“From Tangalla to Matara the road reveals new and unexplained beauty. It skirts the seashore and for mile upon mile, bay succeeds bay, a curve of yellow sand, dazzling blue water and palm-crowned headlands. There is no run more exhilarating in the whole of Ceylon – the scent and sound of the sea, the freshness and the glowing colour make this a never-to-be-forgotten road” - Bella Woolf, How to See Ceylon (1914).
At the end of the south coast railway line lies the town of Matara, the most important settlement on the south coast. The town contains many remnants of Sri Lanka’s colonial past and is divided by the island’s third longest river, the Nilwala Ganga – “Blue River” – a beautiful, wide expanse of water that splits the old town from the new.
Matara important under the Dutch due to its strategic position for trade in spices, gems, and elephants, and so the colonists built two forts called the city Mature, while many other names - among them Mahatara, meaning “Great Harbour”, and Maturai, meaning “Great Fortress”, both used by the Portuguese - have been given to the city over the years.
To the south is the quieter old colonial district alongside the coast consisting largely of the ancient Matara Fort - full of crumbling colonial splendour - as well as the modern bus station and St Mary’s Church, home to the famous statue of Our Lady of Matara.
Though there are some beaches in Matara town, it is not a beach resort. However, if you have some time and wish to soak up the sun you can head to the suburb of Polhena, a few kilometres west of the city, which is a quiet, secluded beach spot where there are some good budget places to stay.
Matara Fort is positioned on a narrow spit of land protected on three sides by water, either the river or sea, and on the fourth by a 13-metre thick, five-metre high rampart. Built around 1640, it was actually a Dutch fortification of an existing Portuguese garrison on the site of the original town.
The fort contains governmental administrative buildings such as the Judicial Court and as you head along the streets that run towards the river estuary at the western end, you will notice many beautiful colonial buildings along narrow tree-lined streets that are, sadly, in various stages of disrepair. When you reach the water’s edge itself you can see lots of colourful fishing boats, the confluence of river and sea, and look over the water to Crow Island.