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Arts + Lifestyle

Is This The World's Most Beautiful Literary Festival?

Sri Lanka’s southern coast has always had magnetic energy, even when it was little more than a few fishing boats bobbing in the sea. Now – once a year, for four days in January – the spotlight falls firmly on what was once an abandoned 17th century Dutch fort in the town of Galle as it hosts the Galle Literary Festival.

Galle has always drawn domestic tourists; most would arrive to spend a day swimming and walking along the beaches and old fort walls – a long, dusty, rock-lined road against which waves splattered and sprayed. There were no luxury hotels or fancy eateries as everyone returned home at the end of the day.

The culmination of a long civil war, in 2009, brought a new generation of tourists to the island, for the first time in nearly three decades. The southern and eastern coasts became popular with surfers and put villages such as Weligama and Arugam Bay on the map. With this global popularity came bigger and better places to stay, eat and drink and, today, this stretch of sand represents a lifestyle: surf schools, yoga studios, vegan cafes and bars dominate every inch of the coast.

Yet, it appears that there’s still room for more to happen here. During Galle Literary Festival, like-minded writers, poets, artists and lovers of the written word descend on the town to share experiences through hosted panels, discussions and cultural exchange.

A roster of events, scattered within the fort, make this the location of perhaps the world’s most beautiful literary festival. The fort in its entirety has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1988 and it’s this magical setting which steals the show at the Galle Literary Festival. In 2024 the festival runs from 25 – 28 January.

Galle fort in Sri Lanka is a prime Dutch colonial time city in Asia.

Visitors meander between the festival’s programme, winding their way along the fort’s narrow and rambling streets, past a Dutch Reformed Church originally built in 1640, a lighthouse which dates back to 1939, and an 18th century Dutch hospital which – arguably – has the best view of the ocean in town, from its balcony.

The Literary Festival will cover everything, including: a panel talk titled Transcending Cultural Expectations: The Female Body in the Arts; lunch with authors such as Romesh Gunesekera and Balli Kaur Jaswal; and a conversation about the story of Sri Lankan cricket. Sessions will be led by literary greats including Jasbinder Bilan, Manu Joseph and Mary Beard.

The festival also hosts an Art Trail which invites visitors to curated exhibitions, open houses and tours led by artists, highlighting the heritage architecture of what is a living museum. This year’s trail includes works from Malki Jayakody, Mahela Pansithu and Fabienne Francotte and explores themes such as colourism and emotions of those facing violence – expressed through water colour, photography and graffiti. Hundreds of volunteers will help visitors navigate the fort.

Gourmet Galle trail runs alongside it all, and is a list of culinary events which takes place along the entire south coast – from Galle to Weligama – for 12 weeks between January and February. Venues such as KK Beach, The Fort Printers, Why House and Jetwing Lighthouse hold masterclasses, workshops and intimate dinners hosted by chefs and food writers. Another foodie highlight is the Literature Festival panel talk, The Rise of Sri Lankan Cuisine, hosted by food critic Tom Parker Bowles, Lahiru Perera from Smoke & Bitters (one of Sri Lanka’s best cocktail restaurants and number 40 in Asia’s 50 Best Bars) and Cynthia Shanmugalingam of London’s Sri Lankan restaurant, Rambutan.

Dining at KK Beach

Coconut plantations, paddy fields and the ocean offer the backdrop for visitors to immerse themselves in throughout each experience. Michelin-starred Sri Lankan chef Rishi Naleendr and Karan Gokani of London restaurant chain Hoppers will join Cynthia Shanmugalingam and a host of other international chefs to celebrate the trail this year.


Weligama Bay Marriott Resort and Spa

Whilst Galle becomes a hive of activity over the four-day festival, staying in nearby towns makes perfect sense. Weligama, just 45 minutes from Galle, is ideal. Weligama Bay Marriott Resort and Spa sits on the edge of the Indian Ocean with unrestricted access to the beach. Expect astonishing sunsets from your ocean-view suite and fall asleep to the gentle crash of waves against the sand. No less than eight eateries within the hotel offer a wide range of dining options, from fish and seafood to poolside tapas. At the end of a long day spent at the literary festival, you might be tempted by a Down South spa treatment at Quan Spa.


Malabar Hill

Malabar Hill in Palalla, Weligama offers the best of two worlds: 12 villas with floor-to-ceiling glass doors open out to infinity pools with views over Weligama bay on one side and the hotel’s own 33-acre wetland sanctuary, which includes paddy fields, on the other. The decor borrows from Moorish and Arabic architecture and the vibe is distinctly bohemian: terracotta-tiled hallways under arches, a wide and open terrace overlooking the lush jungle, and walls decorated with hand-carved wooden mirrors. Malabar Hill offers an intensely private experience away from the busy southern towns. It operates a policy of no children under 12 years of age making its recessed mini library a great place to escape into a book.


Sheraton Kosgoda Turtle Beach Resort

Sheraton Kosgoda Turtle Beach Resort is an hour north of Galle and recognised for its sea turtle conservation project. With seven restaurants, which include a rooftop bar, the resort offers a chance to experience Sri Lanka off the beaten path. Festival visitors generally head deep into the southernmost parts of the island, and Kosgoda is a wonderful alternative, away from the crowds. Rooms offer uninterrupted views of the sea or gardens and you can enjoy the sea breeze from your own private balcony. For a heady dose of culture to top up the literary festival experience, head to the nearby Ariyapala Mask Museum or visit the Lunuganga Estate of Sri Lanka’s famous architect Geoffrey Bawa.

Lead Image: Galle Fort Lighthouse
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