Final days in Galle

Trip Start Dec 30, 2012
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Trip End Jan 11, 2013


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Flag of Sri Lanka  , Southern,
Monday, January 7, 2013

My hopes of returning to the south-west of Sri Lanka for better weather were futile - I realised how small the island was when the plane landed at Ratmalana with the air thick with rain, just as it had been in Trincomalee. My plan had been to take the bus down to Galle, but my decision-making was corrupted by the heavy traffic and rain that greeted me at the main road, and also by two fellow passengers from the plane I'd met. They were a few years older than me, travelling in the same direction as me, and very much fulfilling the brash, blokey Australian stereotype. Not fancying having to stand for 3 hours through the coastal traffic with my backpack, I suggested sharing some transport with them, and for some reason we chartered a tuk-tuk to do the journey - one with a bit of a larger engine and a bit of space to throw our rucksacks in the back. However, in the night rain, our elderly driver didn't undertake the journey with too much urgency, and a 2 hour trip in good conditions and a decent vehicle became 4 hours for us. Not that I cared - some of the delays were self-induced as we stopped off at stores along the way to stock up on cans of beer for the journey, and despite the entire escapade costing far more and taking far longer than the bus, I have no regrets at all. The brash Aussie blokes were of course great fun to travel with, and I arrived very drunk at Brontė's front door at around ten in the evening. Fortunately, the wine was flowing freely at home, so I was in a perfect state to join a very enjoyable evening in.

The next day, Brontė suggested heading off to a beach some way down the coast at Mirissa, a good forty minutes or so by bus. This turned out to be a fantastic idea. Firstly, it was a chance to cross off another hotel on my list, as the Fortress hotel is to be found roughly halfway between Galle and Mirissa, so, with a pair of board shorts and a t-shirt in a bag for later, I stopped off here on the way and said I'd meet Brontė and Tom later on at the beach. The Fortress was a lovely looking hotel, and gave me a nice drink of something tasting of cinnamon as I waited by the pool for one of their employees to come and show me around. After my tour, I stepped across the road and waited in the heat for the bus to come along to take me to Mirissa. The journey continues along the beautiful southern coastline of Sri Lanka, and the bay before you get to Mirissa beach is particularly spectacular. Weligama Bay is shaped in an almost perfect horseshoe, and like the rest of the coastline pleases the eye with a layering of azure seas, golden sands and low-lying jungle-clad hills. But as I passed on the bus, I caught sight of the tiny Taprobane Island, which cannot lie more than 100 feet offshore, and is accessible only by a narrow sandy causeway washed over by the shallow sea. A mansion was built on it in the 1920s which is now a very private and exclusive hotel, and though I didn't go and have a look around, Brontė stayed there once (her mum knows the owner) and it would appear from her accounts that this tropical St. Michael's Mount is the top accommodation in Sri Lanka.

Mirissa beach is in the next cove along from Weligama, and was also stunning. Due to the colour of my skin and a fidgety nature, I'm not usually the best at sitting on the beach all day, but this is pretty much what we did. If you accept that most beaches in heavily populated areas such as Sri Lanka's southern coast aren't going to be very private, then I'd have to say that this beach was pretty perfect in all other aspects. The beach in front of the Fortress, for example, is too rocky to swim off; the beach at Wijaya offers a very small swimming area with a strong current, and an even more limited expanse of sand; other beaches are too crowded, and others see women in bikinis gaining an uncomfortable level of attention from local men. Mirissa, however, is perfect for swimming, and there is even a section at its western end which is reasonable surfing territory. On land, there's plenty of space and a lot of relaxed beach bars and restaurants which don't ruin the atmosphere by pumping out incessantly loud music, but are nonetheless more than happy to serve up beers, curries, burgers and whatever else a sun-kissed tourist may fancy. I wasn't surprised that there were so many guesthouses and hostels lining the road down - this is where to stay if you're looking for a beach holiday.

My next day back began with something I'd been excited about before coming to Sri Lanka - spices. We went outside the Fort to the main market area, and Brontė showed me where to find spices. Sri Lanka's location meant it was a major stopover point on the spice trade routes carrying spices from the 'Spice Islands' in Indonesia westwards to the Red Sea and on to Africa, the Middle East, and Europe, and as such I was fascinated to see markets brimming with all varieties of exotica. The scale of the market was somewhat less spectacular, but the shop we came to was run by two incredibly chatty and friendly gents who certainly managed to suck me in with their knowledge, and their pride that that their shop had been recommended in a Guardian snippet which they'd had laminated and hung from a wall. Although I found some mace and vanilla pods, both of which I've found hard to come by back home, the real value of the shop came from their masalas - readymade spice mixes. In the search for authenticity in cooking Sri Lankan food upon my return home, experience from travelling in South-East Asia tells me that no amount of research on the internet or consultation of cookery books will ever be able to truly replicate the delicious flavours I've come across abroad. However, the shop I visited is the place that provides Amangalla with spices (they seemed to know Brontė's mum!) and so hopefully the four different masala bags I bought will help me create some truly Sri Lankan curries back home in Britain.

One thing I have to say at this point is that much literature I've read on Sri Lankan food seems to warn tourists about its heat. To me, this is unfair on two levels. Firstly, I see heat as an 'acquired taste', much in the same way that one must become accustomed to the initial bitterness of wine or the fieriness of whisky to be able to truly appreciate the subtler flavours hidden therein. The trick with spice, then, is to find pleasure in the apparent discomfort of heat coursing through the taste buds in your mouth and on your lips, and the almost cathartic satisfaction that such a sensation can bring. The second level on which I find this unfair is Sri Lankan cuisine's reputation for being painfully spicy. Of all the places I've travelled, I'll say one thing: if you want chilli, go to Ghana.

Following the spice market, I had another, very important box to tick off before I left. Between Galle Fort and the rest of the city is Galle Cricket ground, widely considered to be one of the most picturesque cricket grounds in the world, and in a sport where a picturesque ground is hardly a rarity, Galle's truly is a must-see. As we'd left the Fort in the morning, I'd seen a game taking place on the wicket, and was determined to go in and watch some in the afternoon. However, as we walked past it seemed everything had finished up, so I had a wander around the ground taking photos of the small stands and of the wicket, with the ramparts of the Fort in the background, before we decided to go up and walk round the ramparts themselves.

Once we'd entered the Fort again and wandered up to the top of the ramparts, overlooking the ground, I saw with a rush of excitement that there were fifteen figures spread around the wicket and that play must have recommenced. So, we sat up on the ramparts for half an hour or so watching what I think must have been a school game (judging by the standard of the fielding!), and I truly appreciated what is the most attractive place I've watched sport of any kind, in the world. Indeed, it was to the ramparts that Jonathan Agnew and co. retreated to commentate once when a dispute saw them banned from the ground, and I envied more than ever their job, being paid to gaze out on the cricket in front of them, the Indian Ocean to the left and to the right, and the stunning colonial buildings rising from the Fort behind them. The reason for England's humiliating defeat to spin bowling less than a year ago in Galle was in plain view, as I didn't see a single ball bowled by a pace bowler for the entire time I was watching - instead there was a mixture of spin bowling from both ends to very aggressive fields in catching or saving the single, with just a widish mid-on guarding the leg side. Even so, I could still hear Ian Botham's voice running through the back of my head bemoaning the lack of a short leg, but then some things never change. It is surveying grounds such as Galle that you realise that cricket is truly the greatest single thing any empire ever did for anyone.

Eventually, we decided to continue the walk around the ramparts, which in themselves are impressive but not beautiful. However, what takes place on either side of them is stunning. On the one side, ocean, reef, and narrow strips of mostly inaccessible beaches whose clear water tantalised in the hot sun. On the other, the stunning skyline of the Fort's interior - verdant with palms and tropical flowers adorning trellises around rooftop gardens, and ancient with whitewashed gables rising above the red rooftops. The atmosphere is one of a quiet, purposeful bustle, reflecting the Fort's dual role as a place of business and residence for its inhabitants, and a large interactive museum for tourists. I've seen this first hand, as it's common to walk out of Brontė's front door to find yourself staring into a camera lens, pointed by a guilty and shocked-looking tourist playing the role of a gentle paparazzo.

Following our walk around the ramparts, round to the corner nearest to Brontė's house, identifiable by the mosque (strangely purpose-built in the style of a colonial church) and a lighthouse, we decided to go for a swim off one of the little beaches at the base of the latter. These beaches are not perfect like Mirissa, for the ground is rocky and it only gets to about 3 feet deep, and also it is a popular spot for locals, meaning girls must cover up to avoid unwanted attention. Nonetheless, it was a pleasant place for a wallow as the sun began to set - as the sunset reached its full glory we waded a bit further round to a little beach all to ourselves, and were able to enjoy it in peace.

The next day just Brontė and I were left, as Tom had left for the airport at midnight. It was my last day too, so Brontė showed me around some handicraft shops to see if there was anything I could add to my growing collection of travelling trinkets. As it turned out, there isn't much that interests me - mainly overpriced giftshop-style small models of elephants and leather bracelets, tie-dye dresses and a lot of tea. However, there are a lot of cool-looking masks, so I bought my one memento and Brontė and I then decided to go and have a swim. We waded round to a different beach under the Fort's walls and wallowed around chatting for an hour or so before it started pissing with rain and I got cravings for some roti.

After lunch, Brontė and her mum went off for some spa fun while I used the free time to take a bus up the coast to the Lighthouse, another luxury hotel on my list. This hotel's setting was stunning, offering near 180° views of the ocean from its veranda, and you could tell that much of the vision of its architect had been to make the most of this setting, with dining and even parts of the spa opening up to beautiful sea views. I think it was one of the first bespoke luxury resorts in the region, but as a consequence was starting to look a little dated in spite of the grandeur of its setting. After my tour by one of their friendly managers, I took a tuk-tuk back to the Fort, during which I had a nice chat with the driver who had once driven Stuart Broad's mother to and from the cricket ground, and been given some England cricket shirts in return. Again, the mutual love of cricket is the first point of reference between any Englishman and Sri Lankan wanting to have a conversation, and it makes a pleasant change from constantly telling people which football team you support!

My final acts in Sri Lanka revolved around a rush back to the ramparts just after the sun went down, as the weather had improved, leaving an electric-pink rippling of the remaining cloud cover through the sky, silhouetting the rabble of tourists who had gathered atop one of the bastions. It made for a great photo opportunity. After this, Brontė's mum had all the senior management of Amangalla (mostly Sri Lankans) round for dinner as a farewell, since she's leaving the post next week, and Brontė and I grabbed some delicious curry before heading off to Wijaya to see if anything was going on. It wasn't, but we sat out having a few drinks before deciding to head home and, eventually, hit the sack. I had an early start for my flight the next day, and packing still to be done.

This holiday in Sri Lanka has been more brief than the travels I'm used to, but I must say I highly recommend the country to anybody. Obviously it's not every day you get to stay for free in a beautiful old colonial house, with a charming maid, Kanthi, there to wash your clothes and tidy up after you, and it's not every day that you get to dine out in places like Amangalla. But there's more to it than that, and I was really glad to have been able to get up to Trincomalee and see a completely different side of Sri Lanka. What is so exciting about the country is that, for somewhere so small, there is still a lot more to be seen, especially up in the hills around Kandy which I'd love to go to, and the Tamil region really does offer a more relaxing alternative to the bustle of the southern coast. The best thing about Sri Lanka? The food, silly.
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