It’s the end of January and Galle is hot – and we’re not necessarily talking about the temperature. In January, this former Dutch city turns into a hotspot graced by the glitterati, literati and paparazzi.
The fame of the Galle Literary Festival (GLF) has spread far and wide. In fact, it’s not only cosmopolitan Colombo that makes this annual expedition; expatriates and foreign visitors also make an appearance… with good reason!
Every possible place in this ancient port city takes on a vibrant persona, whether it’s the vast expanses of the Hall De Galle and the National Maritime Museum or the Dutch Reformed Church that pays homage to angelic music.
Galle’s small cafes with their artisan ice creams and delicious cuisine also come alive as do boutique hotels that are primed to host a wine tasting, book reading or even a celebrity meal.
This is also the best time to ‘people watch’ – Colombo society don their hats and best designer wear, and carry their ‘brolleys’ – and of course, their arms overflow with the latest works of featured authors as they rush between venues to listen to the discussions.
And in between sessions, you can leave the crowds behind to stroll along the quaint paved streets, and visit the shops to strike a bargain or two.
Now branded as the Fairway Galle Literary Festival, the event has featured a long list of celebrity authors through the years. Amongst them are winners of the Pulitzer, Booker and Commonwealth Prizes, British Press Award recipients and authors of The New York Times Best Sellers.
Emotional highlights of past events include Palestinian doctor Izzeldin Abuelaish’s horrific account of the price his family paid during the Gaza war and Sonali Deraniyagala’s poignant description of the loss of her entire family during the 2004 tsunami. Both didn’t leave a dry eye in the audience and they received standing ovations.
Real and fictional crime, hero detectives and the perfect crime (that sometimes goes wrong!) have been discussed in detail with “the likes of Anita Nair and Ian Rankin, along with no holds barred dialogues with the entertaining Lesley Hazleton who offers history a twist. There have also been the stories of the brave young girls Malala Yousafzai and Nujeen Mustafa as told to Christina Lamb. And to cap it all, Candace Bushnell once ran through the background story of Sex and the City, bringing some frivolity to the event.
But it’s not all about books at the GLF! It’s also about celebrity lunches and dinners to get up close and personal with the authors, wine and whisky tasting with canapés thrown in, music ranging from jazz and scintillating choirs to orchestral magnificence, architectural walkabouts by celebrated architects like Channa Daswatte and Anjalendran, and of course, the parties – including after parties and private parties! – all happening within this UNESCO World Heritage Site.
And one must spend a few hours in the Festival Garden where authors hang out, autograph books and pose for selfies with fans. Humid though it is, the mats, beanbags and garden umbrellas complement the atmosphere in a charming city where meeting the who’s who of Colombo is guaranteed.
Every resort, boutique property, Airbnb, homestay and excuse for a guesthouse is booked by December with prices often shooting through the roof. Tickets – especially for the celebrity lunches and dinners – are sold out within a few minutes of the festival being publicised and there’s quite a scramble for the free events.
Yes, there’s plenty to do during the GLF – whether it’s people watching, absorbing literature or downing your spirits!
Just arm yourself with a book or two, don a hat and you’re in!
Compiled by Savithri Rodrigo