A local guide referred to the Madagascan sun as ‘eye in the sky’ which I liked. It set the tone for a day of sightseeing in the sprawling and chaotic city of Antananarivo.
Having arrived into Antananarivo (Tana) at 3am, I jumped straight in a taxi, arrived to the hotel and hit the sheets as soon as the key turned in the lock. I awoke to the sounds of a cockerel crowing, obligatory building site banging and the restless sounds of a sprawling city coming alive after the peace of the night.
For most nationalities a free visa is issued upon arrival but as with most things African, it’s takes a while. Keep in mind that it’s a process and no amount of persuasion will speed things up so smile and wait your turn.
Where to Stay?
I stayed at the Hotel Belvedere which is situated higher in the hills and offers not only safety, but views over the entire city of 1.5+ million. Rooms cost €32 per night which includes breakfast and in my experience was the perfect place to spend time in Tana. It’s quiet, staff are friendly and speak English, plus they will call a money exchanger to visit you at the hotel which offers a decent rate (depending on the amount you’re changing). I found Euros were the most recognisable currency and received 3,400MGA (Ariary) to EUR1. The restaurant serves up decent enough food and a far will keep you well hydrated.
Antananarivo City Guide – What to do
There are many things to do when in Antananarivo but the city is best explored on foot, as opposed to rushing around against the traffic to pack in the highlights. It’s worth noting that the traffic can be utterly ridiculous so depending on where you’re going and what time you’re leaving, you’ll need to plan ahead. You can’t go wrong if you speak to a local. Madagascan people speak a combination of French or Malagasy and trying to be understood in English can be difficult.
There are so many pockets of the city where you’ll find market traders touting their wares. This is an ideal way of finding the pulse of the city, and seeing how people move about their daily business. One thing which is hard not to notice is how poor the Madagascan people are, but the country itself is very rich. This has led to the country being essentially raped of its minerals and valuable resources by other countries. It’s worth making sure when travelling to Madagascar; you stay in locally owned hotels and use local services to support the economy.
I took a taxi (10,000 REI) up to The Queen’s Palace, built in the mid-1800s it was originally made of wood but Queen Ranavalona II had the entire palace encased in stone in 1867 by French architect James Cameron. However, this building was destroyed by arson in 1995. All that remains in one wall, but a project began in 2006 to restore the building to its former glory – this time out of cement instead of wood. I wouldn’t say I enjoyed the site all that much but there are a host of local guides who most certainly bring the site alive. We had a very stoned Rasta guide named Benji who gave an animated approach to the city and history of Tana and Madagascar.
Top facts I learnt from Benji:
• Circumcision is common amongst Malagasy men
• and history dictates that the grandfather (from their fathers side) has to eat the foreskin shortly after the skin is cut
• When you enter someone’s house, you always step in with your right foot first
• Never point at people or religious monuments, use a closed fist or curled finger instead of pointing directly
The walk down from the Queens Palace to the city centre when following the most direct path is a fascinating way to become acquainted with the city. It’s perfect for people watching, shopping, eating and enjoying views across the city from high up. On the same road we found a restaurant called Carnivores (yes the same as the one in Nairobi) where the diet consists of meat only, from tender slices of chicken, pork, lamb and Zebu, to tongue and stomach. It is a seriously meaty buffet after reaching meat coma and admitting defeat, this is signalled by lowering the table flag.
Other points of interest include Lemur Park (also known locally as Parc de lémuriens à Madagascar) which is between 40 minutes to 1 hour outside of Tana depending on traffic. Here you’ll find 9 species of Lemurs with freedom to move around the 5 acre property. I am not a fan of zoos so although I didn’t visit here, it did come highly recommended. Having said this if you’re touring the country of Madagascar and let’s face it, if you are flying all the way to Tana then chances are more than likely, you’ll see your fair share of lemurs.
What is there to do in the evening?
To be honest I’m not sure I would feel too confident wondering around the streets at night, and although we were warned we did head out long enough to find a bar, or ‘Hotely’ in the evening. One thing I noticed straight away is that unlike the rest of the world, smoking is still a big part of enjoying an evening drink inside. Be sure to try the Gold beer but at Star Gold Blonde Beer but be careful with the local beers as they are stronger than usual.
Overall Tana was very much what I imagined in terms of being a sprawling African City however; the poverty can be a lot to take in at times. I was surprised the Malagasy were not the typical black Africans as I have seen on the mainland continent, people were lighter with Asian features due to early settlers arriving and established trading posts.
As with most things, I find the best way to discover a new city is launch head first, to dig beneath the faceless big city facade. Speak to as many locals as you can, they will never point you in the wrong direction.
Happy travelling folks!