Colombo is an exciting, lively, noisy, vibrant, chaotic swirl of a city. Cranes swing from every horizon, erecting the high-rise apartment and office blocks that spell a new and prosperous dawn for the island’s most populated city. The ancient seafarers of Cathay, Persia and Morocco knew of Colombo, but it was not truly developed as a port until the arrival of the Portuguese in the 16th century. However, Colombo’s vulnerability to the monsoons gave the Port of Galle a superior advantage until 1874 when the British Government erected a breakwater, paving the way for Colombo’s evolution as the capital city. As the 21st century progresses so Sri Lanka’s intrinsic understanding of its unique multi-cultural style has begun to force its way onto the cities’ main shopping streets.
A series of top quality interior design stores, such as Paradise Road and Barefoot, run alongside superior fashion boutiques such as Odel’s and Serendib. New café bars, restaurants and art galleries are also springing up regularly as further evidence of the city’s growing cosmopolitan confidence. And alongside these streets stand the Buddhist and Hindu temples of the 18th century, the British colonial banks and offices of the 19th and the twin towers of the World Trade Centre, 34 stories high and faced in reflecting glass. Visitors to Sri Lanka can hardly avoid staying a night or two in Colombo but, though it may be a large and boisterous city, it is determined to give the visitor a good reason to stay. Amongst the many businesses to relocate from Galle to Colombo after 1874 was Macan Markar Gems, the company who built Galle Face Courts One and Two on the city’s waterfront. Two former storage depots (see Galle Face Court, The Dome) in the Macan Markar towers have lately been converted into stunning residential apartments. In the suburbs, three distinct 19th century townhouses have been converted and renovated to suit the requirements of the modern age.
A frenetic highway runs parallel to the Ocean along the west coast of the island between Colombo and Galle. The latter port was established by the Portuguese in 1505 after one of their fleets, sailing around India, was driven to shelter by a storm and obliged to drop anchor. The port flourished as Sri Lanka’s principal maritime trade base until eclipsed by Colombo in the 1870s. The Fort continued to prosper under the Dutch, who walled the fort, and the British. During the 19th century, an increasing numbers of Muslim traders settled in the merchant villas, enhancing the Fort’s inimitable blend of European style and Asian tradition. Classified as a World Heritage Site in 1988, the Fort and surrounding town are today awash with colour and vitality. Many of the original Dutch villas have being restored in recent years by a wave of personable characters, some Sri Lankan, others international. Five such villas feature in the following pages, each one a unique distillation of the original structure and the personal desires and styles of its current occupants. Overlooking the Fort from a nearby rise is 300-year-old Doornberg, the magnificently restored former residence of the Dutch commander.
7. The Dome.
8. Colombo House.
10. Norma Tennekoon.
Click here to view James Fennell's Sri Lanka photographs.