Few travellers linger in the southern Sri Lankan coastal town of Matara, one hundred miles from Colombo. Those who find the time to do so will be surprised to find many beautiful relics of another age.
In the time of Sri Lankan kings, Matara was a centre for trading in elephants and spices. Portuguese invaders razed Matara to the ground but a Sinhala king rebuilt fortifications in the sixteenth century and later, the Dutch occupiers, attracted by the deep and sheltered estuary of the Nilwala River, established two forts and rejuvenated the trade in cinnamon and elephants in the eighteenth century.Only sections of the ramparts from the old main fort with its clocktower built by the British in 1883 remain. Entrance is through an arched gateway dated 1780.
The fort area has many old colonial buildings, the most impressive of all being the austere and gabled Dutch Reformed Church with fine old Dutch furniture and grave stones dating back to 1686.
The Dutch governor Van Eck built the little hexagonal Star Fort on the western bank of Nilwala River to protect the river crossing to the main fort area in 1763. The Dutch kept crocodiles in the moat. The fort has several rooms, one now used as a small museum, two tiny prison cells on either side of the gate and a well in the central courtyard. The fort was ceded to the British by treaty after the surrender of Colombo in 1796.
The British era Nupe Market on the outskirts of Matara is T-shaped, open sided structure with pitched roof with three conical towers (in a poor state of repair now) and gabled entrance. It is no longer used as a market.
Opinion: Matara is well worth a half-day stop or detour. Start with Nupe Market and then visit the Star Fort. You can park in the small yard in front of the fort. There is a gate but the caretaker will open it for you. There is free parking near the old fort at the waterfront and the main gate to the fort and the Dutch Reformed Church are within walking distance. Voluntary workers at the church will act as guides. The open verandah of the Rest House facing the sea is a good place for a cool beer before lunch. The sea here is not good for swimming – you need to go to Polhena beach towards Galle for that. None of the attractions in Matara have an entrance fee and can be visited easily without a guide.