Founded in 1869 by Norwegian missionaries attracted by the curative powers of its thermal springs, ANTSIRABE (whose name means “Where there is much salt”, in reference to its mineral-rich waters) is Madagascar’s third-largest town, and one of its most prosperous. Relatively clean and quiet (at least in comparison with the urban free-for-all of Tana) this is a town where many Tananariviens aspire to live, and where a few have holiday pads. Located on a broad, open plain of rich cultivation, it stretches some 10km from north to south, between distant, flanking hillsides. The RN7 passes right through the middle of town, where traffic slows to a crawl, checked by more than three-thousand pousse-pousse operators, trotting through the crowds.
In practical terms, Antsirabe, 170km south of Tana and 250km north of Fianarantsoa, makes a natural and pleasant stopover, and it works as an alternative travel hub to Tana, too. The thermal baths are currently closed, but there’s no shortage of good hotels and restaurants and a number of interesting crafts and jewellery shops. It’s also a key junction town for trips into the remoter reaches of western Madagascar.
The huge Marché Sabotsy takes place (despite its name) not just on Saturdays but daily, at a vast, purpose-built site on the western outskirts of town, while for the many crafts and artisanal outlets, it’s best just to wander; for gemstones, have a browse among the vendors’ stalls opposite the Le Trianon hotel.