By Nimmi Gunasekera
Armed with images from the news media of a partially restored Galle Fort in the context of the, literary festival, and with the excuse of driving down the new southern highway, we, a group of four, set forth to spend a weekend in the Fort. Starting with a very tasty Sri Lankan lunch at.
Gate at the Dutch Warehouse-Pic by Brian/Feet Wet
Mama’s restaurant on the roof-top of a Guest House down Leyn Wan Street with a view of splashing waves behind the light house, we spent the afternoon walking the paved streets which criss-cross the Fort from east to West and north to south.
‘There was so much to please the senses, but most charming were the small houses built by the Dutch that line the streets wall to wall, with their quaint verandahs and stunningly beautiful woodwork, and their front doors and verandah gates opening right on to the small streets.
A vendor pushing his small cart of fresh vegetables, or basins of steaming spiced gram through the narrow alleys, stopping at people’s front doors to exchange friendly words, residents leisurely going about their business, and the very occasional sighting of a car, looking strangely out-of-place and struggling to negotiate the narrow streets were images, which, when set against the caressing ocean breezes created an unforgettable ambiance in the Fort. The romanticism of these exuberantly rich cultural sights makes one’s heart flutter with excitement, and makes one yearn to never leave.
But what makes the Fort so abundantly interesting is that it is alive with – people, the residents of the Fort and of Galle who come to stroll or jog, or have a family picnic on the ramparts – the Fort is pulsating with the beats of peoples’ lives. The evening brought hordes of Galle: residents to the Fort – families, couples, and the lone back-packer to savour the evening sun setting over the ramparts, or watch the sea spray when the stunning ocean waves hit myriads of black rocks in their path.
They strolled, they sat in groups and opened elaborate ,home-cooked dinners amidst great camaraderie and chatter. Couples sitting calmly on the rampart walls against the sky and the sea seemed oblivious of all other than themselves. As night approached a large group of uniformed school children gathered round the cluster of Dhomba trees beneath the lighthouse – a school trip perhaps. The Fort was home to them all.
Early the next morning the ramparts were again alive with people – this time sporting fans, playing ball, jogging or exercising against the backdrop of a rising sun and the majestic clock tower and stone walls…some were just being there imbibing the friendly air of the Fort. The comfortable richness of this place etches deeply into one’s memory.
It wasn’t the ‘season’ and so one saw only the very rare tourist enjoying a salad and soup at a roadside table, or a middle-aged couple being served tea on a balcony overlooking the ocean. But a number of plush hotels and not-so-plush guest houses, and as many up-market shops of bohemian elegance that spread among peoples’ dwellings throughout the Fort gives one a sense of what the place must be during the festival – of a Fort overwhelmed with admiring tourists and amongst them, moneymakers.
A part of the beauty and splendour of the Fort today is undoubtedly due to the influences’ which the festival has brought – houses have been restored – albeit, some have been transformed into elegant boutique hotels which will host only the very rich, the narrow streets once derelict, have been paved, and expensive cafes have sprung up, bringing the Fort. to the attention of the avid visitor looking for ever more beautiful places to see and things to buy.
Property prices in the Fort have risen on a logarithmic scale, and we were told that the sale of land continues at an unabating rate with transactions being made, most between foreign hands, and many beyond the shores of Sri Lanka. If this is true, residents of the Fort may sooner than later be forced to move about by the decreed of financial forces, and more and more peoples’ dwellings replaced by stylish hotels for the very affluent.
Will the Galle Fort become a haven for the rich devoid of the people for a part of everyday life?
Will the Fort become an oasis for the super-wealthy, brimming with luxury and chic art during the season but remaining at other times, a melancholy place sans its people, sans its beating heart, with the ocean winds howling mournfully in search of a time when the Galle Fort was alive?