into the walls, including a large spice warehouse next to the Old Gate. This original entrance features a carved British coat of arms above the entrance and inside you can see ‘VOC’ (the acronym in Dutch for the Dutch India Company) inscribed on the stone, alongside the date of construction (1669) and two lions flanked by cockerel. The Main Gate, which most visitors arriving by train pass through, dates from 1873 and was built to accommodate an increased flow of traffic.

Within the fort itself there are hundreds of historic houses, churches, temples and mosques. Even though the British replaced the Dutch as colonial rules in Sri Lanka in 1796, it is the latter’s architecture that dominates here. What is now the Amangalla Hotel, the most expensive place to stay in Galle today, was built as a house in 1684 for the Dutch governor and offices. It became the New Oriental Hotel and was a favourite for first class cruise ship passengers. You can enjoy a meal on the outside veranda, while the inside lounge, with its polished teak floors, ceiling fans and period furniture, is the perfect place to enjoy a cocktail and be entertained by the in-house pianist.

The Amangalla Hotel in Galle

Building of the Dutch Reformed Church started in 1752 to commemorate the birth of Commander Casparus de Jong’s daughter. Inside you’ll find a staircase leading up to the organ and an enclosed pulpit, while the floor and walls are lined with tombstones relocated from a Dutch cemetery. At the Dutch Hospital – the aforementioned place that now houses shops and restaurants – the dead are also commemorated in the form of a plaque to the victims of a plague.

But the fort’s walls are not just pleasant to look at. While the 2004 tsunami brought widespread devastation to buildings in Galle’s new town, those living inside the old defences fared much better. The Dutch-built walls protected residents and their property from the flood water. Galle Fort is today a wonderful place to visit and a highlight for many people travelling around Sri Lanka.

Galle’s Dutch Reformed Church

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