The crumbling walls of Dutch colonial cottages seem to be held up by flowering vines, twisting through the eaves, where songbirds warble in ornate wooden cages. Sleeping becak drivers, their feet crossed on handlebars, snooze under the morning sun, as sellers of jamu and gorengan make their rounds. Somewhere inside the kampong, a dawn chorus of Dangdut music can be heard, as mothers sun their babies in the street and the day begins anew in Solo.
Nestled in this maze of winding alleyways, Kauman Batik Village is an unassuming spot for an area that’s the engine room of a nationwide cultural obsession. Solo is famous throughout Indonesia for its batik. We travelled to the heart of the city’s textiles district to see how this exquisite fabric is made, and to try our hand at making some ourselves.
“one of Indonesia’s biggest and best batik collections, with 10,000 individual pieces”
Batik is a labour of love. We meet a lady on the veranda of the workshop who is five days into a piece that will take her a month to finish. Made with a combination of skill, tools and patience, finished batik is intricately detailed and beautiful to behold.
Kauman Batik Village guides us through the process, with examples of all the materials and expertise required, from canting tools and boiling wax on coal fires, to hand-printing and the raw materials used to make the dye. All around are tools of the trade; the walls are decked with ornate designs and interesting objects. A cross between a workshop and a grotto, one could easily lose a whole day in here.
We tear ourselves away from the looms, the bubbling ovens and spools of thread, wave goodbye to the ladies serenely painting in wax on the balcony, and then we’re on our way to House of Danar Hadi. Here we find one of Indonesia’s biggest and best batik collections, with 10,000 individual pieces; each one is unique and as delicately different as a snowflake.
The museum building is a mix of Javanese and Dutch, restored in the nineties and opened to the public in 2002. It includes a workshop, museum, storehouse, café and gift shop. After my ham-fisted attempts at making batik in the morning, it’s genuinely awe-inspiring to see the full creative potential of batik on show; the mind boggles at the number of hours and the dedication represented in every vivid design that surrounds us.
“Each store in this labyrinth is an island, piled up with produce”.
Next, we head back into the centre of Solo, into the hustle and bustle of daily trade and commerce. Here, we find our way through the crowds of street sellers and the crossing paths of rickshaws, to Pasar Gede . This is Solo’s biggest market, housed in a Dutch-era warehouse in the town square. Every household necessity you can imagine is on sale here, from cutlery to confectionary, soaps and electrical sockets to fruits and vegetables. The walls all around are stacked high with crates and boxes, and each store in this labyrinth is an island, piled up to the rafters with produce.
Just across the street, we find a Buddhist temple, where incense and candles are burning, and fragrant garlands of jasmine hang from ornate shrines and statues on the alters. Here, we meet Pak Yelly, one of the temple custodians who offers to read our palms and signatures. His insights are uncannily accurate, and he offers kind words of advice. We while away some time in the pleasure of his company, chatting about the temple history and the community of Chinese Buddhists in Solo, as worshippers come and go in silence and the sun sinks quietly over the rooftops.
Just outside, there’s commotion in the street. Groups of people appear in colourful costumes, unloading huge drums and cymbals from the back of a truck, along with masks, steel pillars and a crash mat. A crowd begins to gather and the rickshaw traffic congeals into a ring of seats on wheels; an impromptu Amphitheatre of expectant faces encircling the temple entrance.
“a twirling conga line of dancers carries a dragon, flashing its fangs with every undulating turn.”
The drums burst into life, cymbals crash and suddenly the clearing in the crowd is flooded with colour – a twirling conga line of dancers carries a dragon, fluttering red and flashing its fangs with every undulating turn. Next, pairs of boys pile up underneath decorative Barongsai costumes, their movements carefully choreographed to give the creature a life of its own. The crowd is captivated, as one of the creatures climbs gymnastically onto the pillars, leaping from one to the next and grinning at the wide-eyed faces below.
This performance by traditional Chinese Barongsai dancers marks the beginning of a ten-day festival paying tribute to the goddess of mercy who looks over the temple. During this time, free food will be given to all and the whole community comes together to make offerings.
The dancers and musicians are boys and girls from the local school, who have been practicing together for five months just for today’s performance. Their friends, classmates and neighbours are in the crowd today, cheering them on.
There’s a tangible sense of togetherness in Solo that for most cities is lost in the blur. Solo’s markets, temples and crumbling cobbled streets thread the city together, stitching a patchwork of commerce, ceremony and culture. From Batik to Barongsai, this is a great place to experience the colourful traditions and unique tapestry of Indonesia.
The streets, restaurants and warung of Solo are home to a delicious variety of food and drink, offering travellers a taste of Javanese cuisine and the culinary culture that makes it so distinctive.
“A staple of the local diet, served up for meals at all times of the day and well worth a try”
The signature dish of Solo is Nasi Liwet. You will find it everywhere here, from hotel breakfast buffets, to roadside stalls and student lunchboxes. Liwet rice is served with vegetable squash, shredded chicken and Areh – a kind of savoury coconut porridge. It’s a staple of the local diet, served up for meals at all times of the day and well worth a try. Many locals eat it with ceker ayam (chicken feet); an exotic and adventurous addition to this Solonese classic.
“aphrodisiac, sedative and supplement all rolled into one”
Another Javanese signature is jamu. This drink is a traditional herbal remedy that comes in many colours, each a tailored tonic for different ailments, made from combinations of spices like cumin and turmeric, along with ginger, garlic, herbs, honey, flowers, roots and bark. The healing powers of jamu are prescribed for virtually anything – from headaches and period pain, to hair rejuvenation and even the dreaded ‘masuk angin’ (Indonesia’s tropical answer to the common cold). It’s a trusted aphrodisiac, sedative and supplement all rolled into one.
The recipes for each of these concoctions are passed down through generations of Javanese village women, who make their potions on the hoof, carrying them around on their backs, loaded up in a rucksack arrangement that would put the most hardened trekker to shame. jamu is an excellent remedy for upset stomachs too, so don’t be afraid to make some creative hand gestures in the direction of a Tukang Jamu; she’ll know what you need.
“a satay restaurant drawing customers from far and wide.”
The heart of a home is its kitchen and the soul of a city is on its streets. In Solo, the street is the kitchen; barbeques glow all day long, fanned and fed by charcoal as they reel off limitless smoky-flavoured Satay treats. We travelled to Loji Wejan area to visit Mbah Bejo; a satay restaurant that draws customers from far and wide (even President Jokowi – himself a native of Solo - is known to be a fan). The specialties here are satay buntel, tengkleng, gule and tongseng. If you like your meat and enjoy a barbeque with a difference, get down to Mbah Bejo – you never know who you might bump into!
Another authentic Solo dish is serabi – a savoury pancake, made from rice flour mixed with coconut milk and fried in a charcoal-fired hotplate known as a pannekoek. Serabi is a great snack, and can be eaten pain, or flavoured with banana, jackfruit or even chocolate and cheese.
“a vegetarian treat that’s delicious with rice and warm jasmine tea”
Indonesian street restaurants or cafés are known collectively as warung. This is home cooking on an industrial scale, serving up a limitless array of fresh dishes, wafting delicious flavours on the breeze and leading you in by the nose. In many places, such as Java’s ubiquitous warteg (a contraction of “Warung Tegal”, named after the town that created it) you can pick all the bits you like from what’s on show, choosing from egg, vegetables, salted fish, chicken and all kinds of other local specialties.
The homespun charm of warung dining usually includes the lady in charge using her fingers to serve up your food. If you’re squeamish about this sort of thing, mention it to your guide and he’ll have a polite word in her ear. Whilst you’re at it, you should also ask for extra helpings of tempe oreg – this crunchy, spicy and tasty little sprinkling of fried soy pieces is cooked in brown sugar and served up with garlic and chili; a vegetarian treat that’s delicious with rice and a warm jasmine tea. The best oreg this traveller has ever tasted can be found in Pecel Tumpang Kediri in Solo. Go check it out!
Daytrips out of the city are packed with surprises. Just beyond the city walls, the landscape opens out into Solo plateau, where the fertile earth yields rubber, durian, rice, cloves, coffee and chocolate. This is a great place to see traditional Javanese farming techniques in action. Villagers rise at dawn to pull rice by hand from the mud. Farmers toil together in the flooded soil, with a pot of sweet tea propped up on the roots of fig trees, along with sticky rice and vegetables for lunch wrapped in banana leaves.
Around 40 minutes’ drive from Solo, the land begins to rise steadily, offering beautiful sunlit views down into the valley below. A delicate shroud of mist descends as the air begins to cool with the climb. This is the perfect climate and topography for tea, and as the road wriggles through villages of smiling locals, the surrounding environment turns to a carpet of green.
“Grinning faces, weatherworn and creased, with paper-like fingers blistered and wrapped in cloth.”
Named after an Indonesian flower that blooms all year round, Kemuning Tea Plantation is a beautiful spot to visit. As far as the eye can see, the hills are glistening; little jewels of condensation catching the sunlight on leathery green leaves. We arrive just as Kemuning’s intrepid tea ladies are taking their mid-morning break. They huddle together, all grinning faces, weatherworn and creased, with paper-like fingers blistered and wrapped in cloth. They gossip and joke together, munching on tempe goreng and sipping strong black coffee as they receive their orders from the Foreman and refuel.
Each carries a basket on their backs for collecting the leaves, weighing up to 20kg. I suddenly imagine my own grandmother carrying her luggage up and down staircases in an airport for six hours. Some of these superhuman grannies have been working the plantations for decades, picking and hauling tea for export to Europe and Asia. With orders received, coffee finished and crumbs of tempe scattered along the roadside, they’re off again; swinging baskets bigger than themselves over bony shoulders and trudging off into the plantation, disappearing from sight behind the curtain of green.
We continue along the road, climbing 900 metres above the Solo plateau, to the hills above the clouds. Up here in the heavens, there are temples hiding clues and mysteries from Java’s ancient past. Candi Sukuh and Candi Cetho are Hindu-Buddhist temples that are the last refuge for a Javanese mystic tradition found nowhere else in Indonesia – a ritualistic, fertility-focused blend of animism and polytheism that continues to shadow modern mystic Islam in Indonesia.
“Maidens’ virginity would be tested by jumping across the threshold wearing a sarong”
Candi Sukuh was built in the 14th century in the dying days of the Majapahit kingdom. Many of the temple’s reliefs focus on fertility, with statues frozen in explicit, expressive positions or depicting bawdy scenes of daily life and relationships. A large lingam and yoni are carved into the flagstones of the entrance, where it is said that maidens’ fertility and virginity would be tested by jumping across the threshold wearing a sarong; if the sarong fell, it was a sure sign of infidelity and a bellwether for barren times ahead. Flowers are still laid on these stones today, suggesting that some secretive visitors to this mountain shrine still seek the help of ancient fertility gods.
Further still up the mountain, Candi Cetho is six tiers of ornate stone towers, shrines and stupas laid out in baffling geometric formations, perched 1,400 metres up at the top of Gunung Lawu. Here, the air is cool and clean. Sweet sandalwood incense mingles with the mist, clinging to silhouettes of pine trees and creating an atmosphere of silence and spirituality. The temple and the surrounding countryside are home to one of Java’s last remaining Hindu populations; pilgrims from Bali were performing a sacred ritual as we arrived.
Heading home down the mountain slopes, we took a detour into the jungle. Trekking down 116 steps on a stone staircase, the sound of crashing water grew louder with every step. Jumog Waterfall appears in a forest clearing, cascading 40 metres into the pools below, then leaping and tumbling downstream around the smooth rocks of the river. A great place to rest, refresh and take some photos before attempting the steep staircase again and heading home to Solo.
“A great place to rest, refresh and take some photos before heading home to Solo”
Way back in Indonesia's history, places like this had a spiritual, and often practical, significance for Java's would-be rulers. Many ambitious young princes and noblemen would come in search of 'kasekten' - a sacred energy that could win them ascendency to positions of power, realised through meditation in holy or historic places. Known as ‘tapa’, this mystic asceticism involved meditating in the icy water of mountain streams, hanging upside-down from the branches of banyan trees, or going wild in the jungles of Java for weeks at a time. Senopati - the famous founder of Java's Mataram kingdom - was thought to have earned his prestige through pilgrimage to places such as this, in the mysterious outer reaches of Surakarta.
With the sun fading and the lights of the valley blinking like fireflies in the distance, our tired legs and wide eyes were testament to a day of adventures in the misty mountains of Java.
Formerly known as Surakarta, Solo was once the central hub around which the surrounding vassal states of Java revolved. In the heart of the city, the Kraton is the former epicentre of this power; it remains home of the Sultan to this day and is also open to tourists. You can walk the courtyard, take in the mix of architecture and enjoy the Sasono Sewoko museum, where statues from Greece, Dutch ramparts and British carriages complete the Sultan’s truly international collection. Check out the Chinese pagoda in the corner of the Kraton’s walls – this is where he goes to perform transcendental meditation. Strictly off limits to all, which only adds to the mystery.
“A carrousel of curiosities, clamouring for space in a cave of wonderous antiquity”
Triwindu Antique Market is a treasure trove of artefacts and oddities dating back through the past century of Solo’s history. Here you’ll get lost in an endless carrousel of curiosities - artwork, ornate masks, puppets, clothing, furniture, weapons, jewellery, timepieces and trinkets, all clamouring for space in this cave of wonders. Tiny details that piece together the stories of a million lives that passed through Solo.
Just down the road, Pura Mangkunegaran takes you from the living rooms of the locals to the palace of princes and kings. Here you’ll be treated to a personal guided tour of the grounds and ballrooms, and glimpse some intimate objects belonging to the Sultans of Solo. Check out the collection of ornamental chastity codpieces – intimate companions to kings during their travels to ensure celibacy. They were, apparently, fastened to the royal family jewels by ‘magic.’
‘Magic’ is a word that comes up often in Solo. It can be the explanation for chance meetings, the key ingredient in foods, the secret to success or the means by which a Sultan secures his bloodline. Whatever your reservations or rational misgivings, ‘magic’ will no doubt be a fitting word to describe your stay in this mystical, historical city.
“History and heritage, magic and mysticism”
Solo is a former royal kingdom, the birthplace of presidents and the epicentre of Javanese culture. The pace of life here is serene, the food flavourful and the people proud custodians of rich traditions in music, art, sculpture, dance and dress. Here, modern Indonesia is merely topsoil; a tertiary layer veiling a bedrock of ancient beliefs and traditions that runs deep into the very core of Java. Solo is a city of history and heritage, magic and mysticism that will leave you spellbound.
This Travel With Us blog followed Panorama Destination's Hidden Treasures of Solo package. You can read more about it here.