The plane finally leaves the Indian Ocean and it starts flying over this hilly, arid and tough land that is Madagascar: if it was a bit greener, I would say that it really looks like the Balkans, with their harsh landscape. But once you land at Ivato International Airport, your perception of Madagascar immediately changes thanks to the vibrant activities at the health check (better if you have your yellow fever certificate), at the custom and at the taxi area. Dozens of people will approach you and offer their services or ask for some money. A taxi is the easiest way to reach the city centre of Antananarivo (or Tana, how it is universally called) and the journey will cost you maximum 50’000 Ar, don’t accept to pay more! The ride will last one hour with some traffic, only thirty minutes during the weekends. I hope that you will not experience what happened to me, a stop to check the engine of the old taxi while already late for the flight to Tuléar!
On my way to the centre, I immediately felt in a former French colony, something that I never experienced in other territories once controlled by France. The radio was broadcasting old French songs and artists and when I watched the cars sweeping by, I thought that I was back in one of my childhood trips to Camargue in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s (yes, I am getting old!). Countless cream-coloured taxis Peugeot 205 or 105, Citroën Dyane and Renault 19 or, my favourite, the R4, will fill the roads of Antananarivo with their noisy horns. So, if you were asking yourself where all those old cars ended up, here is the answer: in the busy roads of Tana.
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Antananarivo is decently safe, but the ongoing situation of poverty increased the number of muggings in its roads, especially towards inexperienced and distracted tourists. Particular attention should be paid while taking photographs, as apparently, they take advantage of your moment of inattention to grab the camera and run. It is especially true in the markets like Analakely or in the old city, where you do not want to run behind a fit Malagasy in those steep alleys. Two policemen came to me and my friend and told that their commander saw us at the beginning of the market with big cameras and we should be careful: they were obviously pretty well tied to our arms and necks, but we thanked them and pretended to be the usual inexperienced travellers. In Avenue de L’Independance an old man sitting on the sidewalk tried to grab my friend’s camera, even though I am not really sure that he was in the best position and fitness status to run away. Be careful of Malagasy children, they will try to sell you something and in the meanwhile, their quick hands will end up looking for valuables in your pockets. Do not forget to always travel around Antananarivo with your passport, as security checks can be frequent and the police will fine you if you cannot show it (10’000 Ar is acceptable, but it could be a bit of a hassle). Lastly, a few words about the night. Always use a taxi, full stop. If you only have to do some few metres from your hotel to the restaurant, ask the guards of the hotel to accompany you or try to locate the city security officers with a yellow band on their arm.
Where to sleep in Antananarivo
Tana offers many accommodation options and some are very good hotels with medium and high standards, depending on what you are looking for. The ones that I can suggest, based on my friends who live in the city are Kudéta and Sakamanga, both with good standards and excellent restaurants.
As I sometimes try to believe that I am still a young backpacker, I opted for the Underground Hostel, the best cheap accommodation in Antananarivo. The vibe is great thanks to the kind staff who will help you to organize taxis, airport transports and excursions, especially to surfing destinations. A particular mention goes to their music tastes, which are awesome and help to keep the vibe up. This small hostel opened by a French-Australian couple has few rooms and guests, it is very clean and it has nice toilets and showers, basically, all you need. The only thing I hate are the boards at the end of the beds, as I had to sleep in diagonal, but the quality of sleep is still very good, especially if you are not too tall. And also mosquitoes, but that is not the hostel’s fault! In the main area, there is a pool, some board games, books to exchange and a decent Wi-Fi connection, which will try to take you away from socialising, but do not give up and talk with the interesting guests. I have to admit that food is just normal, but as you can see from the next section, quality food is the last of the problems in Antananarivo!
Where to eat in Antananarivo
If there is a city where I ate very well, that is Tana. And from my Italian-centric and almost food-racist view, I was surprised by it, until I realized that French cuisine matched with exotic ingredients could only lead to delicious dishes. I have to admit that I treated myself and I went to the very high end of Antananarivo’s restaurants but the time where I spent the most, at the Citizen, I did not pass the 100’000 Ar for a meal with aperitif, entrée, main course, dessert and wine. Food in the city is really affordable and leaving it without trying at least one of these restaurants would be an unforgivable sin. I regret that I did not try enough street food, but I did not have many opportunities. Please comment on this, as street food is one of my favourite topics. On the other hand, I tried the rhum arrangé after most of my meals: my favourite is with vanilla, but pineapple, ginger and cinnamon are very interesting as well! Do not forget to book in all of these restaurants, you do not want to miss it out because they have no tables available.
Suggested by friends, bloggers and guides, it ended up being my favourite place to eat out in Antananarivo. The restaurant of the Sakamanga Hotel has a nice cosy atmosphere, half way between a very classy place and a nice trattoria. The medium size menu offers delicious dishes, which explains why it is one of the most renowned restaurants in the city and why many expats choose it to have some European-Malagasy mix of food. Start with a foie gras served with cooking salt and try the skewers.
I left this restaurant for one of the last nights and I was a bit upset that I did not discover it before. The atmosphere is great: high-class service, low lights and a room packed with a number of vintage objects, from phonographs to cuckoo clocks, to oil lamps, in a sort of second-hand shop. But the spotlight of the collection are the three old cars in perfect conditions parked outside, a Land Rover, a Citroën and a Mercedes. As an entrée, I can recommend the squids or the foie gras, always a wise choice in a country with French influence. As a main dish, you might choose between the zebu steak accompanied by a shepherd’s pie, or stuffed quails. Finish your meal with the inevitable cinnamon-flavoured Rhum arrangé.
Definitely, the classiest place where I ate in Antananarivo: location with great view over Anosy Lake, the service and the presentation of the dishes are absolutely extraordinary. Once again, the foie gras was delicious, as well as the zebu fillet. Good desserts and quality wines complete the menu.
Grill du Rova
The Grill du Rova is not close to the centre like the other restaurants, but it is on the Rova Hill. Its position and its view over the whole Tana are already a good reason to eat here. If you like meat, you will have further reasons, as it is the speciality of the house. Try the romazava or the zebu stew and finish the meal with the rhum arrangé with pineapple, if you like sweet drinks you will love it. On Sunday afternoon there is live music, so you better book your table in advance.
What to do in Antananarivo
Tourism in the city is still not developed to its full potential. While this is a pity because it could create employment opportunities for locals, it also helps in preserving an atmosphere of authenticity. Take a taxi to the top of the Rova, the hill overlooking Antananarivo. Enjoy the view over Tana and the neighbourhoods around the heart shaped Anosy Lake and its monument to those who fell during the First World War. You can also see the city’s main stadium and enjoy a free match if your sight is good enough. And if you are lucky as me, you can also see a goal!
Start your journey through Antananarivo from the highest point of the city, the Palais de la Reine (Queen’s Palace), which costs 10’000 Ar. plus the compulsory guide (10’000 Ar for 1-3 people), plus the sometimes deserved tip of around 5’000 Ar. The tour begins with a weird story. The entrance arch has a bird and a phallus on top, to symbolize the circumcision that all children must do between two and five years of age. And here comes the weird: the maternal grandparent eats the cut foreskin to welcome the child into the family. It is such an important moment, that if the child, unfortunately, dies before this ceremony, he will not be buried in the family’s tomb. On the left, you can see two tombs: the most beautiful is for the queens, as it is normal in a matriarchal society. The other one is for the kings of Madagascar. Be careful not to point at the tombs with your fingers, here and in the whole country, as it is considered fady, against the tradition. Even though tourists are forgiven for their mistakes, be polite and point at them with the folded finger. Between the tombs and the arch, there is a ball made of rock which brings us a new, less weird, story. Soldiers who were about to go to war had to lift it in order to show their readiness. If they managed to do it, they had a second test, which was a fight on the back of the palace. Take some time to go behind the tombs, salute the statue of Ranavalona III, the last queen of Madagascar and enjoy the view over eastern Antananarivo and the lake providing drinking water to the city. The palace itself is not used nowadays, as it burned in 1995, just before it was due to be inscribed on the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites, and its reconstruction stopped because of lack of funds. Curiously, the building was completed in wood, as stones were used only for tombs until some time ago. Behind the Queen’s palace lies a Protestant church that was rebuilt after the big fire that damaged it.
A few hundred meters from the Palais de la Reine there is a beautiful red building that was used by Rainilaiarivony, the most famous and ambitious of the Prime Ministers, who also married three different queens, as his residence. It was probably built by William Pool, a British missionary and architect, who some gossip depicted as the lover of the queen. Nowadays it hosts the Andafiavaratra Museum, made of two rooms. The first one has portraits of queens, kings and other important people of the history of Madagascar. The second room hosts some souvenirs of the past, like a throne, some commercial treaties, a cannon and some muskets. While some objects are of undeniable historic value, the most beautiful part of the visit is the main room of the palace. The entrance fee is 10’000 Ar plus the usual tip. Absolutely not the best museum I have ever seen, pay a visit if you have some time to spend in Antananarivo.
If it is lunch time, have a break at the Grill du Rova, otherwise, descends down to the city centre and enjoy every step of your walk. You will meet churches, parks with people playing the pétanque, the national sport of Madagascar, children trying to convince you that you should tip them for some unknown service, food stalls, souvenirs and classy shops, old cars and buildings. Go straight until Avenue de L’Independance and enjoy a walk in this large avenue and its markets on the side, until you reach the former train station of Soarano, nowadays a small shopping mall.
Day excursions from Antananarivo
While Antananarivo can be visited in one day, you might decide to stop for longer and enjoy one of the many day trips around the Malagasy capital city. You can choose between the Lemurs’ Park, Ivato (where the airport is), the area of Ilafy and the hill of Ambohimanga.
I can highly recommend visiting Antsirabe, a small town a few hours south of Tana, where you should stop for one night if you can (or on your way back from Morondava). The city is a favourite weekend destination for people of Antananarivo, who come to enjoy a relaxed vibe, shopping and good food. Have a walk in the city centre or hire one of the many pousse-pousses or cyclo-pousses. Do not forget to enter the Hotel des Thermes and see its beautiful façade. Head then to the train station and to the streets on the back of it for some shopping. Your friends and family will be happy to receive miniatures of means of transport made from recycled material (Chez Mamy Miniatures), tools and jewellery made of the horn of zebu (Atelier Corne de Zebu) or a painting on canvas after watching the author actually painting it.
Sleep and eat in Antsirabe
Sleep at Chez Billy, a very basic hostel with a decent vibe, one of the few options in town. I can suggest you two very good restaurants in Antsirabe. The first place to eat is the Pousse-pousse, where you will literally eat in one of them. Have an entrée, maybe with the sushi of zebu and the mini-skewers. As a main, if you do not want to try one of the famous cheeseburgers, go for the tournedos with foie gras. The second option is Chez Jenny, not far from the train station: a delicious zebu tartare or a superb pork with mint and lemon will leave you absolutely satisfied.