There’s no other capital in the world like Antananarivo (Tananarive to the French, “Tana” colloquially to everyone). With its lakes, canals and jagged hills, its necklace of emerald rice paddies, and its crumpled central lattice of still partly cobbled streets and red-tiled pastel-coloured balconied houses, this is a city that imprints its character immediately on every first-time visitor. Even the sprawling shanties seem somehow prettier than the average urban slum: packed together between the glimmering rice fields, the shanty houses are still largely built in the traditional manner, using fired-clay bricks, and blush radiantly pink in the afternoon sun.
Tana is likely to be your point of arrival and departure on the island, if you’re not using a charter flight to Nosy Be. As the hub of Madagascar’s road and air route networks, long-stay backpackers and NGOs revisit over and over again, and even short-term visitors are likely to find it on their itineraries three or four times. Whatever kind of visitor you are, there’s a good range of affordable accommodation and, not surprisingly, the island’s best array of eating, drinking and entertainment possibilities. It also has some fascinating cultural attractions and excursions – notably the nineteenth-century royal palace, which stands on high cliffs overlooking the city centre, and the older sacred capital of Ambohimanga outside it – though nothing so compelling that you’d want to set aside much more than a day each time before getting on the next plane or bus out again.
The city occupies the flat banks of the Ikopa River and spreads up the ancient granite and gneiss ridges that tower up from the plains; the highest points of these ridges are dominated by Tana’s most historic buildings. At between 1300 and 1400m above sea level, Tana in the daytime ranges from very warm in the rainy season between October and March (see box) to comfortably mild in the dry July/August midwinter period, when temperatures drop at night to 10˚C or below – although it never freezes.
The first significant settlement on the site now known as Antananarivo was established around 1650 on the hilltop called Analamanga (a name recently adopted for the region surrounding the modern capital). As the Merina peoples gradually coalesced into a single kingdom, there were repeated attempts to capture this prized site. King Andrianampoinimerina was eventually successful in 1793, moving his court to the highest point in the area, overlooking the extensive rice paddies in the lakes and marshes below. He called the place Antananarivo, meaning “City of a Thousand” (referring to 1000 soldiers). From this strategic bastion, the nineteenth-century Merina dynasty ruled the kingdom and eventually most of the island, until the French captured the city in October 1895. Following the bloody Menalamba (“red shawl”) rebellion, just two months later, against what was by then a decadent, Western-backed royal court, the French abolished the monarchy, sent the reigning queen, Ranavalona III (reigned 1883–97), into exile in Algeria and established a colony based here that lasted until independence in 1960. The city has since been the focal point for most of modern Madagascar’s successive coups and republics and is a barometer for the health of Malagasy society. Today, despite the fast-expanding population of well over one million, the mood in Tana is the most positive it has been for years, following the democratic election of a credible government in 2014.