Walking the Pettah and the Fort in Colombo

the-church Wolvendaal Church – courtesy of http://www.tripadvisor.com.au/ShowUserReviews-g293962-d2452003-r122177443-Wolvendaal_Church-Colombo.html

A tour around Colombo Fort and Pettah might not seem like one of Sri Lanka’s greatest attractions; however YAMU encountered a man, Mark Forbes, who fervently believes that the old inner-city is the capital’s greatest asset. We heard that Mark runs $ 50 tours showing, predominantly European, tourists the wonders of old Colombo. We were intrigued, but somewhat sceptical – I mean I already know rather a lot of about Colombo Fort and spend as much time as I can in Pettah, so what on earth could someone called Mark Forbes (surely a foreigner) show me that don’t I already know? And how many tourists are going to pay to be taken around faded and chaotic downtown districts?

Well there was only one way to find out, so YAMU tagged along on a Fort tour to see what we would see. Our first surprise was that Forbes turned out to be completely Sri Lankan (an Anglo Ceylonese ancestor explains the name). This was a promising start as only a Lankan will ever be able unravel Pettah’s befuddling multi-ethnic maze or Fort’s depth of colonial history. He’s also made a real effort to research and document both Fort and Pettah, building relationships with various characters, taking tons of photographs and wading through the archives to uncover the history of the city’s oldest and most beautiful buildings.
Backed by this much enthusiasm and research the Colombo City Walks tour really offers a pretty comprehensive service. He and his equally knowledgeable wife, Ruvi, will pick you up from anywhere in Colombo and pack you into the back of their land-rover en route to Fort – it’s like going on safari through the big city.
The Fort: Leaving the jeep at the Dutch Hospital, we plunged into the Fort on foot and steadily ticked off the inner city’s principal attractions. Chatham Street’s arcades and shop-houses, Cargills faded but spectacular building, the grandiose colonial edifices on Baron Jayathilake Mawatha. The buildings themselves are spectacular and massively under-appreciated by contemporary Colombars while Mark’s narration and knowledge really adds to your understanding of the city.
Did you know that the Chatham Street’s clock tower is perhaps the oldest in Asia and its original time keeping mechanism came from the same people who kitted out London’s Big Ben? Or that visible pieces and plaques from the 17th century Dutch building that previously stood on the site are incorporated into the interior walls of the Cargills building?
Have you ever noticed that at the bottom of HSBC’s palatial Fort headquarters is the firm’s colonial era emblem – a ship laden with opium sailing to China? (Sadly they changed this in favour of the more PC hexagon at some point in the 21st century)
Fort is full of hidden gems and this tour really brings out the layers of the city’s history. A glance at Colombo’s port city heritage in the Mackinnons building, St Peter’s church, the foundations of which date to the Portuguese era, the view from the sailors club down the alley next to the Grand Oriental Hotel – these are things that vast majority of Colombars will never have seen. For those who have made the mistake of not venturing into Fort because everything you need is in Colpetty, the walk is a great reintroduction.
Pettah: However, the Fort is only half the tour, so after a break for tea at the always spectacular terrace of the Grand Oriental Hotel, we set off for Pettah. From the crumbling and neglected colonial city to the frenetic buzz of the native quarter.
Fort and Pettah have stood next to each other for 400 years but they still remain worlds apart. Here, the tour really comes into its own because navigating Pettah’s labyrinth of commerce and communities without a guide can leave you running in circles, or absolutely frustrated as you try and fail to weave through a solid seeming mass of humanity.
With the advantage of good leadership however, we made our way past the forest of artificial Christmas trees, down the road devoted to eye-popping LED based signage and around the goods hauling ‘nattamys’ until we reached Mark’s piece de resistance – the forgotten Dutch Stables near Prince Street.
The highlight:  You step into an ordinary seeming shop front and proceed through a narrow corridor crammed with trading shops until you reach a thick wall and some columns that look strangely out of place – this is where, over 300 years ago the Dutch used to keep their horses. You will not find it marked on any map or guidebook. Even the country’s archaeological authorities seem unaware of it but Mark’s research led him to place that shouldn’t exist. Now occupied by a printing press and some tiny accountants offices, that the building has managed to survive without any organised preservation efforts is a testament to the quality of Dutch construction.
After crawling over this extraordinary discovery, we rounded off the tour with a visit to the more conventional Dutch Period museum. Even here Mark offers something extra as by befriending the caretaker, he’s made it so you can be sneaked in to the museum a little after the official closing time. So you have a 17th century mansion all to yourself.
While the walk ends at the Dutch Museum, they also throw in a jeep-back cruise to Wolvendaal church. The city’s oldest continuously functioning place of worship is another unlikely survivor from the past now surrounded on three sides by busy roads.
The handsome and austere building with its well tended cemetery provides the strongest possible contrast to the brightly painted tenements around it and the view from its main entrance over Kotahena more or less sums up the appeal of both this city and the tour – there’s just such an abundance contrasts.
With beers at the Dutch Hospital thrown in after the walk, for a tourist looking to understand Colombo’s history or for locals who’ve lost touch the beauty of Fort and Pettah’s vibrancy, the tour is actually well worth the money…
Book through the excellent http://www.trekurious.com experience portal.

16-Colombo fort & moat -eastern face The eastern side in the mid 19th century –Courtesy Ismeth Raheem

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