There’s a delightfully laid-back character to what might be Indonesia’s most ‘Mediterranean’ city.
Words and photography by Jack Orchard
From where we stand, I can see across more than 30km of Java’s northern coast. For the moment, however, my eyes are captivated by what appears to be a fleet of rocket ships about to launch into space from a massive marble terrace below.
“Semarang’s Grand Mosque has space for 5,000 people,” Diani continues, pointing directly at the six ‘rocket ships’. Apparently, they are giant electric space-age steel parasols that can be opened up every Friday (wind permitting) to protect the worshippers in the courtyard from the punishing sun.
The gleaming dome and minarets of the Grand Mosque of Central Java, forming an island of white among the emerald sea of the surrounding paddy fields, seem a far cry from the colonial buildings in the heart of the old city. Since Semarang became a major Dutch administration centre in 1678, it has grown into Indonesia’s fifth-biggest city.
“The old city was built as much for defence as trade purposes and naturally occupies the land nearest the coast,” Diani says as she points towards the towering cranes of what is now the busy modern harbour. Even today the old town remains the romantic heart of the city. With its whitewashed walls, palm-tree-shaded plazas and sleepy alleyways, Semarang could be described as Indonesia’s most charmingly ‘Mediterranean’ city.
I first got this Mediterranean feeling in Tugu Muda plaza, where the fountains around the monument (dedicated to locals who died rebelling against Japanese oppressors in 1945) spray diamond
droplets into the hot midday air. The feeling became even more pronounced in the courtyards of the building that locals ubiquitously know as ‘Lawang Sewu’.
Once a bustling edifice where hundreds of office workers clacked noisily at typewriters and telegraph machines, this is now one of Semarang’s most evocative corners. On a weekend morning, quietly chatting groups of local sightseers sit in the shade of a towering mango tree. Behind a subtle fringe of yellow frangipanis, the shady walkways that run along the front of what were once offices staffed by countless railway clerks provide even cooler shelter. It was built in what the Dutch called their New Indies style but, with its whitewashed Arabic-style arches and Moorish-style towers, it is easy to imagine that you are on the southern Mediterranean coast anywhere from Tripoli to Tangier.
The name Lawang Sewu – meaning ‘Thousand Doors’ – no doubt rolled off the tongue easier than the official Administratiegebouw Nederlands-Indische Spoorweg Maatschappij that was in use when the building first opened in 1907. There are, in fact, considerably fewer than 1,000 doors here (although there are about 600 windows), but, as the headquarters of the first Dutch East Indies railway company, this sprawling complex was one of the most impressive buildings in the Dutch empire.
Lawang Sewu was occupied by Japanese forces during the war and then by the Indonesian military after independence until eventually it was abandoned altogether. By the time the building was 100 years old, it had fallen into near ruin. It was renovated and opened its doors as Semarang’s premier tourist sight in 2011.
While it is pleasant to sit in the grounds, the building itself is impressive and houses a collection of vintage artefacts from the golden age of rail travel. It remains a romantic place to explore, and mysterious stories surround the complex. The basement of one office complex is apparently kept flooded to cool the building through evaporation, but there are those who give a different explanation for the notable chill in the air. Some say that Lawang Sewu is haunted by a whole spectrum of spectres, including a suicidal Dutchwoman, a pontianak (a woman who died in childbirth) and what are described airily as ‘a series of headless ghouls’. Rumour has it that there was also once an underground escape route that led from here to the governor’s mansion and even to the harbour (unlikely at a distance of almost four kilometres).
Not far from Lawang Sewu, you find what the locals refer to as ‘Kota Lama’, a peaceful quarter where cycle rickshaws are still the preferred mode of transport around the cobbled alleyways and shady canal-side lanes. Blenduk Church, at the centre of the quarter, was built in 1753 and, with its sparkling white façade and hammered copper dome, it could also be a direct import from similarly sunlit Mediterranean climes. In the midst of one of Indonesia’s most fascinating (and probably most overlooked) antique and bric-a-brac markets stands the majestic building that was Spiegel’s general store in 1895 and is now a chic and charming café/cocktail bar.
We believe your day starts after coffee…’ reads the blurb in the menu, and Spiegel offers what might be the best ‘cup of Java’ in the city.
While Semarang is located on the island that grows some of the world’s best coffee, the city is often known by the unlikely nicknames of Kota Lumpia (Springroll City) or even Kota Jamu. You’ll find medicinal jamu drinks in many parts of Indonesia,” a lady told me at a vending cart near the old Johar Market. “Semarang jamu is pahit – bitter – but it is the best!”
It might be the healthiest, most energy-boosting and most invigorating pick-me-up in the world, but Semarang jamu is certainly the bitterest thing I’ve ever tasted.
I screwed up my face and sucked in my cheeks while the market traders laughed. Finally they offered me the antidote – a small tumbler of honey-flavoured sweet jamu that counteracts the bitterness.
The emphasised sweetness was blissful. In a way it symbolised the unexpected allure of what was fast becoming my all-time favourite Indonesian city.
Jakarta to Semarang
Flight Time 50 minutes
Frequency 63 ﬂights per week
5 Senses – Sight
KLENTENG AGUNG SAM POO KONG
Klenteng Agung Sam Poo Kong is surely one of the most spellbindingly colourful temples in Asia. It is believed to have been a place of worship since the Chinese Muslim explorer Zheng He arrived in Semarang about 600 years ago. Sam Poo Kong is the biggest temple in Semarang and, in keeping with Zheng He’s beliefs, even today remains a place of worship for Buddhists as well as for Muslims.