It had been 10 years since I last visited the sleepy city of Solo in Central Java. When I finally returned, I found a lot of things had changed since my last stay, but the essence of the place remained — in the culture, the atmosphere and, most of all, the people.
Solo, officially known as Surakarta, shares the legacy of Java’s last surviving empire, the Mataram Sultanate, with its neighbor Yogyakarta. Each has their own palace, or kraton, and a line of royals who are revered by their subjects to this day.
Unlike in Yogyakarta, Solo’s sultan, or sunan, no longer holds formal political power. But the influence of the monarchy is still felt through the city’s widespread respect for the traditions of Java’s past.
That deeply-ingrained respect does not, however, stop the city from looking forward as well.
The mayor of Solo, Joko Widodo, has been widely praised for his progressive policies. He has rebranded the city with the slogan “The Spirit of Java,” and is said to have been implementing many positive changes on the ground to make it a better city for residents and tourists alike.
Having heard so much about Solo’s recent transformation, I decided it was time for me to make another trip there to see the changes for myself.
I started my day with a stroll down Jalan Slamet Riyadi, the city’s main business thoroughfare. There, I was surprised to see flocks of people traveling by bicycle or on foot, taking advantage of the city’s car-free day, implemented every Sunday from sunrise until 9 a.m.
The wide main road was shaded by large banyan trees. Street vendors were selling traditional goods like jamu, traditional herbal tonics, and serabi, a type of sweet coconut pancake.
As the car-free period came to an end and the usual traffic began to spill onto the main street, I noticed passengers lining up at the appointed shelters for the Batik Solo Trans — a modern transportation system, modeled on the TransJakarta busway, that was introduced to the city in December.
Further down the main strip, I saw a sign pointing down one of the side alleys that read: Kampung Batik Kauman. Curious to see where it led, I slipped into the quiet alley and was surprised to see the immaculate condition of the neighborhood. The road was paved and clean. The houses, in a mix of Javanese, Dutch and art deco styles, were neatly maintained. The diverse architecture reflected the history of the small neighborhood, which was established by the royal family to relocate residents after the city’s biggest mosque, Mesjid Gedhe Surakarta, was built in 1757.
As indicated by its name, Kampung Batik Kauman houses Solo’s batik textile home industry. There are about 40 small batik enterprises in the city, each with their own brand. As the city’s center for textile trade, all the houses in Kampung Batik Kauman have recently been turned into batik galleries, shops and learning centers, open to anyone interested in seeing how the traditional fabric is made or wanting to have a go at it themselves.
Hungry from a morning of walking and batik-shopping, I followed the signs to a small restaurant selling nasi gudeg, a Central Javanese specialty made of curried jackfruit. The restaurant was run by a local family who warmly welcomed me as I came in. Set into the front of the family home, the place was clean and comfortable. After some brief chit-chat, they even invited me to have a look around their house, an old building with a pointed joglo-style roof typical of Javanese architecture. Thanks to their open, friendly manner, I no longer felt like a customer but more like an old friend visiting after a long absence.
The family suggested I take a walk over to Pasar Klewer, a traditional market filled with street food vendors selling everything from fried snacks to nasi pecel, or rice with vegetables and peanut sauce, and a local specialty known as nasi liwet, consisting of rice cooked in coconut milk topped with curried chicken, spiced eggs and boiled vegetables.
The food there is mainly served by elderly women, dressed in batik sarongs and brightly colored kebayas, carrying wicker baskets on their backs. They serve each dish on a folded strip of banana leaf, meaning no plastic waste or dishes to wash up. Despite their age, these women single-handedly manage their businesses, serving food to incoming customers and handling the cash. For hygiene, each food container remains covered when it is not in use.
I sat down behind Mesjid Gedhe to try a serving of nasi liwet from one of these women. At Rp 7,000 (80 cents) a serving, the food was very cheap and I didn’t have the small change to pay for it. The old woman didn’t have any change for me either, but another woman sitting next to me quickly jumped in to offer to pay for my meal. Her generosity took me by surprise — regardless of how inexpensive the meal was, it was her consideration that I found truly touching.
Continuing my tour of the city at Pasar Gedhe Harjonegoro, Solo’s biggest traditional market, I found more local entrepreneurs, both young and old, minding the stalls at the multi-story building.
Commissioned by the ruler at the time, Sunan Pakubuwono X, in 1930, the market was designed by Dutch architect Thomas Karsten and features a high ceiling, which allows air to circulate around the stalls, keeping the place cool.
Despite suffering damage in a fire in 2000, the market has been restored to its original condition. It seems you can buy almost anything at the traditional market, from local snacks to herbal medicines, kitchen utensils, fresh flowers, pork and even frog meat.
Leaving the market, my hands were full with bags of weird and wonderful goodies. I decided to take a becak back to the hotel and save myself the walk.
From the harmonious coexistence of old and new transportation systems to its well-maintained streets, bustling traditional markets, booming local industries and distinctive cuisine, Solo was everything I remembered and more.
By putting local people first, Joko Widodo’s transformation of the city has opened its history and culture to tourists, while at the same time improving the residents’ everyday lives. It seems that the “Spirit of Java” promoted in the city’s tourism campaign refers to the people themselves, whose strong sense of tradition and friendly manner make Solo a place people will always want to come back to.
The Soul of Solo: A City Revitalized
JUNE 27, 2011