Contemplate your own mortality at the necropolis
The Necropole Royale (Royal Necropolis) is located on one of the 12 sacred hills around Tana, about 2km from the village of Ambohimalaza. When we visited, there was nobody else there, and we got the sense that this was off the beaten track for tourists: in fact, this is the one place that our usually obliging guide was politely reluctant to take us (although public access is allowed). It makes for an interesting half day trip from Tana, and as it is just off the NR2, it can also easily be incorporated into a return trip to Tana from Toamasina or Andasibe
Cemeteries can often be peaceful places, but this necropolis has a distinct sense of isolation and foreboding which make it a fascinating but unsettling place. The necropolis is still in use, and the tombs are distinguished by wooden structures ('cold houses') over the main tomb into which the spirit is believed to retreat after death. However, the most moving sight for me were the little graves of uncircumcised children which are dotted between the main tombs: we were told that they are not allowed to be buried in the family tombs, and although it is probably not rational, the thought of children being physically separated from the rest of their families for all eternity due to circumstances beyond their control seemed achingly sad.
The necropolis is surrounded in part by a perimeter wall and trench, and there is a gate with an enormous circular stone which would have been used to restrict access. The site also commands an imposing view out over the surrounding area, which was presumably a factor in selecting the site in the first place.
When we visited (December 2008), there was no tourist infrastructure (signs, information centre, toilets) to speak of, so come prepared.
- Historical Travel
Encounter the exotic locals at Madagascar Exotic!
Madagascar Exotic (also known as Réserve Peyrieras after its founder, M. Peyrieras) is a wildlife centre founded by a prominent Malagasy naturalist off the main road between Tana and Andisabe.
It offers visitors the opportunity to enter enclosures with a bewildering array of chameleons, geckoes and other strange beasties (such as tomato frogs) and is well worth a couple of hours if you're in the area.
The beauty of Madagascar Exotic is that you get to see the animals really close up and, in most cases, without a separation of bars or mesh. This means that you can properly appreciate their individual characteristics and have the opportunity to get amazing photos. For me, one of the most interesting aspects of the centre is that several chameleon species are displayed in the same enclosure, which allows you to compare and contrast the different sizes, shapes, colours and protruberances of each - almost like having the opportunity to view God's sequence of prototype designs!
The chameleons were fantastic, but ultimately I was bowled over by the brilliant range of geckoes - my absolute all time favourite lizards. They have such personality and charisma, and in particular it was fascinating to have a chance to appreciate the range of ultra-cryptic leaf tailed geckoes at close quarters. It certainly whetted our appetite for seeking out leaf tails in the wild (and we were lucky enough to find several species in the Ranomafana and Andasibe reserves) - the absolute highlight of our time in Madagascar!
Purists would probably have just cause to dismiss this centre as being 'nature lite'. Whilst I would never claim that this sort of experience is a substitute for spotting such animals in their natural habitat, it is a thrill to be able to observe such awe inspiring animals at close quarters, and only hope that you will be fortunate enought to encounter them at some later point in the wild.
Given the stature of the centre's founder, I can only assume that the animals on display have been gathered by legitimate means rather than taken illegally from the wild. Still, I would have felt more comfortable if this had been stated explicitly, as so many such centres in the developing world do display animals that have been illegally acquired, thus perpetuating this shameful trade.
There is also a small shop selling some good batiks.
Enjoy the 'free range' lemurs at the Lemur Park
The Lemur Park just outside Tana is an easy half day trip, and provides a good introduction to lemurs even if you're then travelling on to the forest reserves. It is also a great place to bring kids or people with more limited mobility (who wouldn't be up to handling the trails in the forest reserves) so that they can see lemurs roaming free.
The park is small at only 4 hectares (that's 8 soccer fields for the non-metrically minded), and is bordered on one side by a river. The lemurs roam freely and are able to get over the fences and walls that border the property, but as they get fed in the park, they have little interest in straying!
There are several species of sifaka as well as ring-tailed, brown and mongoose lemurs (the few nocturnal lemurs that were previously in enclosures have been freed into the park since our last visit in 2008). The animals are habituated to humans, so you can get very close and observe them at very close quarters - something that is usually not possible in the reserves unless you are extremely fortunate. We were extremely lucky to get within 5m of a mother sifaka whose tiny baby was clinging to her fur and peering out at the world with that characteristic unfocused gaze of the newborn - see photo.
The park is all about lemurs, but there are also a few tortoises in an enclosure, as well as chameleons, geckoes and other lizards roaming free within the park.
The guides (who must accompany you as you walk around the park) are knowledgeable, enthusiastic and speak good English.
One of the most encouraging aspects of the park is the major effort that is being made to plant indigenous 'lemur-friendly' plants such as aloes, baobabs and euphorbias, which will ultimately create a more natural habitat. Many of the species being introduced are from the spiny forest of the south, so if you're not going to that part of the country, it will give you a taste of a very different floral assemblage (note that there is also a botanical garden within the Tana Zoo complex where you can also see plant species from other parts of Madagascar).
There is a restaurant, and a gift shop with a limited but interesting range of T shirts and other tourist goodies. I particularly liked the locally manufactured lemur cuddly toys which are very well made (for example, the eyes are hand stitched to the head, rather than being glued on) - after the disappointment of not being able to see the aye aye at the zoo, my daughter was at least able to console herself with a cuddly aye aye!
- Family Travel
Synergies between brickmaking and rice cultivation
Like every other town on the High Plateau, Tana is surrounded by paddy fields in which the staple starch - rice - is grown. This is a beautiful aspect of the landscape, as the startling emerald green of the young rice contrasts beautifully with the rich red of the soil and houses.
So, what does this have to do with brickmaking, you might ask? Well, people need somewhere to live as well as something to eat, and here the Malagasy have developed an interesting and creative synergy between rice cultivation and brickmaking.
Rice paddies need to be excavated below natural ground level in order for the water to be contained to create the flooded conditions required for rice cultivation. And, in excavating the paddocks, soil needs to be removed which is then used to manufacture bricks. Across the landscape, you will see piles of bricks curing in the sun, which are then collected together once they're dry and piled into heaps for firing. On first glance and from a distance, these random piles of bricks dotted across the landscape look like ruins of abandoned buildings, but their true nature is often belied by the sight of smoke rising from the piles.
Bricks are commonly transported by shallow boats - which is often quicker and cheaper than road transport - and the sight of boatmen punting laden boats along the flooded waterways that crisscross Tana will be one of my most abiding memories of the city.
Look up in the air !
Whenever you wander in downtown, you'd better look up in the air. Because.. it's really worth it. You could have some unexpected perspective for a nice snapshot, be it for details on traditional houses, for the rays of light playing on the many facades on those hillsides.
Araben'ny Fahaleovantena is the obvious place to catch such a view. Andohan' Analakely also. Then, wandering around Lac Anosy (where, till lately, has stood the flower market and some handcraft market), you could enjoy the view of Antananarivo hill from front: facing the Queen's palace and the cliff from which Queen Ranavalona (18th cent.) used to throw early Christian martyrs, her political opponents. I love this view when sun is setting and orange, red, yellow light warms up the facades of those houses clinging on the cliff... and above it. No other place than downtown to grant you with the views of the "crowded" hills and the architecture of the city as you look up in the air.
- Road Trip
Moseying around the main market
Markets are just the best place for people watching, and they attract me like a magnet!
The main market in Tana is no exception. This replaced the massive Zoma market (which was apparently the second largest open air market in the world - doesn't it really annoy you when you read a statistic like this which doesn't tell you which the largest is?), and although it's smaller, moseying around the current main market makes for an interesting couple of hours.
The part that always fascinates me most is the fresh produce section, as I am passionate about food (especially the eating thereof), love to cook and jump at the opportunity to buy new ingredients to bring home with me! (Be careful of this one if you live somewhere like Australia which has stringent rules - and harsh, strictly applied penalties - about the importation of food stuffs).
The thing that struck me about the food section here was the huge selection of rice available - the Malagasy are addicted to rice (most of the High Plateau is covered with emerald green patchworks of rice paddies) and there are an impressive range of different varieties available. There are also lots of tiny dried fish about the size of whitebait - akin to kapenta in the Great Lakes region - which presumably provides an additional protein source.
As is the case with so many developing world countries, the charm of the vegetables is that they look real - no standardised EU-regulation shape, weight and colour here! Interestingly, in markets throughout the country, one of the standard offerings was pre-prepared vegetables (presumably for stirfrying?), which I though was the preserve of first world convenience stores!
From our experience, Malagasy food is not particularly spicy (often bordering on the bland) and the range of spices available is not as extensive as on other Indian Ocean islands such as Zanzibar. Perhaps the most recognisable condiments are the celebrated Madagascar bottled green peppercorns in brine, which make good gifts, as do the locally grown vanilla pods (at a small fraction of what you'd pay for them at home, so bring back a handful and store them in your sugar jar).
There is also quite a good selection of cheeses - from soft through to hard, and mostly in the French style. Cheese is not a major component of the diet throughout most of Africa, and is clearly a reflection of Madagascar's French colonial influence.
- Budget Travel
- Food and Dining
No better place than the top...
Well, on your first day in Tana, you may have seen it from downtown. You may have walked the sometimes crowded slopy and sinuous cobblestone streets, talking to street vendors, bargaining or having a ride in your beige cab, being stuck in a traffic jam.
So, to escape this downtown hassle, just head to Anatirova (the royal complex, sometimes called "Manjakamiadana"). There, you may hire a guide, listen to what he says about the ancient buildings whose ruins (for some of them) may still be there and that are being reconstructed. I've done that one afternoon and must say, they know what they talk about.
Not only that, the other thing that is really worth the detour is to enjoy the view from the top.. you'll have your 360? view on Tana. Believe me it's so nice over there. Besides, you could be explained the location of the 12 sacred hills that, put together, form Greater Tana.
Locals go there: to see the reconstruction works of the arsoned buildings, or to just relax, have some fresher air. From there, we tried to spot the area where we live. For me, it was easy: just find Ambohimanga hill and try to locate the area around. It was a fine afternoon I spent over there. I was trying to locate my area when our guide asked whether I was really from there, I said "yes" since we live in the village where my Dad comes from. My Mum explained about the area where she originates too. The guide started his guess game to know from which family my Mum was (we were there incognito, we didn't give our name). Then, they started chatting about origins, history, one of my Mum's well-known ancestors (one of great historians known from our kingdom era which was sent to study to England). That was fascinating, the guide talked about what he knows from his books whilst my Mum talked about what she knows from within her family. How interesting to see people exchanging knowledge in a simple chatting. They talked like they were from the same family, about people they know. Boy, I enjoyed those views.
- Historical Travel
- Castles and Palaces
The palaces in La "Haute Ville"
Uptowns and the hillsides used to be the housing areas in the ancient times. Thus, one finds uptowns and what I call "middletowns" so packed. Remember? Antananarivo city is located in a basin, surrounded by hills. Still, La Haute Ville refers to the upper part on Antananarivo hill (ex-Analamanga hill).
The area houses the Palaces.
- Most important: Rovan' i Manjakamiadana or Queen's palace. "Rova" is translated as "Fort" but one usually names the palaces Rova. The term for "Palace" is "Lapa". Then, one should say "Lapan'i Manjakamiadana" within "Anatirova" complex. Anyways, the whole complex was arsoned in 1995 and all elements (except the stone facade) were torn down. Now under re-construction and re-opened for visits since early 2005. 20% of artefacts, documents that the premices used to contain could be saved from the flames and are now exhibited at Lapan'Andafiavaratra (see below).
- Then you have Lapan' Andafiavaratra, the ancient Prime Minister Palace. The palace was built from prerogative of Prime Minister Rainilaiarivony (19th cent.), a man from plebean family who served as a Prime Minister of three Queens for 32 years. This palace was reconstructed after it was torn down in 1976... Both the fires that blew up the main palaces in La Haute Ville are from criminal motives. The only "mystery" around them is the identity of those who order the arson. Well, not really a mystery since Malagasy people don't even wait for it to be solved anymore.
On the picture, Lapan' Andafiavaratra is that palace at the background.
- Then, the ancient Palace of Justice in Avaradrova (or "North of the fort") with its 16 columns. The place is Ambatondrafandrana ("Rafandrana stones"). Rafandrana is the name of the 3 first kings of Antananarivo (the small hill when Merina kingdom was not united yet). This monument with columns was built in 1881. It replaced a stone on which the Kings gave their speech and the place served as a court. The crossed arrows on its front represents Royal Justice.
- Historical Travel
- Museum Visits
Get acquainted with the locals at the zoo!
We love zoos, so it was inevitable that we would end up at the one in Tana, even if it didn't get particularly good writeups. As others have said, it is a tranquil spot, away from the hustle and bustle of Tana, and we thoroughly enjoyed our few hours there.
By international standards, it is indeed pretty dismal, both in the range and number of animals, and the dilapidated state of the enclosures that make no concession to natural habitat. That's the bad stuff.
However, we went to the zoo because we wanted to see the animals that we were very unlikely to see in the wild: the aye aye and the fossa. And we weren't disappointed.
Try as I might, I still can't get my head around exactly what sort of beast a fossa is, and reading bizarre details on the fact that it has the biggest penile bone in the animal kingdom really didn't help me any! I came to the reluctant conclusion that the movie 'Madagascar' (whose main characters - with the notable exception of the utterly marvellous penguins - drive me up the wall) actually did a pretty good job of portraying them, and it was quite a buzz to see this feline mongoose-on-steroids in the flesh.
Whereas the fossa has to get by in a fairly spacious but otherwise rather depressing concrete and mesh enclosure, the aye aye has managed to attract an international benefactor, and is housed in an extremely luxurious building where day and night are reversed. If the fossa was confusing, the aye aye left me utterly bamboozled, as it was nothing like the many photographs that I had seen. For one thing, it was huge - about the size of a small cat with coarse sticky-out fur that made it look like it has been put into the wrong cycle of the washing machine. For some reason I had also expected it to be slow moving (perhaps because it doesn't look very bright in the photos, with that vacant stare as it's dazzled by the flash that always reminds me uncomfortably of Paris Hilton?) but these things are extremely agile and move like lightning. Wonderful, wonderful creatures, and we dearly hope that one day we will be lucky enough to see one in the wild.
One other fun thing was dipping our fingers in honey to feed the lemurs (under the supervision of the keepers).
Unfortunately the Natural History Museum - which forms part of the same complex - was closed for renovation when we visited (November 2008): this was a shame as we had been looking forward to seeing the skeleton of the elephant bird. The signs suggested that it was scheduled for completion some time in 2009, but one thing that we learned from Madagascar is that things that involve expenditure seldom happen on time.
Update (July 2010): Have just returned from Tana and am sad to report that the aye aye enclosure is currently "under renovation" (much to the disappointment of our kids). This sounds like a good thing, except at the Tana Zoo, 'renovation' seems to be a euphemism for "closed indefinitely": the Natural History Museum, which was closed when we last visited is still "under renovation" and nobody we spoke to seems very optimistic about when - or if - it will open again. We had thought that perhaps the aye aye might have died and the zoo had decided not to publicise the fact (which would be very much in line with the polite Malagasy trait of keeping quiet about bad news to avoid disappointing visitors), but the lemur keepers showed us its temporary enclosure - whose sign indeed says 'aye aye' - and we spotted the newly gnawed remains of a carrot and lemur-sized poo on the floor of the cage. The latter was absolutely covered with flies, confirming it was fresh, so assuming that the keepers and the sign are correct, we have indirect evidence that the aye aye is alive, well and in good appetite!
- Budget Travel
- Family Travel
Ambohimanga is a royal palace perched atop one of the hills surrounding Tana, and was the summer retreat for the monarchy. I confess that I really didn't know what to expect of it - somehow the guide books didn't manage to convey a strong sense of what it might be like.
In fact Ambohimanga is an intriguing pocket-sized fortified palace complex started in the 17th century and added onto by various monarchs. Inside the walls there are separate buildings for the king and queen and an enclosure for keeping zebu as well as swimming pool-sized baths for ritual bathing (which were apparently filled by water carried by virgins) and tombs of members of the royal family. There are two entrances to the complex - one was originally only used by royalty, although the entry requirements have been substantially relaxed and these days, even mere tourists are allowed to enter by this route!
Like so much in Madagascar, Ambohimanga is impossible to pigeonhole, as it is a unique mix of different influences. The king's palace is a traditional single storey wooden structure with a high, steeply pitched roof and a dark, sparsely furnished interior. By contrast, the queen's building is an airy double storey confection of 19th century metal and woodwork with European furnishings (including a gilt mirror from Queen Victoria). There is a large open space in front of the palace complex, in the middle of which there is a rock on which zebu were sacrified.
It is a restful place, and the atmosphere remains tranquil, even when it is overrrun by parties of kids on school outings. From Ambohimanga you can see the royal palaces of the Haute Ville in the distance, which makes you realise what hard work it must have been for the bearers carrying the royal palanquin! The grounds are well kept, with ancient trees casting welcome shade, and the view from the hilltop over the surrounding area is lovely. It would be a most pleasant spot for a picnic, or to while away a couple of hours relaxing under a tree with a book as you recharge your batteries. If you're not well organised enough to have packed a picnic, there is a small restaurant by the parking area.
The village below the palace is also picturesque and worth wandering through, with a small church and gate that was once closed by rolling a huge circular stone across the entrance.
- Castles and Palaces
Admire the exquisitely renovated railway station
For anyone reading my travel pages, it should by now be abundantly evident that I have a passion for railways! I should hastily add that I'm not an anorak-clad train spotter, but (perhaps at least partly because I live in a country where public transport is virtually non-existent) I adore the grand architecture, romance and air of adventure and possibility that I associate with rail travel.
During our first trip to Tana in late 2008, we stayed at the Tana Plaza, which is directly opposite the railway station. At that time, the station was a busy construction site that was cordoned off to the public , and I was frustrated by the fact that I only had glimpses of what appeared to be a stunning exterior of honey coloured stone and grand proportions. To my absolute delight, when we returned in July 2010, the renovations were complete and the grand old lady had been unveiled in all her glory!
Madagascar's railway system has been decimated by decades of neglect and downright sabotage, so very little rail traffic takes place from the station (the little activity that does occur is mostly freight transport, although there are occasional tourist services to Antsirabe and Andisibe - see my transport travel tip). Instead the main building has been converted to a spectacularly elegant retail space, with some upmarket boutiques, a branch of one of the cell phone operators and a very helpful tourist office. Next to the main building is the lovely Cafe de la Gare (see travel tip), which comes highly recommended.
One could argue that there are usually few positive legacies of a colonial presence, but perhaps the architecture and transport infrastructure are two aspects that might sometimes qualify in this category. It is heartwarming that someone had the vision to convert a beautiful but neglected building into a functional contemporary space - I can only hope that in the future, similar vision will bring about a rehabilitation of the railway system to a country so desperately in need of a reliable and efficient transport system.
Look down !
Off course, when strolling in La Haute Ville (because you will !!! you'll know why), don't forget to have looks down the hills.
I like this picture. I should have posted another more aesthetically correct one but I like it. It's like a painting, not a picture and noticed that I've seen pictures of Tana hillsides which looked like paintings.. so picturesque. Or should I say "paintinguesque ?".
Well, for me, it contains some of the mystery of this chaotic city. Made of labyrinths, not cross-ruled as other Madagascar cities. I love it !
Still wondering where La haute Ville is ? Check my General tips, then.
- Road Trip
Meet your first Malagasy flora at the flowermarket
We got our first sense of Madagascar's weird and wonderful flora at the flower market.
The market has a predominance of potted plants rather than cut flowers, which we found encouraging. It was also heartening to see that the majority of plants seemed to be indigenous - rather than introduced - species: particularly the extraordinary podycarpus (elephant foot) plants.
I couldn't help being intrigued by the stall selling sacks containing different mixes of potting soils - I don't think that my suburban garden nursery in Johannesburg offers such a selection!
Whatever... take pictures
Simply because it's difficult to snap bad pictures there.
If it's not for the settings, the architecture, it would be for a street scene, an unusual encountering, for the smiling faces of locals, the charm of the narrow, curved, upslope cobblestoned streets... for everything, indeed.
Here, a picture I took of an ensemble of houses in La Haute Ville: two wooden Malagasy style houses had been kept amongst the other Malagasy style brick houses. Since my childhood, I remember about those wooden houses. I used (and still use) to find them cute. I am glad I could have a picture of them... because who knows ? Would they still be there the next time I return ?
It' s very odd but I prefer strolling in villages in La Haute Ville. Downtown is more lively but this area is just so special with those panoramic views it offers, the picturesque ambience of the noblemen residence area, with both well-kept traditional houses, colonial houses, palaces, cathedrals...
The cathedrals in La "Haute" - uc !!!!
OK.. I talked about La haute as "Palaces area". This is also the "Cathedrals area".
The area abunds in that type of buildings. From historical point of view, La Haute plays an important role in christianisation of first Merina people, then Malagasy people. From non- Christian, the nobility turned into an officially Christian one when Prime Minister and one of the Queens whom he was married with converted themselves into Protestantism. [For sure, it was not Queen Ranavalona I. She was a fierce opponent of Christianism.]
At that time, Calvinism was the official religion of Madagascar and here is the pic of the Protestant temple in the Royal complex. It is NOT the main temple in the area though.
Rivalries were amongst the different trends in Christianism to have the favour of the nobility, then the most powerful ones. Cathedrals were built in La haute: Anglican, Calvinism protestant, Catholic... They had(ve) their cathedrals in the area (Temple for the protestant). All over the city, there were churches as well.
The Catholic Cathedral is quite big and impressive, not ugly. In a Roman style.
My fave is of course Anglican cathedral of Ambohimanoro. Guess why :) Well, it's massive, beautiful (in stone !) and I like attending masses there... Ha! enough said !
In the La Haute village, you can have a mix of every architecture: the multistoreyed Merina houses (with or without verandas, tradional white/ creme or the more colonialstyled with carmin walls), some wooden houses (Laborde house is all in wood incl. the roof & tiles), the palaces and the cathedrals (of different style)... and quaint villas. It is a quiet area to stroll in.
I like it there, serene.. like a little village out of the hassle of downtown.
- Historical Travel
- Castles and Palaces
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