Sri Lanka | The Times
The Times | 10 November 2012
City streets with a hint of jasmine
Sri Lanka's shops and architecture bewitch Laura Ivill
Forming a cultural triangle in the southwest of the country, the great cities of Colombo, Galle and Kandy make a fascinating complement to any beach holiday. Time exploring here will get you under the skin of this historically rich nation.
Since the island’s civil war came to an end in 2009, peace is bringing about rapid change, and the sprawling capital Colombo is now worthy of hogging a few days of your holiday. Thankfully, much of colonial Colombo’s architecture survives — the Dutch took over from the Portuguese in the 17th century and built their version of a strategic port solidly. Then in 1815, the British proclaimed Colombo the capital of Ceylon. Historic restoration is gathering pace and designer shops are springing up in the shady boulevards. The many markets are always a good place to mingle with the locals, and the Buddhist temples are vibrant honey pots of day-to-day life. Growing in cosmopolitan colour, there are now more cafes, shops, galleries and museums than you will have time for.
Lacking in “sights”, it’s the differing neighbourhoods that intrigue. The Fort, the old centre of the city, is historic and chic, and undergoing a facelift — the Old Dutch Hospital is one of the colonial gems now restored, housing shops, cafes and restaurants. Stop off for lunch at AVP Restaurant in a flat-iron building with huge windows spilling light inside and busy with locals.
Just east of Fort is the old quarter of Pettah and its shops, stalls and markets. The numerous small Hindu temples here, the kovils, are oases from the teeming streets. In the ritzy, leafy Cinnamon Gardens district, the National Museum takes pride of place. Old colonial mansions line the streets, many now smart shops. Splash out and have dinner alongside the glamorous crowd at the Asian-fusion restaurant Gallery Café, or head towards the shore and Beach Wadiya, well known for its fresh seafood.
From Colombo, driving along the Southern Expressway will take you south to Galle (the bus takes 90 minutes; the train three hours), founded by the Portuguese in the 16th century. In contrast to the capital, Galle (pronounced Gawl) has a tranquil air of an old city-within-a-fort, but its streets also bear testament to its colonial past — renovated and still-dilapidated 17th-century Dutch-colonial merchants’ houses convey a whiff of old European grandeur, transported to the tropics.
It’s a hip city, with cool cafes, boutique hotels and smart restaurants, due in no small part to the abundance of art and artists here. In April next year, the whole Fort area becomes a giant gallery when the bi-annual Galle Art Trail takes place (gallearttrail.com).
Galle’s Fort is a Unesco World Heritage site, yet thankfully not just a living museum. Its churches, mosques, temples, commercial and government offices and homes are alive with daily toil, and best discovered on foot. Wander through the streets, the scent of jasmine and spices on the breeze. A stroll along the fort walls gives the best perspective.
Boutique hotels and luxury villas are upping the ante on style, and cost. Nightlife is on the quiet side, but there are myriad fashionable restaurants. Mama’s Galle Fort Roof Café serves Sri Lankan curries under a canopy of stars, without breaking the bank.
And, of course, with such an arty vibe — there’s great shopping. Find lacework at Shoba Display Gallery, arts and crafts at Barefoot, and affordable quality jewellery at the catchy-named PS Weerasekara Fashion Jewellery.
On the drive south from Colombo to Galle, the southwest coast has some fabulous beach resorts — what many people come to Sri Lanka for. Take a break from your cultural odyssey at Avani Kalutara, a four-star resort in 22 acres of coconut groves, surrounded by a tranquil river and the Indian Ocean, or perhaps at the Heritance Ahungalla, a five-star resort built by Sri Lanka’s leading architect, Geoffrey Bawa, whose aim was to perfect the blend of inside with out, of interiors with landscaping.
From Galle, the daily train to Kandy takes six and a half hours up into Hill Country, and it’s one of the island’s most scenic journeys. The rolling highlands of mists and soft rain, are much cooler than the coast, but colourful houses and even jollier saris lift the spirits, and the people think well of living in Sri Lanka’s second city.
In the centre of town is Kandy Lake. The best stretch for a walk is the northern part, near the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic. This houses Sri Lanka’s most important Buddhist relic. During puja (prayers), worshippers and visitors are permitted into the guarded room. But the glorious tooth, said to have been rescued from the Buddha’s funeral pyre, is hidden away in a gold casket.
To honour the relic, the festival of Kandy Esala Perahera takes place for ten days in July/August and is Sri Lanka’s most awe-inspiring spectacle. Thousands of Kandyan dancers and drummers take part in daily processions, elephants are dressed in swaths of embroidered cloth and torches are lit. It draws visitors from far and wide — one highlight of many in the cultural triangle that you won’t want to miss.