Galle's slow tsunami recovery

Galle's lighthouse and the Dutch ramparts.
Galle's lighthouse and the Dutch ramparts. Jill Worrall

A 17th century Dutch warehouse is perhaps an unlikely place to experience first-hand how Sri Lanka is continuing to rebuild its coastal regions after the tragedy of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, but the new home of the nation's Maritime Archaeology Museum is in many ways a perfect fit.

The previous museum was destroyed by the tsunami, which washed away 80 per cent of its precious artefacts.

As Galle has been a strategic port since the late 1500s and the scene of many shipwrecks over the subsequent 500 years, there had been plenty of historical treasures to find in the waters of the Indian Ocean just off shore.

Marine archaeologists had spent nine years scouring the Galle port seafloor, amassing a collection of thousands of priceless objects.

Amazingly some were retrieved from the devastation that swept through Galle but many were lost forever.

The new museum was opened last year thanks to a multi-million dollar grant from the Dutch government.

The first recorded visit to Galle by European sailors was in 1505 when a fleet of Portuguese sailing ships was blown of course en route for the Maldives.

By the end of the century, the Portuguese had established a small fort on the rocky promontory that shelters the port.

When the Dutch took over the island in 1640 they destroyed most of the Portuguese fortifications and replaced them with their own. It is these ramparts and gates that still stand in Galle today.

The harbour became the most important port in what was formerly Ceylon as it was strategically placed on sea routes between Europe and Asia.

However, when the British arrived in 1796 and the Dutch left, Galle's fortunes faded as Colombo became its prime port.

Ironically it was probably this shift in fortunes that has made Galle one of the most fascinating and picturesque towns in Sri Lanka - since the port's heyday time has rather stood still in the old town, known as Galle Fort.

The Dutch ramparts that surround the promontory enclose much more than just the fort itself.

A network of narrow cobbled lanes are lined with a fascinating mix of restored and crumbling old Dutch villas, colonial-era public buildings, a whitewashed mosque and Anglican and Dutch Reformed churches.

It was those centuries-old ramparts that had been built to withstand cannon fire that saved Galle Fort from the devastating impact of the tsunami waves.

Repelled by the walls, the waves swept around the promontory and into the modern town. In its path en route was the Galle cricket ground, one of the most picturesque in the world which straddles the narrow neck of land linking Galle Fort with the mainland.

The tsunami waves did some of their worst damage in the nearby bus station - appalling scenes which are still etched on local people's minds. More than 4000 people in Galle alone lost their lives in the disaster.

But the cricket ground (the Galle International Stadium) is now back in action at international test cricket level and the new museum is also a clear statement of Sri Lanka's determination to rebuild.

The latter is a beautifully designed collection where the ethos appears to have been "less is more".

It is not crowded with exhibits. Instead, a few choice objects including Chinese blue and white pottery - even ceramics from Persia - along with sailors' pipes, shoes and beer tankards, help illustrate Galle's rich marine history.

The museum should be top of every traveller's list in Galle but after a leisurely browse through its galleries the next best thing to do is simply to stroll Galle's streets and make the loop around the top of the rampart and past the old lighthouse at the harbour entrance.

It's not difficult to take one's time - Galle is hot and humid, no one moves very fast here, not even the locals. But if you stand still for too long the local fleet of lace-sellers will be upon you.

Visitors on the ramparts are often trailed by men and women wafting giant lace tablecloths behind them, or - if they are truly enterprising - walking backwards along the wall proffering lace dresses that flutter in the slight sea breeze.

There are a growing number of boutiques and cafes opening in Galle. Apparently many of the derelict buildings are being snapped up for restoration by foreigners.

I visited one cafe that had just opened, although in this case all the staff were locals.

"Not even in Lonely Planet yet!" said a sandwich board outside.

The cool interior with its original dark panelled wood walls and stone-flagged floor opened into a tiny central courtyard.

Three young waiters all converged to take my order of one lime soda then the trio stood and watched solicitously as I drank it.

When I came to pay there was much consternation - none of them knew the price.

"Please can you wait," one of them said.

"Our manager is in the toilet."

>> Read more travel stories.

Topics:  boxing day tsunami sri lanka travel travelling

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