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Jakarta Post

Pekalongan: The city of batik and more

Pekalongan: The city of batik and more
Peter Milne
Pekalongan, Central Java   ●   Fri, January 15, 2016

Place of worship: The Jami Yasmaja Mosque with its typical Javanese architecture is viewed from across the alun-alun town square in Pekalongan, Central Java.

The north coast of Java is dotted with old trading towns that are often overlooked by visitors to Indonesia.

One such town is Pekalongan in Central Java, known as the Batik City and home to some of Indonesia'€™s most sought-after batik.

Situated midway between Semarang and Surabaya, Pekalongan is a outstation of old Javanese charm mixed with cultures brought by traders in the 17th century '€” Arabs, Peranakan Chinese and the Dutch.

Every street seems to support a community of becak (three-wheeled pedicabs) drivers and street-food sellers, while tourists are still a rarity in this ethnically diverse city.

Not only had I never been to Pekalongan in my 20 years in Java, but going there was also an excuse to take the train '€” something I hadn'€™t attempted for a decade.

I have to say I was impressed; not only is it effortless to book tickets online and collect them at the station, but the long-distance executive trains run on time, are clean and comfortable and come complete with transportation police who keep a beady eye on travellers.

Pekalongan is first mentioned in chronicles dating back to the 12th century, when Chinese merchants of the Song dynasty first made contact and knew the city as Pukalong.

They describe the '€œKing of Java'€ as living there and the local people wrapping their bodies in colorful woven cloth. This seems to confirm that the people of Pukalong were already making batik fabrics back in the 12th century.

Apparently, Pukalong was also reputed for its coconut wine. It'€™s a shame they have lost that tradition today; modern Pekalongan is a dry city, where the sale of alcohol is forbidden.

The Dutch East India Company, the VOC, arrived in the early 17th century and started to exploit Pekalongan for its agricultural products, focusing on sugar production, which later expanded into a major industry in the 19th century.

To subdue the natives the VOC built a large fort in the city in 1753, which still stands today. Being a fan of Dutch forts, I was keen to have a look, but when I located the building it turned out to be a fully functioning penitentiary.

Come in: An attractive front shop is seen in the Chinese quarter of Pekalongan.Come in: An attractive front shop is seen in the Chinese quarter of Pekalongan.

More recently, Pekalongan was declared not only Indonesia'€™s but also Southeast Asia'€™s first member of UNESCO'€™s World'€™s Creative Cities Network in 2014. This came in the wake of the important role of Pekalongan'€™s batik museum in helping to obtain UNESCO certification for Indonesian batik.

Getting around Pekalongan is a real pleasure. The traffic is light and there is an army of becak drivers to choose from. The city center is so small that you can go almost anywhere for around Rp 15,000.

One of the most important places to visit is the Pekalongan Batik Museum, housed in a colonial-era Dutch building overlooking a square shared with the colonial governor'€™s old palace.

Opened by then President Susilo Bambang Yudoyono in 2006, the museum houses a truly stunning collection of batik, not only from Pekalongan but from all over Indonesia. The exhibits are all well labelled, with the designs and origins explained in both English and Indonesian.

The museum also contains a workshop where batik enthusiasts can try their hand at the art of batik-making. It helps to have a very steady hand.

The old center of the city contains several kampong (small village communities) where the traditional hand-made small-scale batik workshops are found. In fact, printed-batik factories are not allowed to operate in the old city.

It'€™s best to go with a guide who knows their way around and is friendly with some of the small factories. This is the best way to see and learn about the art of batik-making.

Pekalongan batik tends to be more colorful and lively than the more formal batik designs found in Surakarta and Yogyakarta, partly thanks to the invigoration of the designs and colors brought by a Dutch woman, Eliza van Zuylen, in the mid-19th century.

Other sites that are worth checking out in Pekalongan include the lively market with its vendors of fresh goods from outside the city and the alun-alun town square that is overlooked by the oldest mosque in the city, Jami Yasmaja Mosque. Not far from the market is the old Chinese quarter with distinctively roofed terraced shop-houses and an ornate red temple.

Pekalongan is also a paradise for those who can'€™t resist indulging in traditional street food.

One of the best places to go is the Chinese quarter. One great spot located on the pavement of Jl. Hasanuddin is Nasi Gudeg Ibu Sri serving a local version of the Javanese dish. Not far away there are kaki-lima vendors of bubur kacang hijau (mung bean porridge) and ketan hitam (black sticky rice). If you like crab, head for Kepiting Gemes Bung Kombor on Jl. Blimbing.

The city is hardly well-endowed with hotels, there being only about a dozen or so. By far the best is The Sidji Hotel (sidji means '€œone'€ in Javanese), a new centrally located, family-run boutique hotel added to the back of a traditional Dutch-era house, circa 1920. The hotel also has one of the best restaurants in town, together with its own batik store.

So, if you'€™re at a loose end one weekend, escape into the depths of traditional Java and visit Pekalongan. Now'€™s a good time to go: plans are afoot to construct a mega-power station in the near future, and change will come rapidly once construction starts.

Home of batik: Visitor views batik on display at the Pekalongan Batik Museum.Home of batik: Visitor views batik on display at the Pekalongan Batik Museum.

'€” Photos by Peter Milne