On the Streets of Antananarivo
There’s a love it or loathe it quality about Madagascar’s capital Antananarivo and its easy to see why some people who travel through there are happy to leave after a brief stopover. A trip from the airport to the train station into the city centre will take you past both large attractive colonial buildings and grinding poverty. Add to this mix rice fields which stretch almost as far as the business district of Ambodivona and traffic so backed up the place feels like a car park at times and you have an introduction to this capital of almost three million when you take in the greater metropolitan area.
I spent a week there in November 2018 to both improve my French before travelling in the countryside and to do some sightseeing at the same time. On arrival at the apartment near the queens palace where I was staying, Joelle the owner, told me in no uncertain terms not to be out alone after dark. If I wanted to go anywhere I should take a taxi as the streets of Antananarivo are nowhere to be wandering around at night. After being to other African capitals this did not come as a surprise to me but nonetheless did make me feel a bit claustrophobic at times.
During the day however the city centre is a safe and buzzing place to be. The streets of Antananarivo come alive during daylight hours, though they are largely deserted at night, and depending on where you are in the city during the day, the sheer number of people about can be disconcerting. This is the case in the largest market in the city centre, Analakely, which spreads out around Avenue de l’independence and sells everything available in the shops and much more but at a cheaper price. Any lovers of markets should take a trip here but only with enough cash to make some small purchases as pickpocketing is a problem in the area.
A walk in the streets of Antananarivo starting in Hautville or high town will take in the superb views of the surrounding countryside from the queens palace downhill along cobbled streets lined with well preserved colonial buildings and views over the largest lake in the city Lac Anosy. The old town area of Isoraka can be reached on foot from the queens palace and has some nice bakeries. The train station is only a few minutes walk from Isoraka and the streets around it are the beating heart of the city with markets and street vendors lining every available bit of space. The station itself which was completed in the early 20th century by the French and had a working clock imported from Lyon for its opening.
Combine this with an array of old French cars being used as taxis and you have a scene from at least thirty years ago. These old cars which are most commonly 2CV and Renault 4 can be seen in collectors garages in Europe but in the Madagascan capital they are still in everyday use ferrying passengers to and fro along the decaying streets of Antananarivo.
This may seem like an ideal city centre walk but temper it with the grinding poverty you meet on the way and you have a truer picture of the city. Public rubbish drop off points dot the city centre. These are made up of walls about 1.5m high 2m wide and 3m long and is where all the household waste from the immediate city centre ends up. The terrible thing about these drop off points is there are people inside them sifting through the rubbish all day in an effort to eke out survival in a land where it is brutal to be poor. People of all ages can be seen in these from young children to old men and shows the huge contrast between the haves and have nots in the city. It is no wonder that the city is a no go area after dark because you could hardly blame someone for mugging a tourist or someone with means if the opportunity presented itself.
In contrast to this it is possible to sit at one of the many cafes along Avenue de l’independance and sip a coffee while watching all manner of comings and goings many of them involving a car that would qualify as a classic in other countries.
The food in general in Antananarivo is one of the highlights of a visit there and for connoisseurs of street food I think it rivals places like Thailand for variety and taste. It is possible to start the morning with a doughball or pastry washed down with coffee in a tin cup from a stall in the city centre. Some enterprising individuals even carry around samosas and pastries in hot boxes to keep them warm and sell them to the occupants of the cars who have come a standstill in traffic.
For lunch the stalls which line Avenue de l’independance come into their own and churn out dishes which have both and African and Asian feel to them. Friend rice with meat is a big seller as are samosas which have both meat and vegetarian options. I always went for the vegetarian option and I cannot remember once being disappointed. I did spot a street stall operating at night near the hotel Maison de Cottonier in the centre at Christmas but by and large there is no street food in the city centre after dark. I found the food available from the vendors both tasty and great value and is ideal for someone travelling on a budget. Typical prices for small doughballs were about 500 Ariary and for more involved dishes with a drink could go up to about 4000 Ariary (about one euro).
Most of the sites in the city centre can be accessed on foot, via the streets of Antananarivo, but getting further out can be a bit tricky. There are numerous taxi be, or cramped minibuses, going to different destinations and it is possible to get them to places of interest like Ambohimanga which is a large fortified settlement about 25km outside the city. It is also the only historic site in Madagascar on the Unesco world heritage list. A taxi brousse runs there from the northwest station and can take up to 2 hours to get there depending on traffic.
After visiting the markets and doing some solo walking tours of the city centre I spent the remainder of my time in the capital trying to improve my French. Say what you like about Antananarivo as a city but I found the people who live there approachable and chatty when I was sat in a bar trying to improve my language skills. They were also very open and forthcoming with advice for my trip and I got some real nuggets of advice such as visiting the Makay massif in the southern part of the country which is one of the most unexplored national parks in the world. I also got some more chilling advice like when I said I wanted to get a camion brousse down south and I was told I would be killed on that route. Fortunately I survived.
Overall there is so much to see and do in this city but this is combined with some very tough lives with the poorest barely scraping by. I think this is one city that its possible to love and loathe at the same time.