Situated on the chain of mountains that runs down the centre of Madagascar, Antananarivo is a bustling capital city with immense spiritual significance, colourful history and vibrant culture. The city has its roots in the 16th century, when Adrianjaka, king of the ancient Merina kingdom, conquered a small town built on a great rock thrusting above the surrounding plains. He ordered his palace to be built on the highest point and renamed the town Antananarivo – ‘city of the thousand’.
Surrounded by marshland, which is the ideal habitat for rice-growing, the town became the Merina capital, until it was conquered by the French in the 1895. Tana, as it is known by its French shorthand, is still the island’s capital, and is the arrival point for most tourists.
The hilly terrain around the town is a patchwork of paddy fields, overlooked by traditional red clay houses and steepled churches. Remnants of history can be seen in the defence ditches that were used to try and repel the French, while the countryside is scattered with white Merina tombs. King Andrianjaka declared 12 hills around Tana to be sacred, which are today some of the region’s most fascinating and spiritually evocative tourist sites. Twenty three kilometres north of the city, Ambohimanga - which was the compound of King Andrianampoinimerina in the 18th century - is the most famous of these. It has been declared a World Heritage Site. The hill has 16 gates, with the main entrance guarded by a massive stone disc that was rolled in front of it every night.
When in Tana, it is impossible to miss Rova Manjakamianda. This was the queen’s palace, and the spiritual centre of the Merina kingdom. Today, tourists can visit the royal chapel, royal tombs and royal bath, all while enjoying spectacular views over the city. Other historical attractions worth a visit include the Museum of Art and Archaeology and the Pirate Museum.
The city can broadly be divided into a lower and an upper town. The lower section contains a broad boulevard known as Avenue de l’independence, which is lined with shops, snack bars and hotels. The upper town is more upmarket, with jewellers, art shops and craft boutiques lining the streets. Most of the many hotels in the city serve food, ranging from traditional Malagasay and French fair, to Italian cuisine and seafood. There are many markets in town where you can pick up anything from fruit and vegetables, to flowers, handicrafts and clothes.
Nature lovers can visit the tranquil paradise of trees and birds in the Tsarasaotra Park, which surrounds a lake that has been declared a Ramsar wetland site. Nine species of lemurs can be seen at Lemurs Park, 22 kilometres north of the city. Tana is also perfect for excursions into beautiful reserves such as Anjozorobe and Ambohitantely, where the dazzling variety of wildlife that has made Madagascar famous can be encountered in its natural habitat.