Madagascar split off from the world a long time ago and began growing into a unique, unclassifiable being. Tana, as the Malagasys call the city, is at the centre of the island. It is a puzzle of lost worlds: fragments of the Merina Kingdom, which halted French and British expansion, European architecture built out of grass and wood, Asian and African influence, vehicular chaos, and superstition. In Tana, it is a bad omen to point to things using your finger, as if the mere fact of looking at them would cause them to disintegrate.
Rova, the Queen’s Palace, is still in its reconstruction phase.
25 km from Tana, there is a private lemur reserve, with up to nine different species. The animals roam freely, except for two nocturnal species. Lemurs’ Park, measuring 5 ha, is next to the Katsaoka river. Its entire infrastructure was created by artist Philippe Manet, so it would integrate perfectly into the environment.
From the 12 sacred hills, you can see Analakely Valley, which was home to the poorest classes and where, in 1794, King Andrianampoinimerina set up the biggest open-air market in the world. Its dismantling was ordered in 1997, but, since then, stores have repopulated the streets like a savage river returning to its course: aromatic fruit, crafts and every pirated object you can imagine. The city’s highest hill is home to the Rova, a legendary palace, which sits on the skyline and symbolises domination of the island by the Merina monarchs. It was there, in the 17th century, that they established their capital, with a group of 1,000 soldiers, who defended the site from sieges by other towns. Antananarivo means ‘the city of the thousand’. They eventually built 20 structures, and the best known of them is the Manjakamiadana or the Queen’s Palace. The royal citadel, built by Queen Ranavalona I, and home to most of the wealth and archives of the civilisation, was destroyed by fire in 1995.
The island of Madagascar was conquered by Asians. The current population is a mixture of the two continents and European colonisation. Photo: Anton_Ivanov / Shutterstock.com
The fast reaction of inhabitants of Tana saved some objects from the flames, including cabinets containing jewels, goblets and spears. They are now kept at another of the city’s architectural gems: Andafiavaratra Palace. This building was the presidential seat in the late 19th century. Converted into a museum, it has been closed in recent years due to ongoing theft, including lthe oss of the crown jewels, but its doors will reopen later this year.
Lemurs’ Park has various species, including the Sifaka (shown in the photo), which is in danger of extinction.
In the vicinity of Andafiavaratra, Haute Ville, a colourful neighbourhood of colonial homes, which grew up in the 19th century under French domination, descends slowly into an urban jungle with 2 million inhabitants. In a country where most people live on just $2 a day, you can go from the luxury of the shops in Antaninarenina and Ankadifotsy, to Besarety and Andravoahangy, areas replete with street vendors and old Renault cars, frozen in time from the 1960s.
In search of refuge from the traffic, you reach lake Alabrobia, a fragile ecosystem that is home to more than a dozen unique bird species, and Lake Anosy, which becomes a carpet of violet when the Jacaranda trees are in bloom. At the centre of this heart-shaped oasis is Monument aux Morts, a golden angel built by the French, in honour of those who died in World War I.
On the way to the central neighbourhood of Isoraka, at the heart of Tana, you can visit the Archaeological Museum and zoo, to see a sample of the unique fauna that has developed in Madagascar. One of its most attention-grabbing inhabitants is the blue-eyed lemur. Nearby, you will find a temple of Madagascan cuisine: La Varangue. This welcoming restaurant offers “flavours of the world with the fragrance of Madagascar”. This translates into the best potpourri of Asian, European and African flavours, and results in a fillet of zebu in cocoa source, garnished with curried chicken liver. And as a digestive: Madagascan lemon, vanilla or lychee rum. Pure fusion.