Sri Lanka day 40 – Galle

According to Lonely Planet there is a large market in the centre of new Galle, so we head off to find it, despite not having been able to locate it on our short foray out of the fort yeserday. There is the Old Dutch Market, a long, open-sided structure which survived the tsunami despite the extensive damage sustained by the rest of the town. There is also a new fish market facing the sea front. But no sign of a large market area at the site marked on the map. So we change direction and head across Butterfly Bridge to the north of the fort and wander round Dharmapala Park which was recontructed after the tsumani thanks to American funding. It’s not as well kept as Victoria Park in Nuwara Eliya but like many parks here it is a refuge for numerous courting couples, each coyly hiding behind umbrellas in a futile attempt to preserve modicum of modestly in this highly conservative society that frowns on holding hands and kissing in public.

There is an Tourist Information Office in the park and, we have been told, a craft centre. There is no sign of the latter and the former is closed. As we make to leave, a man engages us in conversation. It is the usual gambit, where are you going, where do you come from. Of course, we make the mistake of mentioning the craft centre and we are all set for a long explanation of how to get there and no doubt and offer to show us the way when the attendant from the Tourist Information Office abruptly interupts and proceeds to bombard us with information about the old city around the Catholic Cathedral and the craft centre behind it – none of which is mentioned in Lonely Planet – and that we must be sure to take a metered government-acredited tuk tuk to tour the area. Eventually we are able to extricate ourselves, somewhat sceptical about the metered tuk tuks but intrigued by the ‘old’ town around the cathedral.

The Cathedral is an imposing grey and white building which dominates the skyline north of the Galle Road and as we head towards it, the man from the park catches up with us and insists on showing us the way to the craft centre. It’s apparently on his way home; a likely tale and is sure to mean that he stands to make a commission on anything we buy. By now we know that the craft centre is likely to be a tourist shop aimed at tour groups, but it makes for an interesting walk through the quiet lanes off the main road, passed the wonderful heritage buildings of St Aloysius College. It never ceases to amaze how quickly the hurly burly of the main shopping districts can be left behind for the calm, leafy and traffic-free neighbourhoods, as quiet as any inside the fort.

The craft centre is exactly as we expect and after a quick look round we extricate ourselves from the usual sales patter and heavy-handed sales technique and retrace our steps to look round the very simple cathedral. Its unglazed windows with mahogany shutters giving it quite an airy feel far removed from the dark and sombre ambience normally associated with such places. Just outside, the boys from the nearby college are playing a game of street cricket, their all-white uniforms being particularly appropriate, and we stop a while to watch, before making our way back to the fort.

We have found a rather nice little cafe called Punto Cafe in Pedlar Street. It only has three tables and is open to the street – although the aspect is not particularly preposessing as it faces the rather drab exterior of a local school against which the lady next door hangs her washing, of which she has so much, we speculate that she must be running a laundry – and the food is good. So we have taken to having breakfast here since the breakfast at Mrs Wijenayake’s is dire, as well as our evening meal. But each time we eat here Nakeeb, the owner, invariably disappears on his motorbike to obtain some essential supplies.

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Sri Lanka day 39 – Galle

Galle is a place for meandering around, admiring the architecture and soaking up the history, stopping every now and then for refreshments and to dip in and out of the little galleries and shops selling over-priced Sri Lankan art and devil masks, as well as knick knacks, souvenirs and clothes for tourists. A walk round the walls is a pleasant way to while away and hour or so and provides a bird’s eye view not only of the sea and surrounding town but also the international cricket ground which sits between the fort and the new town centre beyond.

We vist the white Dutch Reform Church built between 1792 and 1795 where we are greeted by the caretaker who is eager to show us round and point out the interesting gravestones from the old Dutch cemetry which pave the floor.

Just a little further down the street is the Anglican church which could have been lifted directly from an English village and deposited here.

Once again we bump into the Kiwis, Joanna and Amelia, who arrived here today having spent three days in Unawatuna. They are no longer travelling with the Israeli who, it seems, had become a little tiresome.

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Sri Lanka day 38 – Galle

Galle, Sri Lanka’s historic fourth largest town, is situated just a few kilometres round the coast from Unawatuna. This historic town has been variously in the hands of the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British, but it was the Dutch who built the magnificent 36-hectare fort on the promentory from 1663 and whose architectural heritage lingers on in this UNESCO site. The fort area is home to about 400 houses, commercial and government buildings including the law courts, solicitors offices, police headquarters and other administrative departments, museums, hotels, guest houses, cafes and boutique shops selling Sri Lankan arts and crafts. Although many of the buildings are run down some have been lovingly restored and there is a project in progress to block pave the roads. An oasis of calm after the clammer of most Sri Lankan town centres; this little corner of Europe is very differentt from any other Sri Lankan town we’ve visited. The serene ambience which pervades its quiet streets and the unique cultural heritage make it a fascinating place to wander round. Outside the fort walls it’s a different story; immediately we are thrust back into the hurly burly of the ‘new’ town with it’s jumble of ugly buildings, noise and traffic.

We are staying at Mrs Wijenayake’s Guest House at 65 Lighthouse Street, just a few paces from the fort walls and the sea beyond. The house she has here is enormous taking up a large plot on the corner of New Lane (which is in the throes of being paved with bricks). It is a mere stone’s throw from the mosque which is sure to provide an early wake up call in the morning. The house itself is a maze or corridors and our room is on the first floor off a narrow shared balcony. Adequate and moderately clean for 1500 rupees.

We have lunch at India Hut – their logo is strikingly similar to another, much better-known ‘Hut’ – on the first floor balcony of a lovely historic building overlooking the fort walls. The place is empty, although not for long, and we are soon in the midst of a raucous family of Sri Lankans, who fill all the tables and spill over onto ours! I feel rather sorry for the lone child draws the short straw and has share a table with two English strangers.

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Sri Lanka day 37 – Mirissa

Our last day in Mirissa;  reluctantly we’ve finally decided to tear ourselves away from this little bit of paradise and move on to Galle. We spend the day on the beach, since there is little else to do here but soak up the sun and cool off in the sea. The most taxing activity, to walk to the far end of the beach for lunch at the beach bar there, which turns out  to do a mean pekora. Late afternoon and a couple of cuba libres as the sun goes down. Perfect!

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Sri Lanka day 36 – Mirissa

We have decided to stay put in Mirissa for a few days and to give Unawatuna a miss. We prefer the low key beachiness of Mirissa, it’s lack of overt commericalism and laid back vibe.

Today we need to top up on cash, which involves a trip into Matara about 15 minutes away on the bus. With a population of around 76,000 this is a bustling coastal town with not much to recommend it to tourists. It’s hot and the traffic heavy with people coming into town to visit the temples and generally enjoy themselves on this second day of Poya. The streets are a riot of colour thanks to the flags and banners everywhere.

This is a place to sit in the shade on the seafront and spend a while people-watching. It’s too hot for anything more strenuous. But there is an endless stream of people moving back and forth across the slightly incongruous suspension bridge which leads to a buddhist temple on the small island of Parey Dewa whilst at other temples people wait patiently sheltering from the sun under umbrellas as they wait patiently to enter.

There is a road widening project underway which involves the partial demolition of all the buildings that line both sides of the main road into the centre of town as well as the moving of the drainage channels. It’s a shambolic affair with rubble lying everywhere and shells of forlorn buildings waiting to have their facias re-instated. Incredibly, all this is open to the street.

It’s not uncommon in Sri Lanka to come across gun-toting soldiers strolling in the streets and it’s quite disconcerting when the board the bus, as they did on one occasion and take their seats for all the world like any normal passenger. Army manoevres also take place in full public view and road barackades as part of these exercises are not unusual though no-one get stopped so what purpose they serve is unclear. In high profile sites such as Colombo and Kandy there are police posts every few hundred yards, manned by jovial and friendly police who seem to have little to do but idly pass the time of day.

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Sri Lanka day 35 – Unawatuna day trip

We are planning to move west along the south coast to spend a few days in Unawatuna. After all a place with a name like Unawatuna is surely worth a visit. But we have heard some less than complimentary reports about how the beach has been spoilt by over-development and so we decide to hop on the bus and take a look for ourselves, before making any rash decision to leave the idyllic Mirissa. Unawatuna is about 40 minutes by bus from Mirissa along the coast road. Described in Lonely Planet as ‘a place of dreams…massaged by a gentle sea of moonstone blue’ this is far behind Mirissa in the paradise stakes, and is certainly not massaged by a gentle sea at this time of year. Unfortunately what may once have been a heavenly curve of sand is now spoilt by over-development which breaks the tree-line and spills onto the beach. It’s only saving grace is the little village lanes back from the sea, but even these are packed with hotels and guest houses, restaurants and shops. In season it must be packed to bursting with not an inch of beach to spare. Even today, the far end of the beach is buzzing with Sri Lankans out to celebrate the first day of Poya and the narrow lanes are struggling to cope with the bus and lorry loads of raucous revellers here for a day out. Poya, or full moon day, is a holiday in Sri Lanka which also seems to extend to the day after full moon as well. On these two days every month no alcohol is supposed to be sold on Poya days, although many bars and hotels will provide it discreetly served in teapots with tea cups to drink from. Who this fools I’m not sure, because there is no accompanying milk jug or sugar bowl. Some shops close and other establishment close and buses and trains are even fuller than normal. Preparations for Poya begin at least a week before with red, orange, blue, red, yellow and white banners and flags flying and white laterns with streaming tails, each encapsulated in a plastic bag for protection, hang like bunting across every available space. The time and energy that goes into Poya each month, must be enormous.

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Sri Lanka day 34 – Mirissa

A lazy old day beachcombing, swimming, eating and drinking. Well, that is really all there is to do here. Although swimming remains a challenge and really amounts to taking a battering from the waves and resisting the strong undertow.

The Kiwis, Joanna and Amelia, who we first met on the train to Ella, turn up at Palm Villas with an Israeli travelling companion and after some negotiations take a room at the back.

There is a small island and linked by a short sand causeway just where the two bays meet and today’s little diversion is to climb the rickety stairs to the top for the view of the bays and the surf as it sprays up over the rocks below. On the far side is a small thatch-covered platform which in high season functions as a bar, but today is deserted apart from a few crates of empty bottles and has rather melancholy air.

The traditional fishing posts stand lonely in the shallows waiting for the start of the fishing season in June. Unfortunately, we will miss witnessing local fishermen perched precariously on these poles which appear to be far too flimsy to withstand the power of the sea never mind the weight of the fishermen. Ah well, we shall have to content ourselves with the picture on the front of our Lonely Planet guide book!

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Sri Lanka day 33 – Goyambokka to Mirissa

Easy bus journey along the coast road to Mirissa involving a change at the bus station at Matara, the main transport hub on the south coast. Fares are under a pound for the two of us. Buses are the only form of public transport available in the southeast of the island and the roads are dominated by them, so great are their numbers. Cavalier bus drivers rule the roads here, and it is wise not to pay too much attention to their reckless driving techniques as they hurtle along, horns honking, whilst other road users make way. But then you never seem to have to wait more than a few minutes for a bus. And whilst the buses may be ancient and decrepit, they are all kitted out with several speakers delivering popular Sri Lanka music, which fortunately is not unpleasant, if rather loud. All have a buddhist ‘shrine’ above the windscreen which usually comprises flashing lights, pictures of Buddha and garlands of artificial flowers.

Apart from the buses there is generally little traffic on the roads here; comprising mainly tuk tuks, motor bikes, cycles and lorries, and not many cars.

Marissa is a small village straddling the Galle Road, although most of the action, what there is of it, is on the beach. Here are a few thatched beach bars-cum-restaurants and guest houses offering cabanas and rooms, not all of them open at this time of year, and one rather more up-market hotel with a swimming pool. Almost all the buildings are set back behind the tree line. The only encroachment onto this lovely, unspoilt crescent of sand and sea is the occasional thatched beach bar. This is has to be the prettiest beach so far.

We are staying at Palm Villas which lies on a bay of it’s own, and turns out to be a very good choice. The guest house gardens are right on the sea, although at this time of year the tide is too high for there to be any beach and if it wasn’t for a retaining wall, the garden would be fast disappearing into the sea. As it is, there is only a narrow path still remaining to link us with the main beach a few yards away. We have a room with a sea view, well just; at least there is a glimpse of the sea from the bed, which is more than we have got anywhere else. And, it is the cleanest room so far, by a long way. Of course, the obligatory building work is going on here, although thankfully, it’s not too intrusive. It’s just a bit off putting to be confronted with a building site when you walk in off the street!

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Sri Lanka day 32 – Goyambokka, Tangalle

A day for walking along the coast road into Tangalle stopping off at one picturesque and deserted beach after another. Just the usual palm-fringed, golden curves of tropical beach – idyllic apart from the roaring surf. Hard to believe that these bays are completely calm in the high season from December through to February and possibly beyond when you can swap the thrill of the surf for the tourist crowds and higher prices.

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Sri Lanka day 31 – Goyambokka, Tangalle

This is a lovely spot for hanging around doing absolutely nothing. It’s out of season and there are only two other people staying at Green Gardens, so apart from the inevitable building work that is going on behind us, all is peaceful and quiet. The two other guests are a Swiss couple who have been travelling with a four-wheel drive for an incredible 26 years! There biggest headache seems to be arranging transport for the car, which they are trying to send to Mauritius and then on to Madagascar – not an easy task as we learn from their blow-by-blow account of the administrative bureaucracy involved. The only other people staying in Goyambokka are a French couple who came to the restaurant for dinner last night from the cabana resort across the way. In the afternoon we take the bus into Tangalle and walk along the beach to the busy fishing harbour. There are some sizeable trawlers making their way out to sea, as well as a few traditional outrigger canoes pulled onto the beach. A couple of water monitors are swimming up the river which meets the sea just before the harbour. Banana pancakes on the beach at the Franjipani guest house. Back to Goyambokka for a swim, or more accurately a fight with the waves. The French couple are way out, beyond the breakers, doing what looks aqua aerobics, which certainly seems to keep them in trim. The old boy that hangs around the beach and is highly recommended by the French as an excellent cook (praise indeed from our cousins across La Manche), is waiting with a fresh coconut for us all to share . Another long chat with the Swiss and a delicious and enormous rice and curry dinner at Green Gardens.

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