Antananarivo (Tana, for short) is the capital city of Madagascar. The houses are made of red clay and from the air you can see that rather than a whole group of houses in a large city, it is made of small clusters of houses in a mosaic of green and brown paddy fields, with defence ditches and white concrete tombs punctuating the view.
From the ground, the city is just as attractive; the colourful houses climb up the hillsides with splashes of extra colour provided by mauve jacaranda trees, red crown-of-thorn euphorbia and purple bougainvillea. The rice paddies extend right up to the city walls, the canal bank is covered in clothes that locals have laid out to dry, and the zebu-carts rattle along the roads on the edges of the town, giving a wonderful feeling of being in a foreign country with plenty of things to fascinate you.
The city has a ‘V’ structure, with the Queen’s Palace on the highest hill dominating the skyline. The ‘V’ arises from two ridges on which it is built, and the valley that runs through the middle has a large avenue running along it. The two most commonly visited areas are the Avenue de l’Indépendance and the side streets in the southwest, commonly known as the Lower Town, and the steps leading up from Rue du 26 Juin, the Upper Town.
- The Lower Town has two districts; Analakely and Tsaralalana. Analakely means ‘little forest’, and the name arises from the shops and stalls that used to sit under huge white umbrellas that were so numerous they were likened to a forest. This market has now been closed, but it is still remembered
- Tsaralalana is more relaxing, and is largely made of side streets to the south of Avenue de l’Indépendance. It has several nice shops and restaurants, as well as a Baobab souvenir shop which sells some outstanding products
- The Avenue de l’Indépendance is a boulevard with grass in the centre and shops, snackbars, restaurants and hotels on either side. It has an excellent bookshop and the cities best restaurant
- The Upper Town is comprised of the Antaninarenina and Isoraka districts. This is where the jewellers, art shops, craft boutiques and atmospheric hotels are found. In October the jacaranda trees drip with nectar, and there is a small rose garden which is the perfect place to see the flowers in bloom.
The nightlife in the city is good, with bars, discos and nightclubs providing a good night out, whether you prefer dancing from dusk to dawn, or watching the sun go down with a cool stiff drink in your hands.
There are several places to watch concerts, special shows or films. A Malagasy special is a performance of hira gasy, a folklore that is performed for the locals and not for tourists. A mixture of opera, dance and speech, two competing troupes of singers and musicians compete on a central square stage. The performance takes all day and audience participation determines which of the troupes wins. The costumes are stunning, with traditional costumes from the 19th Century worn, and music is alluring, if not slightly strange, with a mix of French military drums, fanfare trumpets, flutes, violins and clarinets.
The performance takes place in four parts, with introductory speeches first, followed by a speech glorifying God. The story of each hira gasy follows a day in normal life, and after the speeches comes discordant singing with plenty of hand gestures and expressive faces. Finally comes the dancing, with many influences from karate thrown in.
The whole thing is an incredible day out, and should not be missed.
The Queen’s Palace was destroyed in 1995 by a terrible fire, and the ruin dominates the skyline more now than it ever did for the century that it stood whole. It will soon be open for tours, and even if you do not go inside the walk up to the palace is worth it to see the view of the city below.
Several museums display valuables and items of note from Malagasy history, with the valuables that were rescued from the above fire on display in the Prime Minister’s Palace, which is now a museum.
Another must see is Tsimbazaza, which is a museum, botanical garden, and a zoo specifically for Malagasy animals. Unlike a Western zoo in many ways, this is still an excellent place to go if you are unable to visit some of the areas where an animal you want to see lives. The museum is fantastic for an insight into the extremely unusual natural history of the island (see ‘More about Madagascar’ for more information).
Other highlights include the Flower Market which not only sells flowers, but has a colony of white egrets nesting in the nearby trees, and the handicrafts markets which display an enormous range of Malagasy handicrafts.
There is so much more in this city, but it can’t be summarised in words: the best way to find out about it is to go there!
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