A journey north to Java's
best kept secret

In the wee early dawn hours, rare scenes of serenity reveal themselves along the outskirts of Jakarta's horizon.

After weeks of working weekends, months since my last visit, I was finally on my way to the West Java city of Cirebon. The timing was perfect, the short drive to Jakarta's Gambir station was an exciting prelude.

A major port city opened in the 1860s during the Dutch colonial era, Cirebon was a key distribution point along the northern coastal line of Java.

With a population of over 230,000 and as a major contributor to the province's domestic production, Cirebon is the natural hub of West Java, just as Surabaya is to the East and Semarang is to the Center.

Today, about eight trains depart for Cirebon daily from Gambir not including other trains heading to Semarang or Surabaya which go via Cirebon. This little gem is undoubtedly one of the most frequented cities in Java, but she has some of her own hidden beauties.

Founded by the villagers of Caruban, the name of the city came from the word sarumban or caruban, meaning "the great state" or "the center of the universe".

Noted as Carbon or Cerbon during the era of Sunan Gunung Jati, it was later immortalized as "Cirebon" - geographical, historical and social facts have proven that calling it "the great state" was not an overstatement.

The city is still an important centerpiece of the island, a distribution and economical hub for the greater West Java area. The northern trans-Java roadway and railway have put Cirebon on the map as dozens of regencies, villages and neighboring towns breathe along with her heartbeat.

After a comfortable three-hour train ride, we reached Cirebon station with great excitement. Lines of friendly faces greet you upon exit, I nodded to one of them, and he immediately came to grab my bags leading me to his becak.

Riding a becak is like watching a concert; the hissing sound of the wind plays as the art deco architecture framing the immaculately clean streets as its canvas. The ambiance echoes the acoustics and the vocals harmonize the symphony that forms the natural orchestra.

Getting around in the city can't be more relaxing and more enjoyable than that.

Some 10 minutes south, lies upon an age old "Mang Doel" hut, a favorite joint for nasi jamblang.

Rice wrapped inside plies of teak tree leaves, with a dozen or so varieties of side dishes and tasty sambal (red chilly condiment) whose rich flavor brings back many childhood memories gives nasi jamblang its signature taste.

The culinary arts come in may shapes or forms in Cirebon.

Eating nasi jamblang is like traveling back to the time-travel when our innocence ruled, the eat-first, pay-before-you-go system reminds us of this value, where "great food does not empty your pocket" is a reality rather than a distant concept.

Dishes like empal gentong (a curry-like soup served from a huge rounded pot (gentong) with beef cutlets slightly overcooked the empal style) and nasi lengko (rice mixed with tofu, tempe, bean sprouts and a special peanut sauce) are as delightful as nasi jamblang.

Desserts are also on the list of treats that Cirebon has to offer.

Many have discovered that Cirebon's own Gedong variety of mango is one of the tastiest. Harvested only twice a year during the rainy season, the fist-size fruit is traded and exchanged like a foreign currency. With a fluctuating price, they are sold to the highest bidder.

A tip: You'll get the season's best around September each year.

Among the wealth of extraordinary art, batik a legacy of the Sultanate Palace is the center point of Cirebon's long tradition of creative industry.

Born from inside the palace of the Sultanates, the batik culture spread outside to the surrounding villages. One such area is Trusmi village, where most of its villagers are batik makers.

For generations, Trusmi developed as one a center for batik culture in Cirebon. The workshops, gallery and retailers sustained that tradition, propelling Cirebon to the national stage of batik producers.

Rich in tones with accents of Oriental and Sundanese colors, today the Mega Mendung pattern competes with more modern interpretations.

Weather wise, Cirebon's skin penetrating heat has led to a local culture of napping during the day, and the breezy afternoon wind will awaken the dreams and enliven the city during nightfall with the walks of life and the food lover's late night snacks.

Some 20-minutes drive away from downtown area lie the hills of Kuningan.

The breezy cool weather offers a perfect getaway for Jakartans, the late President Sukarno, who was known for his penchant for leisure and beauty, chose the same site to make the Linggarjati Agreement for this very reason.

Also known as Sangkan Hurip, you'll find cozy resorts and spas where you and your family can be pampered. Natural hot-spring pools and Sundanese style diner huts are an added bonus to your weekend getaway.

Going back to town, outdoor lovers will find the Sunyaragi Cave worthwhile. Shoppers will prefer to stroll down Trusmi lane. Moving east to Plered regency, one will find many handicraft markets packed with things to decorate your house and office; the rattan products are equal to those of Ikea.

At the end of the day, a journey close to home can be as exciting and as enjoyable as the journey to the furthest, most exotic place.

Amidst the downturn, hardly any place can be reached without costing a fortune.

A mere novel or two movies away from Jakarta, Cirebon offers limitless possibilities. Personally, one could best describe the journey as the little journey up north, to the sea of grace & the cave of joy.

Will Wiriawan teaches the Art of Living courses when he's not writing or taking photos. You can reach him at: [email protected]

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