View across a formal garden towards a city with hills beyond
Architecture,  History,  Madagascar,  Street photography

A day out in Tana

Madagascar’s capital city actually has a very long name, Antananarivo, which is a bit of a tongue twister. Luckily, most people, including locals, abbreviate it to Tana. It was established in the early 17th century as the capital of the Merina kingdom which covered much of this part of the island. Their king, Andrianjaka, built a rova (fortified royal dwelling) on one of its hills which expanded to become the kingdom’s royal palace. It was that rova, or rather its very recent reconstruction, that was one of the highlights of our tour.

The Rova

This isn’t a single building, although one dominates, but an entire complex. We learned that the all of it had burned down in 1995 shortly before it was due to be inscribed on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites (possibly an accident, possibly arson: our guide here, Jackie, wouldn’t be drawn on which she thought it was). This reconstruction has only recently opened, delayed by Covid.

Bronze eagle on a column with ferns
Above the gate of the Rova

We entered the complex beneath a gate topped by a bronze eagle (imported from France in 1840) and found ourselves in a courtyard with the layout of a semi-formal garden.

To our left Jackie pointed out a group of royal tombs and a small wooden palace building, Tranovola. Like all the buildings here this is a replica. It was originally painted red, with a white roof and verandas and silver decorations, hence the name which means Silver House. I don’t know if you can go inside but I suspect not. Jackie was so thorough I’m pretty sure we would have done so if it were possible!

Small white wooden buildings on stone platforms
Royal tombs
Two storey wooden building with steep roof and arched verandahs

The main building is called Manjakamiadana, another tongue twister! This too was originally wooden. But in the mid 19th century Queen Ranavalona II commissioned James Cameron to reinforce and encase the original structure in a stone shell. Cameron is described by Wikipedia as, ‘British artisan missionary with a background in carpentry’ who had introduced brick-making to the country. I guess that’s how he came to be involved not only in this building but several others in the complex. Certainly Jackie mentioned him several times, in a manner that suggested we must have heard of him!

Stone building with three tiers of arches and corner towers

The museum inside tells the story of the line of Merina rulers, kings and queens, from the establishment of the monarchy until the French conquest in the late 19th century, when the then-queen was sent into exile in Algeria. Ahead of our visit I confess I knew little of Malagasy history before the French colonial period, so all of this was new to me. And there was so much there that I absorbed only the basics. But that certainly isn’t the fault of Jackie, who was very thorough, pointing out every single item on display inside! I liked best the costumes, some of the paintings and the rather effective hologram films on the upper floor telling the story of the French invasion and conquest. But I was disappointed that no photography was permitted inside.

We also got some great views of the city from the second and third floor galleries, where we were allowed to take photos. My feature shot was taken from the third floor.

View across a formal garden towards a city with hills beyond
View from the second floor gallery
Panoramic view of a city with a sports stadium, lake and distant hills
Panorama from the third floor gallery
Beyond Manjakamiadana

After visiting the main Palace building Jackie led us around the complex, pointing out various smaller palaces. We went into the church, built for Ranavalona II, a queen who had converted to Christianity. Again, no photography was permitted inside.

Small wooden building with steep roof in front of a church and low colosseum-like structure
Church, Besakana and colosseum

Nearby was a slightly odd (because very modern-looking) small coliseum; another smaller wooden palace (I think Besakana); and some old columns from a palace building, Tsarahafatra, which Jackie told us was bombed by the French.

Curved seating around an arena with church steeple visible beyond
Inside the colosseum
Stone columns and broken bits of stone on a ledge overlooking a city
The ruins of Tsarahafatra
View of small fields, houses and a lake
The view from Tsarahafatra

The middle town

After a few more photos of the views we said goodbye to Jackie and returned to the car. Our driver Solu drove us through streets busy with people shopping or selling from market stalls that in places seemed to be squeezed into very small spots on the pavement. I tried, but failed, to take a few photos from the car! But it was easier when we got out to visit an area in the middle town. We went to a chocolate shop and bought an excellent bar of 75% dark chocolate which we shared with our guide Michel and later with Solu. As we ate we had a walk around the area passing some ministries, the president’s former palace, and a monument to those who died in the uprising against French rule.

Gold relief of fighters
Monument to the fallen, detail
Concrete memorial with gold relief of fighters
Monument to the fallen
Bust of a man in suit jacket and tie on a concrete pillar
Bust of Philibert Tsiranana

We finished near a place Michel called the embankment, with a bust of a former president, Philibert Tsiranana. From there we could look down the Queen’s Stairs which connect the middle town to the lower one.

Looking down a flight of steps to the awnings of market stalls
The Queen’s Stairs, looking down
Looking up a flight of steps with shops either side
The Queen’s Stairs, looking up

The lower town

We then drove down to the lower town, as my bad leg would have struggled with the long staircase. We walked through part of the market (fairly quiet as it was a Sunday) and streets also dotted with vendors. The perfect opportunity for some street photography.

Stall selling shorts hung on wooden frames, with mother and child
Market stalls
Two women in hats next to a table with leather belts
Belt vendors
People passing a display of colourful baseball caps hung in front of shutters
Caps for sale
Colourful paintings on a wall with a man arranging them
Art stall

We finished our tour with a walk along the Avenue de Independence, which Michel described as Tana’s Champs Elysee. It was closed to all traffic because there had been angry protests in the city against the incumbent president whom, Michel said, was thought to be ‘buying’ success in the forthcoming election. We’d been warned we might not be able to tour the city centre because of the protests. But as it was Sunday no protests were expected and it was clear that locals considered the area to be safe as many families were out enjoying their day off.

Wide street with pedestrians but no cars
Avenue de l’Indépendance
Family crossing a road in a city
Sunday on the Avenue de l’Indépendance (you can see the station in the dirstance)

Local colour

We strolled the full length of the avenue to the main station at the far end where Solu picked us up. From there it was back to a café near our hotel for a cold drink. There we said goodbye to Solu and Michel before doing a little exploration on our own, strolling along the bank of the nearby small lake, watching the activity on the water and the far side.

Children playing on rough grassy area in front of houses
Football and other games on the far side of the lake
Two teenagers in a boat with fishing nets on a lake with urban backdrop
Boys fishing in the lake

Like everyone, we had come to Madagascar primarily for its wildlife. But a day out in the capital had proved just what we needed to add some variety to our trip.

I visited Madagascar in October / November 2023


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