If you get a good guide and understand French (some guides also speak English), the tour of the Rova – meaning “hill fort” – can be fascinating. Even without the history it’s a worthwhile visit: in every direction, this 10,000 square-metre compound offers stupendous panoramic views – to the north and west over the heart of the city and south and eastwards over the pastel-coloured suburbs, rice paddies and mountain ridges beyond.
You enter the Rova (“No fire, No smoking, No dogs, No pigs”) through its northern gateway, a stone arch topped by a French bronze eagle and a stone phallus.
Palais de la Reine
Soaring above its hilltop foundations, the Palais de la Reine (Queen’s Palace) you see across the square today is a reconstruction – the original was destroyed by fire in 1995, and its restoration, built over the ruins, was still unfinished at the time of writing. The original palace, made of wood and known as Manjakamiadana (literally “A good site for reigning”) was built for Queen Ranavalona I in 1841 on the site of former royal palaces. Its designer, the French Catholic engineer Jean-Baptiste Laborde, used his technical skills to overcome the queen’s suspicion of Europeans. In 1867, the Scottish missionary James Cameron clad the palace in stone for Queen Rasoherina, and it was this structure, still wood-framed, that was razed to the ground in the 1995 fire, along with most of the other buildings in the densely built Rova compound. At the time of writing, you couldn’t enter the palace, but once the restoration is completed, it will house the museum collections currently displayed in the Musée Andafiavaratra.
Royal tomb houses and Tranovola
On the northeast side of the Rova are the royal tomb houses of Queen Rasoherina and King Radama I. The remains of other kings and queens of the Merina dynasty were also interred in these tombs; severely damaged in the fire, they have since been restored.
To the south is the site of the Tranovola house. This handsome building, lost in the fire, was a graceful avant-garde blend of Creole and Merina designs, constructed under Radama I and one of the first of a new multistorey, pillar-and-veranda architectural style that spread through the highlands after the 1830s and is still in vogue today.
Behind the Tranovola site stands a reconstruction of the home of Andrianampoinimerina (or at least of his first wife) – the wooden Mahitsielafanjaka or Mahitsy, with its stone statue of a Sakalava royal eunuch standing guard at the rear. Walk inside, and you’ll see how beneath its steeply pitched roof a spy ladder enabled a servant to hide in the eaves and check who was visiting. Built in accordance with traditional building rules, the northwest corner is the kitchen area, with its hearth stones (and hence associated with fire), while the other corners are linked to water in the southeast, wind in the southwest, and spirituality and the ancestors in the northeast, where the queen’s high bed platform is located.
Walking south, you cross the rubble-strewn site of the Manampisoa or Lapasoa (meaning “Beautiful Palace”), built in the form of a cross for Queen Rasoherina, and judging by the guides’ old photos, a very pretty residence.
At the south end of the Rova stands the Fiangonana or royal chapel, Madagascar’s first Protestant church, built in Italian style in 1869, by William Pool of the London Missionary Society (not the bushy-faced librarian, W.F. Poole, in some of the guides’ photo packs). The restored interior has been beautifully done out in rosewood, and most of the fine stained-glass windows were replaced in 2006: the originals are inscribed “LMS + R”, with the R denoting Ranavalona II, Reigne or Royal.
If you look down from the south wall of the Rova compound, you’ll see a corrugated-iron-roofed building below, which was the first colonial post office, while the stone-roofed building to the southeast was the first medical school in Tana.
In the southeast corner of the Rova are the foundations of the old Masoandro or Sun Palace, commissioned by Ranavalona III but never finished. The small, delicately naturalistic 1895 statue of her, sitting on the ground with characteristic Hauts Plateaux hairstyle, was carved in the year she was exiled from here to Algiers, only to be returned to the royal tombs after her death.