Sixty-five kilometres northeast of Yogya stands quiet, leafy low-rise Surakarta, or, as it’s more commonly known, Solo. This is the older of the two royal cities in Central Java, and its ruling family can lay claim to being the rightful heirs to the Mataram dynasty.
Arguably the epicentre of Javanese identity and tradition, Solo is one of the least Westernized cities on the island. An eternal rival to Yogyakarta, this conservative town often plays second fiddle to its more conspicuous neighbour. But with backstreet kampung and elegant kraton, traditional markets and gleaming malls, Solo has more than enough to warrant at least an overnight visit. Two nights is better, and as there are some fascinating temples close by, it also makes a great base for forays into the lush hills of Central Java.
Not long after their establishment – in 1745 and 1757 respectively – Solo’s two royal houses wisely stopped fighting and instead threw their energies into the arts, developing a highly sophisticated and graceful court culture. The gamelan pavilions became the new theatres of war, with each city competing to produce the more refined court culture – a situation that continues to this day.
Like Yogya, Solo has two royal palaces and a number of museums, yet its tourist industry is nowhere near as developed. The city’s main source of income is from textiles, and Solo has the biggest batik market on Java. Solo also makes an ideal base from which to visit the home of Java Man at Sangiran, as well as the intriguing temples Candi Ceto and Candi Sukuh.
In many ways, Solo is also Java writ small, incorporating its vices and virtues and embodying much of its heritage. On the downside, the island’s notoriously fickle temper tends to flare in Solo first – the city has been the backdrop for some of the worst riots in Java’s recent history. On the upside, the city’s long and distinguished past as a seat of the great Mataram Empire means that it competes with Yogyakarta as the hub of Javanese culture.
Solo attracts students and scholars to its music and dance academies, and it’s an excellent place to see traditional performing arts, as well as traditional crafts – especially batik, which is a local staple.
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