Madagascar’s third-biggest town, with a population of at least 160,000, FIANARANTSOA – often shortened to Fianar – was founded in 1830 as the Merina empire’s southern capital, although the location was originally a Betsileo village. In many ways like a smaller version of Antananarivo, Fianar has distinct districts at different altitudes: down at 900m, the lower town or Basse Ville, where you arrive, is full of hustle, diesel fumes and trade; in the architecturally fascinating old town of Haute Ville, 300m higher up, the streets are pedestrian only; in between, the more humdrum mid-town Nouvelle Ville neighbourhood is largely devoted to administration and banks and is crisscrossed by broad streets. This is where the tourist office and main market are located.
In practical terms, Fianar is more of a stopover than a travel hub. If you’re heading south, this is where the dry country begins; if you’re going north, it’s where the central highlands atmosphere is fully established. Hardy souls braving the Fianar–Côte Est railway will note that it’s also on the edge of the rainforest escarpment dropping down to Manakara and the Indian Ocean.
The name Fianarantsoa means “Where the best is learned” or “Place of good learning” depending on your translator: either way, it has long been associated with education, and particularly with the kind of academic and moral improvement that the Merina elites believed they could impart to their local Betsileo subjects. Missionaries from Britain, France and Norway found receptive audiences here when they arrived in the nineteenth century and the town is still studded with churches: there are six in the old town alone. The French used it as their base of operations for the whole south of the island after 1895.