When travelling to Antsirabe, I could always be sure to be treated with delicious food !
The area being considered as the "Vegetable patch & Orchard of Madagascar", restaurants can offer you the freshest ingredients at a lower price. No mystery, the city & its greater region are building their reputation as the richest area & probably safest city upon hard work. The rurals, usually the poorest layer of a region, have jobs and find ways to sell their produce. I wouldn't be surprised if this city was chosen as "most pleasant city to live in". Right, it does not have the same cultural offer to urban people as Tana does but it's safe, clean, has good produce, industry and, I am guessing, lowest jobless proportion...
OK... where was I ? On food... Good, fresh produce, inventive people. The area is highly involved in agribusiness. It is not uncommon to find new produces on shelves that have just been launched by a small company. They just join the ranks of the many locally produced cheese, cold cuts, biscotte, jams, duck products (from foie gras to duck confit). You could buy there the fresh veggies and fruits too. That is, if you can prepare them for decent meals. Else, just devour the dishes you'll have in situ.
Fondest memory: Les Agapes, the restaurant at Arotel, the very hotel I use to stay in. Many times I had lunch there and very few times I got disappointed. Disappointment rather came from not having chosen the right dish... Check my restaurant tips about it.
[Update May 2010!!! cannot guarantee the accuracy of my below comments anymore. Mangement has changed, strategy as well, seems things have worsened. Most important, Chef James has left the house. Fooding experience wouldn't be the same anymore. Have an idea: what about your recent Arotel experience to share with us ? Cheers!]
On food again, on your way to Antsirabe, you may have a halt at Le relais du pêcheur.. Simple French food with local ingredients. Curiosities there are froglegs, crayfish & snails. Being allergic to crayfish, I haven't tried it there but I highly recommend snails à la provençale & froglegs.
Probably nothing else could epitomize Antsirabe in my eyes better than this: a Singer sewing machine.
My Dad's family comes from Malaza (North of Tana). Still, my grand-parents settled in Antsirabe to earn their living there. My Grand-Dad was a civil servant whilst my Grand-Mother used her hands to knit, do crochet, sew and used to sell her products at the market where she rented a stall.
There, up at 5am, she'd be helped by some of her 15 kids (the eldest, reportedly) to organize everything: breakfast, looking after the youngest whislt readying for school... then she would be hitting her Sabotsy market stall.
As a kid, we used to spend some time around Easter and sometimes Xmas in Antsirabe. We left Tana in the wee morning to reach Antsirabe at 11am. It was common we unloaded some stuff at the place where we'd stay and right away, hit the Sabotsy market (Saturday market) to shop and to see Mama (Maam). There, one could see her either knitting, crochetting (mostly as it is quicker to finish) or sewing on her... black and gold Singer machine.
The plain sight of such a black Singer machine, displayed somewhere in a shop, used to leave me unimpressed. Yet, a black and gold Singer machine seen on a stall in Antsenakely or on the pavement, with a smiling woman bent and busy on it. Dang! Early 80s !
So that day, in Sep. 2007, when I felt the need to explain to this woman in Antsenakely why I needed to take a picture of it in its "natural" habitat (or it is it, for me), I had to spend some time revealing my lineage. That Mama used to sell what she produced with her hands. That she is no longer here. That she used to live not that far from there. That maybe the would have met or known each other (she asserted she didn't know Mama). Maybe I looked crazy and boring, she carried a smile nevertheless. Allowed me to take some pictures of the engine, not without shedding away. Admit I would have liked to have a candid photo of a woman using it on her stall. Still, I learnt somewhere I had to ask permission prior shooting so it would have never been that candid.
Now you know why the Singer machine...
The many European-styled & charming buildings (hotels & private houses alike) that look like summer houses.
True that some of them belong to Tananarivians who use to rent them to expats (foreigners & Malagasy who work in the industry of the region). However, some are left as summer/ holiday houses of their owners but in hard times like these, most use to be rented.
There use to be many many other pretty villas, quaint gardens in the city. To have a stroll through the area is to be surprised at every turn of the street. As some are now involved into the accomodation business (Guest house, B&B), one could find something of one's taste for a stay in Antsirabe.
Easter time, Christmas time... Times that would even touch a Christmasgoer. These celebrations are taken seriously.
It is common that people, even the small people, get spruced up. That is common to the whole island, in fact. Even little girls get their hair done, their new satin dresses, some more fortunate have some carmin blush on their cheeks. Even the boys have their suit, probably their first suit ever!
While attending the mass, you'll hear them sing fervently, giving a heartwarming feeling. How proud the little girls walk in to bring the coins for the alms.
All of that, I've never seen in Europe, at least the parts of Europe I've seen.
Now the funny thing about this Catholic Cathedral in Antsirabe, unlike its Anglican & Protestant peers, it had loudspeakers. Passers-by and people standing at the bus stop at the front could hear the mass, the preach, the songs. Reminds me of Jehovah Witness techniques: loudspeaker to call for the pray in my vilage (Malaza) so that everybody could hear & not miss the mass unfold ...
I love the colours the painter used, the way he/she managed to convey expressions, feelings through the face of those ladies. Oh! and this scenery was depicted under the Blue Hour shade... one of my favourite hours in a day.
This chalk-look-alike applied on the canvas is hip nowadays. I've seen many paintings from the same artists, with this picturesque Highlands market scenery. I used to find them interesting, beautiful... However, noticed while leaving the lobby of the hotel just before heading to Tana, this one is beyond all expectation. Its beauty, its strength have captured me.
It is haunting my days & nights... when walking in the fields, when chatting with people, when preparing my meals... On one hand, that makes me smile. OTOH, I'm less & less comfortable with the situation. I feel this painting is some buy I cannot miss... Oh boy ! Technical hurdle: I'll have to borrow some money then and refund once I receive my own money.
I've left this painting at the lobby but took a picture of it. What I miss most when away from Antsirabe is, now, this painting !
*Its urban area architecture as it is unified though many European styles adjoin with traditional Merina balcony houses.
*Relaxing & laid-back
Fondest memory: Easter in Antsirabe.. A great ambience... The city is clean and so safe that people are relaxed while working (euh.. walking, I mean) in the streets, not the same as in Tana, for instance.
Also, locals are such fervent believers that even a Christmasgoer would be touched by the heartwarming ambience in the streets on Easter Sunday and Christmas. They all get spruced up to attend masses in their churches.
Yes, I love Antsirabe for the reasons above and many other.