If Dickens had written a book about Colombo, he could have called it ‘1000 Tales Of A Dozen Cities’. For Sri Lanka has many, many faces and there is a story at every turn.
We arrived on Friday afternoon and our drive in surprised me. I had expected dilapidation yet my first impression was of grand, regal buildings. These turned out to be the new Parliament (Bawa designed, no surprise there) and other government buildings.
We eventually reached our hotel and then a catalogue of disasters occurred. Suffice to say we were embarking on a few days of musical beds rather than musical chairs culminating in my butler escorting me late last night to my new room in my dressing gown through a graduation ball where everyone was dressed up to the nines.
But enough. We wasted too much time and energy on this as it is.
First night, my friend, the Shoe Designer, who now lives and works in Colombo was joining us for a private tasting menu and wine pairing in our hotel. It was great to see her and to get some inside gossip on what living in Sri Lanka is really all about. She seems to have well and truly landed on her feet and gotten in with the in crowd. Again all Bawa and Udayshanth Fernando – owner of Paradise Road – connected (are you getting the picture here?) and it was fascinating to hear her tales.
The next morning we took a private car tour through the city. The Boys were fascinated at just how much it had changed since they were last here a handful or so years ago, with new skyscrapers being built, including a stunning building called the Lotus Tower which dominates no matter where you are.
We went from grandeur to squalor, from dense urban to sea, from Dutch colonial to LA trendy, Muslim to Buddhist – you name it, it’s all here, all a melting pot of rich and poor, old and new, international and local……it was overwhelming.
I loved an area around Park Street which had brightly coloured shop fronts which would not have been out of place in Soho, NYC, so cool were they. Tuk tuks dived and weaved in and out of other cars and whilst we were dicing with death, it all felt a lot calmer and safer than, say, Delhi.
One favourite was a tiny extension of a Buddhist temple on a tiny island – again Bawa designed. Seema Malaka – now that second word has a very different meaning in my language.
No city trip would be complete without the Paradise Road experience.
We went to the flagship store, which was crammed full of beautifully patterned linens, enormous pots, in fact everything you could ever need to fill a very chic home. We also visited the Saskia Fernando Gallery and the PR clothes shop, both of which are part of the Paradise Road empire, owned by the two daughters. The art was cool and the clothes very desirable but whilst designed by up and coming Sri Lankan designers had price tags to match Gucci. Then we went to Tintagel, the home of the ex prime minister, Bandaranaike, who was assassinated on its verandah. Still owned by his daughter, the house is now rented by the Paradise Road people and is a mouth droolingly gorgeous hotel. We were shown around and even taken into the not so shabby suite where Charles and Camillla once stayed – also Tony and Cherie. Utterly utterly beautiful. So on my bucket list.
In the afternoon, we continued our Bawa pilgrimage by visiting No 11, a series of houses which Geoffrey merged and renovated and lived in. Oh boy, did he have vision and style and talent. His use of vistas and space and light is extraordinary. It was a really wonderful guided tour which I adored.
That evening we had a little trip to heaven. AKA the Gallery Café. Part of Paradise Road and the former studio of Bawa so a double whammy. Probably the most beautiful restaurant I have ever visited, it was utterly enchanting. We learned that Mr Fernando has literally designed every single thing in the restaurant from the cutlery to the plates to the glasses to the candelabra to the Christmas decorations. (Yes, you did read that correctly. Sri Lanka for some inexplicable reason is very very big on Christmas and it has been somewhat surreal looking at Buddhist and Hindu temples in 34 degrees but listening to Christmas songs and seeing Santas and reindeer everywhere!). The service and the food were immaculate and before we had left we had already booked a table for the following night.
Yesterday, our last full day in Sri Lanka began with a visit to Barefoot, another institution, this one owned by Barbara Sansoni, a Bawa protégé. Everything in the store is designed by her and I shopped till I dropped. Beautiful napkins and place mats, two dresses, three books (including one about Bawa), cards, gorgeous notebooks with bright linen covers and handmade papers…. the only reason I stopped was the thought of carrying it all back to London!
We stayed in Barefoot for a jazz brunch in their café, which was perfect. Lau and I both later agreed that the devilled prawns we indulged in were the highlight food wise of our entire trip. The place was so cool; full of very hip Sri Lankans. There were couples, families all mixed in with tourists. The staff were ever smiling and so efficient. The cocktail list was all wine based as they don’t appear to have a spirits licence but who cares? the choice was sublime. I managed to down two Frozés, frozen rosé wine mingled with fresh strawberries and one which was rosé and grapefruit.
Back to our hotel for a very relaxing massage before our last visit to the Gallery Café. I bought a polka dot elephant from the shop in black and white, which are Paradise Road’s brand colours, and we had our final meal. The experience was as magical and wonderful as the previous night.
I am now sitting at the airport waiting for the long haul back to London. The first Wanderlust Junkie fully fledged trip has come to an end. Yes it had a few hiccups, what trip doesn’t? But it created memories that were really really special and which are imprinted in my heart and mind forever. I really want to come back to Sri Lanka one day. But for now I am so excited to be going on another trip with my fellow Junkies in just over three weeks to Malaysia and Singapore. The Boys were fab travelling companions, funny and generous and chivalrous and kind. I can’t wait for our next adventures.
Ok – so the Sri Lanka trip is over and done – and the Wanderlust Junkies and their Danish ‘mascot’/mediator/extra head/husband/humour-monger Lau have survived their first major joint foray into the wonderful wide world. Lau and I are currently (19 December – oh nice – 19 is a lucky number of ours!) recuperating in the excellent Hilton Madrid Airport. Ever since we complained about an issue a couple of years ago we have been treated like princes by the General Manager, Iñigo Arruti, so we’re currently princess-and-the-pea-ing in a gigantic, beautifully appointed apartment-size suite. We’ll be flying back home to Granada shortly. We’ll also return here for sure, if Sr Arruti continues to pamper us like this!
So time to reflect on the last couple of weeks. Though Lau and I were making our fourth visit, we have by no means reached saturation point and have agreed we would be quite happy to make a fifth, again including something we have not done before – which, thanks to the unintimidating size of the island, is possible.
That unspoiled east coast still beckons (maybe senior surfing is an option?) and everyone is raving about Jaffna and the north, both totally out of bounds until comparatively recently.
I think we spent three nights in Colombo, though Maroulla would insist on referring to it as ‘Colombia’. But I am pretty sure the driver didn’t take that wrong a turning.
Mind you, it’s not the Colombo Lau and I first saw in 2011. It’s more and more ‘scrubbed up’ each time we visit. The old eternal features are there – the magnificent white National Museum, the endearing, terracotta and white outer shell of the old Cargills department store, the outrageously Neapolitan ice-cream coloured Hindu temples, the toppling crammed houses and shops of the Muslim quarter, the relic-of-the-past central railway station. But now they come across like tiny themed installations in a burgeoning modern city of whopping great skyscraper apartment buildings and five-star corporate hotels. It’s like a Bangkok seed – fascinating for all that, but something inside of you wants to press a stop button. Mind you, it was pleasant to see that some of the old colonial-style banks and office buildings in the old Fort (for ‘fort’ read ‘port’) area that were crumbling just a few years back have been lovingly refurbished and converted for other purposes.
Think a tropical Glasgow.
The contrasts are stark. Driving to the airport, despite the acoustic barriers, you clearly glimpse the unacceptable, unbelievable slum districts. I wonder if the government places the barriers there as a kind of diversion or deliberate screen. Meanwhile in swanky Lanka we visited the latest jewel in the Paradise Road crown, PR – a couture boutique. Maroulla fell for a little silk number by a ‘talented local young designer’. When she first glanced at the price tag, she thought she was o-d-ing on noughts. Sri Lankan money’s a bit like what Italian money used to be. But no. She was right. The little summery frock did indeed cost just short of £2,000 (UK). I wonder what the statistics are – what the percentage of swanky Lankans is and what percentage all the others.
But there are delightful contrasts too. They make Colombo certainly worth a visit.
Sandwiched between the incessant traffic of Galle Road and R.A. De Mel Mawatha (Duplication Road) is a labyrinth of tranquil lanes with charming cafés and boutiques. Within a stone’s throw of our more than disappointing hotel, the Colombo Court Hotel and Spa, we had the ever wonderful Gallery Café, where we unadventurously, but contentedly ate dinner in its glimmering, candle-lit courtyard two nights in a row. On the Saturday afternoon we visited the house – or rather houses – of the architect Geoffrey Bawa (No.11, 33rd Lane). An ingenious conversion of some old buildings with trickling fountains, interesting sources of light, plants where you least expect them and clever vistas from one end of a building to another. But a modest, restrained dwelling – unexpected for the man who just about single-handedly ‘re-designed’ this country. Then on our last day we spent a happy few hours at the legendary Barefoot. Maroulla shopped for batik table mats and napkins and a bright summer frock. I bought a Geoffrey Bawa book.
We then sipped ‘wine cocktails’ (sic), gobbled devilled prawns and strained to hear the live jazz above the Sunday lunchtime bustle and energy.
I can hear my own enthusiasm for Colombo. Don’t let people – even Colombans – deter you. We will always include a few nights here at one end of any future trip.
A little footnote. Maroulla, on our recommendation, also bought Colombo by Carl Mueller and Cinnamon Gardens by Shyam Selvadurai, two books we read following our first visit to Sri Lanka in 2011 and really feel like reading again now, following our fourth visit.