Standing on one end of the golden crescent of Weligama beach looking across the vast sweep of Weligama Bay, it’s easy to see why the name translates as ‘Sandy Village’. The sand arching around blue waters stretches for about 4km and is backed by relaxed restaurants and bars … these are perfect for pulling up a lounger and watching brightly coloured fishing boats bringing their catch to shore.
We had a morning wandering along Weligama beach before leaving for Galle. At one point a boat landed in front of us and I was cajoled into helping push it up the beach. It was all the exercise I needed to justify having lunch in an oceanfront restaurant, where the beer was served in a teapot because they didn’t have an alcohol license.
Galle has been on my ‘need to return’ list ever since we realised that a couple of days were not enough to appreciate this extraordinary place. A trading centre of some renown long before the Portuguese arrived in 1589 – King Solomon is said to have traded for gold and spices here in the 10th century BC – Galle became the archetypical European colonial city in the topics.
It’s a seductive place to spend a few days wandering the charming streets. The colonial-era houses with their reddish-brown roof tiles, Dutch and Anglican churches, and storehouses, all contained within the massive defensive walls of the old fort, combine with the absence of traffic to make Galle a wonderfully atmospheric place. It feels like stepping back in time.
Galle is enchanting, almost otherworldly. A place out of place in the heat and humidity of Sri Lanka’s southern coast. The town becomes quite magical at sunset when its buildings are bathed in a warm orange glow as the sun sinks over the Indian ocean. This is also prime people-watching time as people emerge into the cool evening air to stroll along the ramparts.
It reminded me of other transplanted European towns that I’ve visited – the Portuguese town on Mozambique’s Ibo island, or the Spanish town of El Castillo in Nicaragua. Walking over 17th and 18th century gravestones when you enter the whitewashed Dutch Reformed Church, is an experience that will feel very familiar to anyone who has visited a few churches in the Netherlands.
For the best part of four centuries following the arrival of the Portuguese, Galle was the most important port in Sri Lanka. Only under British rule in the late 19th and early 20th centuries did its power ebb away to Colombo. Galle became a sleepy backwater, a fate that probably ensured the old colonial town survived without much modern development.
Today, almost every historic building has been fabulously restored, many are now upmarket hotels, swish shops and high-end restaurants. So you can savor the atmosphere in great style and comfort. We stayed a little out of the old city, in an old Dutch-era mansion that later served as a British vicarage before being turned into a luxurious hotel.
Galle, though, isn’t just about high-end tourism. Walk on top of the defensive walls and you’ll arrive at Moon Bastion. Shaped like an arrow head it juts out towards The Esplanade, or Galle International Stadium. Any fan of cricket will know it as perhaps the most picturesque cricket ground anywhere in the world. If there’d been a game, we could have watched it all from the walls of Galle. Just another reason to return.