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Galle Fort’s hidden treasure Leyn Baan

Leyn Baan Street  by Juliet Coombe

Leyn Baan is a place where local families live, artisans create beautiful things and you can have a dress sewn up in a blink an eye. The best way to contextualise this fascinating thoroughfare of the World Heritage Site of Galle Fort, is by circling it from the air in a helicopter to get pictures of its sheer magnificence. However it is only on foot that one can truly comprehend the ancient citadel’s rich colonial architecture, time locked traditions and fascinating daily rituals, as one is close enough to see, and yet not intrude, on everyday life. Everywhere, there are things going on and yet, among the hustle and bustle, the architecture is living proof that our merchant ancestors built beautiful things to last and be passed on from one generation to the next. By talking to the local people you will learn how it all connects together in this magical four hundred year old walled city, that can only really be appreciated by walking along  streets like Leyn Baan and discovering what lies behind the lives of those who call the fort their home.

This major thoroughfare is very busy during the day, especially near Law Court Square, where court cases are tried daily to the tappety tap of the type writer. Here, you can buy snacks from the kadé village shop and see Sri Lanka’s version of LA law. These small village shops have been busy feeding workers and sailors, coming and going to the port of Galle, for centuries. It is the area used for trading spices, gem stones, peacock feathers and today is the home of the popular Sunday food, arts and crafts market much loved by tourists and the Colombo crowd. Moving along past the warehouses now converted into palatial homes and businesses, do take time to step into the old Hayley’s Hall, which has been turned into the stunning Spa Ceylon flag ship, based out of what was once a Dutch rope making factory, and learn how the street got its name; line or rope is ‘Leyn’ in Dutch.  To the right of Spa Ceylon, you will discover Leyn Baan Cross Street, an excellent place to find accommodation and stay at a stunning hidden spot with tropical gardens like the Mango House, with its gorgeous four-poster beds and open dining and entertainment areas in which to relax after walking the rampart city walls.

Continue along Leyn Baan and take a look inside the Historical Mansion at 39, Leyn Baan Street; a free museum full of fascinating artefacts, which will show you how a house looked in colonial times, with its original mud kitchen and earthenware cooking pots. On the other side of the building, there is a gem shop, with a courtyard in the centre, where you can see the beautiful corals and shells, and the original well for drawing water, all made from the ballast of ships, which used them for weighing down the keel for their very long sea voyages to Sri Lanka. Here, you will discover the gabled doorway and typical Dutch ship-like grand architecture of the main building, which used whole tree trunks for some of the beams. You can watch traditional lacemaking here, and study historic Sri Lankan maps, newspaper articles and old pictures from colonial times; a museum recently restored, consisting of two rooms with antiques like old record players, telephones, radios, VOC plates and wonderful lanterns hanging from the roof. Opposite, there is a funky fashion shop, Var Vara, which is a small  boutique of a contemporary Russian designer dresses, selling unique fashion from hand painted traditional Sri Lankan batiks. A place where European style and quality perfectly meld with Asian fabrics and painting  techniques. After sprucing up your wardrobe with a shell necklace, cross the road and take a look inside TPV and, if you have any postcards to send home, put them in the old British red letter box, before crossing Pedlars Street to explore the rest of Leyn Baan and stop for a drink or crepe at Fort Fifty, where Papa will tell you about how the area has changed.

Sithuvili is a fantastic place to start learning about the arts and crafts of the region, with every item hand made and decorated, using natural paints from the rain forest. Here, you can buy master craftsmanship of the highest level from Jagath or well known artist and gallery curator, Janaka De Silva, who, in 1998, decided the fort was the best place to showcase Sri Lankan art work. His trailblazing gallery shop at 56, Leyn Baan Street, Galle Fort, recently restored, is a great place to shop for hand painted bowls and karma boards with detailed carvings. Combine this with a delicious Ceylon pizza with a twist and you will know you are in heaven. Being born in Ambalangoda, the heartland of traditional mask making, his knowledge of the arts is incredible and passion infectious. The scary masks that hang on the walls, you will learn, are used for the devil dancing rituals designed to remove evil spirits, while his own creations of animal masks calm frightened children and represent his modern twist of Sri Lankan traditional. In the backyard that doubles as a mask making area for courses and now puppetry, is a fascinating spot to learn more about Sri Lankan arts. The Galle Fort Art Gallery a couple of doors down at no 60 Leyn Baan is Sri Lanka’s leading contemporary gallery in the Southern province for both new names in art and established household names. It is based in a merchant house with interconnecting open areas leading from one courtyard to another, which are made from coral and shells, the ballast of old trading ships, which can be seen in the external courtyard at the back of the building. The gallery is curated by Janaka De Silva who has organized exhibitions with distinguished artists including Anup Vega, J.C. Rathnayake, Chamila Gamage, Asoka Sellakapu, and Sanjaya Geekiyange. The gallery is inspirational with its high ceilings, large open spaces used to host travel influencer events, specialist talks, masterclasses in mask making and group shows that have been included in the first Galle Art Trail in 2008 and since in exhibitions held yearly during the much loved Galle Literary Festival. The current exhibition “Unsettling Times(s)” is a dynamic professional association of painters from Colombo. Curator and artist Janaka De Silva is inspired by the artistry of the countries Great kingdoms and he is a master craftsman in battered gold leaf and paints hand made from the rain forest. He believes the emotions of the island have played a heavy role in the contemporary art scene and the scars of the civil war and tsunami run deep into the soul of the canvasses, that have seen the country go from being in pieces to peace. His latest project is Sri Lanka’s first underwater gallery and in 2020 he will also show case the art of puppetry with day courses on how to make these iconic performers. An ancient theatrical art form used for thousands of years to entertain children in the paddy fields.  

Karma Collection, opposite Sithuvili, at 53, Leyn Baan Street, Galle Fort, is Boho Chic fashion and gifts, absolutely fabulous in every way. It is a top place to buy beach wear, something fancy for a night out or pick from a stunning range of materials; you can tailor your own on the second floor. For really quirky gifts, check out the regal agate napkin ring collection, colourful candleholders (also with gorgeous agate stones), stylish bottle openers and beautiful placemats for all seasons, to give your house that truly designer look. You can also have your fabrics hand dyed at Karma for the festive season, new year party circuit, or book a session with their personal stylist and fashion buyer Tivon, who is the king of scene-stealing creations. His favourite pieces are the hand embroidered floral and wild bird scarves that take over a week to make, the block print collection and sexy sculptures by artist Manoranjana Herath. From here you can enjoy the Galle Fort spice shop at no 64 Leyn Baan and take home the best freshly ground ingredients to make an authentic rice and curry.

Tired from all the souvenir shopping, you can take break from souvenir shopping either across the road at the uber chic Italian restaurant or next door, at the Serendipity Arts Cafe at 65, Leyn Baan Street, Galle Fort, close to the corner of Leyn Baan Street and New Lane, which is a fun place to mix and mingle with other art lovers and locals around the gigantic travellers’ table a stunning Liya production. A place surrounded by colourfully painted walls and read books on the Galle Fort. This amazing warehouse is owned by Amzar Careem, whose visionary ideas are what make the future of the old city so exciting and vibrant. If walking along Leyn Baan at lunch time try out the spicy and delicious traditional or Western dishes with freshly picked vegetables from the garden and fish caught from the sea behind the rampart walls; they are all cooked to perfection by Asker, who is a superb fort chef and fan of Gordon Ramsay. Asker is always happy for travellers to relax in this inspiring arty atmosphere where everyone is welcome! 

If you want to go on a walk around the old city with a knowledgable local, ask for Fazal at the Royal Dutch Café at 72, Leyn Baan Street, where you will learn some extraordinary history not even found in guide books. It’s a lovely place to sip spice tea and eat freshly made roti with his homemade chutney that you can buy in jars if you order in advance. Fazal always has a wonderful menu of Sri Lankan food, and the sign on the cafe is spot on as it really is the ‘Best Tea in Town’. Fazal was born in Leyn Baan Street, representing a 7th generation Fort family that has adapted to the increasing number of visitors that come to the old city.  A man full of knowledge and humour and wisdom whose family motto is : ‘No microwave or frozen food!’ So, if you want to eat here, you should plan at least 20 minutes waiting time, which is totally worth it, since the food is fresh and the spices are home made each morning. Fatima, his wife, owns the shop behind, where she sews carpets and sells beautiful handicrafts, wooden statues, tea, glitzy bags that sparkle and even Sri Lankan elephant emblazoned T-shirts for kids. For a great place with a view of the ocean and old city, nothing beats the top floor of Mamas Guesthouse next door, which consists of a couple of rooms for travellers and can be found at 76, Leyn Baan Street, Galle Fort. You can then check out some of the jewellery shops and discover which stone is your birth stone according to the time of year you were born. Stones have huge healing powers and every master piece has an interesting story to tell as much of the work is done in workshops behind closed doors.

At the end of the street is the magnificent Meeran Mosque, which is over a century old. Prayers take place here before dawn at around 5am, 12.05am, 3.15pm, 6.10pm and around 6.30/7pm, just after sunset each day. Before entering the mosque, Muslims must wash their hands, then mouth and nose, face, arms, their hands, ears and lastly their feet. If you want to enter, please make sure your clothes are covering your legs and arms, and are high on the neck. Do not go in when prayers are in session and ask before going in if you can take photos in this deeply spiritual spot, overlooking the Indian Ocean and the Dutch Ramparts.

Writer and author of many books on Sri Lanka Juliet Coombe loves Leyn Baan Street which she considers the beating heart of the old city of Galle Fort, a place rich in history, with lots of lovely restaurants, shops, stunning gallery, a historic museum and one of the country’s most beautiful and iconic mosques.

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