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.
Antananarivo has its share of desperately poor people and petty gangsters, any of whom will happily pick your pockets, con you or intimidate you into handing over money or valuables. The worst areas are the relatively touristy city centre districts, especially around av de l’Indépendance, and the markets and bus stations, where local people are just as vulnerable. Be very careful when first finding your feet: violent muggings are rare but not unknown.
The historical neighbourhood that occupies the long, high ridge on the south side of Tana contains most of the city’s significant monumental buildings and is Madagascar’s pre-eminent monumental site. Although the Rova is most visitors’ priority, it’s best to visit the Musée Andafiavaratra first, before walking on to the royal palace area, which will then be easier to comprehend. The area is about a 2km walk from Analakely or Isoraka, and you should allow at least half an hour to take account of the steep climb.
The Palais Andafiavaratra – the palace of Prime Minister Rainilaiarivony, who effectively ruled the Merina empire from 1864 to 1896 while kings and queens came and went – is a pompous colossus of a building, with a turret at each corner, built by the missionary architect William Pool in 1872. The upper storeys are closed to the public, but the ground floor now serves as the Musée Andafiavaratra, also known as the Prime Minister’s Palace Museum, which mostly displays items rescued from the 1995 fire that destroyed most of the Rova’s buildings. The collection will eventually transfer to the Musée Rova Manjakamiadana when the royal palace restoration is complete, which could take years.
Devoted entirely to the Merina monarchy, the first room chronicles the dynasty in portraits, photos, gifts and regal ephemera – plus an assortment of royal treaties. Take a moment to pause in front of the fascinating painting of Malagasy ambassadors visiting Queen Adelaide, the wife of William IV of Great Britain and Ireland, in 1837. Portrait copies of all the old Merina kings and queens line the walls, including the traditionally robed, spear-wielding founder of Tana, Andrianampoinimerina (r. 1787–1810), his son King Radama I (r. 1810–28), and his first wife, the “Cruel Queen” Ranavalona I (r. 1828–61), who became notorious for ejecting the missionaries and condemning Christians to be hurled from the nearby cliffs. She was succeeded by her son, the Napoleonically attired Radama II, whose short and injudiciously non-traditional reign (r.1861–63) ended in his assassination at the hands of associates of the future prime minister, Rainilaiarivony, who had been Ranavalona’s private secretary. Radama II was succeeded by his wife, Queen Rasoherina (r. 1863–68), who married Prime Minister Rainilaiarivony and was the first constitutional, rather than absolute, monarch in Madagascar. Her mementoes include a clock showing the hour and date of her death. Queen Ranavalona II (r. 1868–83) also took Rainilaiarivony as consort and invited the Protestants back to Madagascar to help with industrialization. In the latter part of the century there were regular royal visits to Europe (see the press photo of Malagasy ambassadors apparently on a trade mission to Berlin with Queen Victoria in 1883).
The palace’s main hall and side rooms include a collection consisting largely of photos, documents and paintings (or copies of paintings). One of the most impressive exhibits is the striking fossil skeleton of a Majungasaurus, a fearsome dinosaur from the Berivotra fossil fields near Majunga. Also worthy of scrutiny are the fascinating nineteenth-century photos of Tana scenes, captured by William Ellis (note the photo of the 15,000-strong crowd assembled by the royal palace on the accession of Queen Rasoherina in 1863) and a series of ethnic paintings of tribal representatives. Look out, too, for the very fine portrait copy, with wonderful eyes, of the evidently charismatic Queen Ranavalona III, the last queen of Madagascar, again with Rainilaiarivony as her consort. Kept in a dark room to one side, the bizarre, glass-encased model monkey orchestra seems somehow entirely in keeping with the rest of the eclectic show.
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.
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.
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.
Tana is surrounded by the “twelve sacred hills of Imerina”, the hilltop villages of the old Merina clans before they became a single kingdom. Some of these sites have been obscured by modern developments, but one, the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Ambohimanga Rova, is a significant and fascinating historical site and well worth a half-day trip (or longer). Although less well-known than the Rova in Antananarivo, it is in many ways more impressive, as it preserves intact some of the original eighteenth-century structures and brickwork of King Andrianampoinimerina, and there are tremendous views of the surrounding countryside and the northern suburbs of Tana.
Ambohimanga, now heavily forested, was originally one of four embattled Merina regional capitals, embroiled in a war of succession that lasted most of the eighteenth century. Only with Andrianampoinimerina’s military success in capturing the Rova in Tana from this stronghold was the empire united and most of Madagascar subdued under Merina rule. To this day, Ambohimanga is the Merina’s spiritual capital, but the physical integrity of the site, subject to rain erosion and cyclone damage (Cyclone Giovanna caused great destruction here in 2012, uprooting trees and lifting roofs) is under constant threat.
The hilltop site itself is an oval rova (hill fort), about 1km in length and 500m across, with the old earthworks and wall foundations of three distinct historical eras still discernible among the trees. Three of the original fourteen gateways are intact, and preserved alongside them the gigantic stone discs that at one time were rolled into place to seal the compound. The biggest of these, at the main Ambatomitsangana gate in the southwest, weighs about twelve tonnes.
Inside the rova, the oldest of the three compounds is Bevato, dating from the early eighteenth century. Higher up, the compound of Mahandrihono contains a number of restored houses, tombs and brightly painted royal pavilions. Above the other two compounds, Nanjakana, now largely overgrown, was the last to be constructed at the end of the eighteenth century.
Top image © Dudarev Mikhail/Shutterstock