Many choose to skip the quiet, little town Solo (or Surakarta), and go to the more crowded and vibrant Jogjakarta on Java Island. VE HANDOJO finds out that the main reason is because the charm of Solo is found in the interior of the city, not the façade.
A Surakartan once illustrated how slow life is in her city. “A traditional dance show in the kraton could last from evening until dawn. Moving one last finger an inch could take as much time as an hour.” Raised in an urban Jakarta, stuffed with instant McDonald’s, I couldn’t accept the challenge to attend the show.
That was my first encounter with the Surakartan life – a two-night visit four years ago. The city was just emerging from the national riots of 1998. Among all the cities in Indonesia, the quiet and calm Solo was hit the worst. The whole city was burned, and buildings were reduced to dust. The people, already homey types before, have felt even more insecure since then. No nightlife, no happenings. (And my neighbours wondered why I decided to go there for 2006/07 New Year’s Eve.)
“Solonese like to stay at home. They don’t really go out,” my partner who once spent a period of his childhood in Solo told me. With ties still strongly bound, Solonese families dwell in houses they love to groom from time to time. The traditional layout and physical look of a Solo house is still well-preserved though the city has basically gone through a second birth since 1998.
An airy verandah with openings to cater for guests and neighbours leads to a grobogan. Grobogan is a spacious time-honored “living room”. Its centerpiece is always a very short wooden table large enough for four to eight people sitting around in a low, lesehan manner. Snacks, crackers, and cakes would always be displayed upon the table and it’s where “high tea” is served any time of the day.
A grobogan is also where the family displays, if not exhibits, their valuable goods and inheritance. This will include antiques, tea sets, silverware, batik collection, china, and even piles of pillows, bolsters and linen. In many cases, the bedding set is even put in a special, brightly-lit showcase. A grobogan is like a teaser of the whole house. A guest can tell what sort of family is living in a house just by having high tea in its grobogan.
In a typical Solo house, a grobogan will lead to a dining room and/or library. The friendly climate of Solo will blow through the openings gently – say goodbye to air conditioners. Fans are highly posted on the ceiling, rotating ever so gently – just slightly faster than the “last finger movement” in a Solo traditional dance.
Old family houses will have bedrooms in the wings, facing inner gardens. Expect to find four-poster beds, or steel bunks popularized by the Colonial era inside. All doors and windows will be beautifully decorated with colorful mozaic glasses combined with wooden panels with Javanese ornaments. The same combination is also applied to the chairs. Tables, as well as floor tiles, will be made of marble. Walls are usually shaded in ivory or pale beige. With green leaves in the gardens, all will make a traditional Solo house a healthy, breezy, and calming little paradise for the whole family.
The sensation of living the Solo way could be hard to experience by tourists with no relatives or friends in this city. The best, if not only, solution is to stay at Roemahkoe Bed & Breakfast (www.roemahkoe.info). With the original symmetrical layout from 1938, Roemahkoe pays tribute to the authentic Surakartan family lifestyle.
The verandah is a humble, yet practical reception lobby (read: a single study desk, an old computer set, and a central telephone set). The grobogan is rich with ornaments and antiques, and let’s not forget the bedding. The library is filled with vintage lamps, a study desk, reading chairs, and even a wooden rocking chair to carry you away. Indeed, Roemahkoe houses many kinds of vintage chairs one would like to take pictures of, reproduce, then display in malls with ridiculously staggering price tags.
Upon arriving in Roemahkoe, I was ushered to my room along with a glass of jamu (Javanese herbal drink). Mr. Daniel became my personal travel consultant, giving detailed advices on where to go, what to do, when, and how. The advice comes with no additional charge, but an extra wide smile.
As a big family house, Roemahkoe has only 4 standard rooms, 6 deluxe rooms, 1 junior suite, and 2 royal suites – all priced from Rp 289K++ to Rp 585K++ a night, including breakfast for two, no matter whether the season is low or high. I could only wish to find more lodgings like this in every city of this country.
The intimate charm of Solo also extends to the kitchens. Food lovers will never stop finding treasures in every corner of the city. Homemade ice cream shops, local bakeries, and traditional snack stores are found everywhere. Sosis Solo (Solo-style ragout), nasi liwet (rice slow-cooked in coconut sauce, presented in pandan leaves), es buah (Solo-style fruit cocktails), and Srabi Solo (rice and flour cakes) are only a few of the “to die for” dishes.
Dinner in the original Nasi Liwet Keprabon Kulon Wongso Lewu is always an intimate happening. Grab any cab (all cabs in Solo are metered) or becak, tell the driver, and he will take you to a small street full of nasi liwet vendors. The original vendor is the one with an old lady chanting favorite folk songs, such as the Gesang’s famous Bengawan Solo, just right outside. A fair portion priced Rp 10K delivers the rich flavour of the Solonese favorite dish in long and friendly communal tables.
Meanwhile, the authentic Srabi Solo vendors in Jalan Notosuman are always busy cooking in their coal ovens. Expect to wait for at least an hour to have a box of 10 pieces. This hot dessert item is an all-time favorite. A customer can order up to ten boxes. Srabi Solo is there in family gatherings, business meetings, or dinner tables.
Back to the busy capital, my neighbours wondered why I failed my “lose weight resolution” so soon. The stories would be hard to tell, yet easy to digest. I shared with them some of the colorful snacks I bought in Pasar Singosaren, Solo, and they quickly understood. The Solo experience is not something to see. It’s a lot of things to feel, to eat, and – most importantly – to live.