The port of Toamasina (Tamatave) is Madagascar’s second city, with a population of around 200,000, including one of the country’s largest Chinese communities. Sprawling across a sandy peninsula, it has one of the few large harbours – protected by a reef – on the notoriously cyclone-prone east coast. The French, who wanted a good link with their island of Réunion, chose it as a port for Antananarivo: they built the rail link from here up the escarpment to the capital in 1913.
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Although it may appear a relaxed town, the people of Tamatave have a historically uneasy relationship with Tana and the Merina.
The Canal des Pangalanes
The Canal des Pangalanes is an artificial waterway that connects meandering rivers and lagoons along the sandy plain of the east coast of Madagascar between Tamatave in the north and Farafangana in the south. In places it runs just a few hundred metres from the surf-dashed ocean beach. Built by the French at the turn of the last century as a sheltered cargo and passenger route along a dangerous coastline, the canal stretched at one time more than 600km from Foulpointe to Vangaindrano. Today, much of the canal is silted up, but the 100km section between Tamatave and Ambila-Lemaitso, where there is a railway station, is navigable and runs through Lac Ampitabe, which has several lakefront hotels.
The city centre
Tamatave’s old city centre is a kilometre-square grid of avenues and cross streets just behind the port. It’s quite an attractive place, the streets – colonnaded in places – shaded with big trees and palms and jostled by droves of pousse-pousses. There are few specific sites, but at Place Bien Aimé, in the old Ampasimazava neighbourhood near the port, a grove of giant banyan trees – a species of huge fig imported from India more than a century ago – creates a shady square, often used for games of pétanque.
Tamatave’s working fishing beach lies along the south side of the peninsula and the town’s pleasure beach – always busy with locals on weekends in dry weather – lies on the north side, facing the berths of the shipping harbour. Take advice from locals before swimming here: sharks have long frequented these inshore waters, attracted by waste from Tamatave’s slaughterhouse, and throughout much of the last century there were regular attacks on swimmers.
Boulevard Joffre is Tamatave’s main commercial street, running from its quiet southern end near the port to the busy red-light district in the north, just a block back from the town beach. The two main city markets are the original bazary be or grand marché, just off boulevard Joffre, which is relatively touristy and has lots of raffia items, including hats and baskets, and the now much bigger bazary kely (“small market”) near the station, which has become Tamatave’s main general produce market. Beyond bazary kely, dense suburbs are encircled by the Canal des Pangalanes, which exits into the sea in the north of town.