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Published: January 12th 2012
Returning to Toliara after a blissful New Year’s getaway in Ambola was a slight shock to the system. Gone were the gentle sea breezes and dry air; here was the sticky heat and humidity of the tropics (well, the Tropic of Capricorn does run just south of the city!). How could the climate be so different in spots so close together, relatively speaking? But I’d been wondering that since arriving in Madagascar in mid-December.
We ended up having almost two full days in Toliara, doing little besides resting, as Abby was recovering from a bout of illness. But it is somnolent sort of town anyway. It’s the kind of place were people retreat into the shade and take a siesta during the heat of the afternoon. And when you are out and about, rather than walking, you get around by carriage sized pousses-pousses (there seems to be about one per person in Toliara).
I did wander the fading colonial streets of downtown Toliara one morning, it’s coastal/port town status evident in a mix of religious establishments not unlike what we saw in Morondava (also a port city). There was a Twelver Shi’a mosque, an Ismaili Jamatkhana,
and, perhaps most oddly, a large Lutheran Church (why Lutheran?). Intermixed were crumbling colonial era mansions hid behind walls overflowing with bright Bourgainvilleas. Dogs lazed in whatever shadows they could find. The air hung heavy with humidity.
Pass the rum. And a fan…
Stepping off the plane in Tana was even more of a shock to our systems. While we had expected it to be cooler, it had been raining and the air was quite nippy. My shorts and T-shirt weren’t going to cut it. At least Mr. Solo was there to whisk us away to warm, duvet-covered beds at Chez Aina.
Our last days in Madagascar were spent doing three things: shopping, eating, and sightseeing. The usual, I know.
But I have to say I was quite pleased with the offerings Tana has for both shopping – it has a vibrant traditional crafts tradition as well as a hip modern craft movement - and eating. It surprised me just how many not only good but basically gourmet options there are in the city. And generally at a fraction of the cost compared to Europe or the US for
an equivalent meal. When we went to the rather posh Café de la Gare at the re-appropriated Tana train station it was like stepping into Paris, only with Malagasy waiters. I had a glass of red wine, a perfectly grilled piece of fish, and a chocolate mousse that had me reeling – all for less than twenty dollars. And that was one of our most expensive meals by far.
While the shopping and food were wonderful, I also needed a history fix.
On our last day, we started off at the highest point in Tana (1480 meters above sea level) at the fire-gutted Rova, the royal compound of the Merina kings and queens. Although closed indefinitely for renovations, the evocative Queen’s Palace is situated to provide truly panoramic views of the city. You can see why the Merina royalty would have chosen this spot for their royal compound; it would have provided a bird’s-eye view of their kingdom and subjects. The compound was largely destroyed in a fire in November 1995. While ruled an accident, many believe it was politically motivated – either a public diversion to hide some government corruption or a statement by the disaffected coastal
peoples over continuing political domination by the Merina people. Whatever the case, the rebuilding continues at what seems a slow, sporadic pace; who knows when it will open to the public once more…
This is a real shame, as the Rova has the potential to be a major tourist draw for the city, not simply as a place to get great sunset views of Antananarivo but as a place to learn about the almost gothic story of the kingdom that dominated Madagascar for most of the 19th
century before the French took control.
The Merina occupied the land called Imerina – “Land seen from afar” (in other words the high plateau of central Madagascar). Under the leadership of a king who, upon ascending the throne in 1787, took the somewhat tongue-twisting name of Andrianampoinimerinandriantsimitoviaminandriampanjaka, or for “short”, Andrianampoinimerina (“The King Wished by Imerina”), the Merina kingdom began to expand dramatically. Under Andrianampoinimerina’s successor, King Radama I, most of Madagascar came under Merina rule. Radama also began to form relations with Britian, opening Madagascar to Christian missionaries and other European influence.
But I have to say, it’s Radama I’s successor, Queen Ranavalona I, who intrigues me most of
the Merina dynastic line. Ranavalona was Radama’s widow, taking the throne on his death in 1828. Not so keen on the Europeans as her husband, she repudiated all political agreements with Britain and expelled all missionaries. Not content to stop there, she began to persecute local Christian converts in rather dramatic fashion – including dangling Christian leaders over the cliffs in Tana, and then cutting them loose. She also began to use forced labor in general to squeeze the most out of her subjects as she could; this process, it seems, led to Madagascar’s population declining by HALF over the course of her 33-year reign. A real winner, huh?
Oddly, despite her virulent anti-European stance, Ranavalona I initially relied heavily on a Frenchman, Jean Laborde, to help develop the military strength of her state and even to build a palace for her in the Rova complex. He lost favor with her, however, when he got involved in a coup attempt against her in 1857. As one does.
Down the hill a bit from the Rova is the imposing pink edifice of the Prime Minister’s Palace. For the last three queens of the Merina dynasty (1863-1897), the real power
behind the throne was Rainilaiarivony, the long-serving prime minister who married all three of them (in succession, of course)! This palace is supposed to house a museum detailing the history of the Merina dynasty; however, like the nearby Rova, it too was closed – for “structural” issues. There’s so much tourist potential if someone would refurbish the royal quarter!
From the Prime Minister’s Palace, we wound down to Haute-Ville (only in Tana could “high town” be lower than the palaces!), stopping for lunch at La Boussale (The Compass) and then continuing to Lac Anosy. Looking up at the steep hills from the shores of the lake, it was hard to imagine that we had traversed so much territory in one more morning/early afternoon!
The Rova seemed to wink at us… Perhaps it was saying goodbye.
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