Happy May, blogosphere. I’m sure for most of you it means a thawing out of the winter that lingered in the northern hemisphere, but for my part, I’ve been camping out in the same pair of sweatpants and light sweater-down-jacket combination for the past three days. Normally, I hate cold weather, but somebody imported maple trees to Antsirabe, which means at least in that small pocket of Madagascar, I can bike over crunchy, brown leaves, and indulge in the charm of autumn – my favorite season. It makes the chill worth it.
But then again, Antsirabe in general just makes all the frustrations of life in Madagascar worth it. A small city just 160km south of Antananarivo on the RN7, I would argue that Antsirabe is Madagascar’s best urban gem (and this is even after visiting Mahajunga, Diego, Fort Dauphin, Tamatave, Fianaratsoa, and Antananarivo). In a country most visited for its national parks and wildlife, it’s easy to gloss over the cultural aspects of travel here. However, Antsirabe is a compact, and easy to reach city that has it all.
1. La Cabana
Next door to the hostel I usually stay at is a small, Malagasy bar called “La Cabana”. They are locally known for their freshly grilled chicken (actually marinated!) and cheap, cold beer. It’s one of the few places I regularly see foreigners and Malagasy happily mixed, I imagine because the prices are still ‘Malagasy’, but it doesn’t have the same dodgy, dingy appearance of most Malagasy bars. I also love it because it’s literally a place where everyone knows my name…
How to get there: Go to the ‘Score’ grocery store on the main avenue and follow the smell of grilled chicken.
2. Concerts at Alliance Française
I have yet to figure out why the local music scene in Antsirabe is so vibrant – some bands from the area have even gone off to tour in La Reunion and France – but you don’t see me complaining. Almost every Friday night, folks in Antsirabe can find a live concert happening at Alliance Francaise, either for free or a small cover charge of about 5,000AR. The bands are almost always Malagasy, sometimes traditional but sometimes more of a rock/reggae kind of vibe.
How to get there: Alliance Francaise is on a small street near the supermarket, Score, and the train station.
3. A smaller, cleaner version of Antananarivo
Antsirabe and Antananarivo hold a lot of similarities – both are highland cities and major economic enters – which makes Antsirabe, the country’s third largest city, feel like a less grimy and more manageable sister to Tana. Throughout the city are signs telling residents to keep streets clean and it seems like people actually listen. Sure, there’s a lot of room for improvement, but compared to most urban areas in Madagascar, Antsirabe is down right tidy. Most spots worth seeing are within walking distance of each other, and a lot of the slummy grittiness of Tana is practically non-existent in Antsirabe. For this reason, if I were to use any one word to describe Antsirabe, it would be ‘pleasant’.
4. Bikable streets and day trips
Okay, I was in Antsirabe when that goat jumped on me and my bike, but for the most part wide, flat roads and slow traffic – half the vehicles are rickshaws, bikes, and cows – make it a really bikable city. Just a few kilometers south-west of the city on hilly but well-paved roads sits Lake Tritriva, a lake-filled crater. About 22 kilometers away is another small highland town, Betafo, which I personally love biking to since there’s less traffic on the road west of Antsirabe than the RN7.
The Pousse Pousse Café, a restaurant at the center of town near the small market (Antsenakely), has created a unique ambiance with table and chair sets made out of rickshaws locally known as pousse-pousses. I love everything on the menu, but for Peace Corps volunteers we naturally gravitate towards the place for their hamburgers. Chez Dom, another establishment further north of the town center, has a dining experience much like eating in someone’s living room. Dom, an amicable French gentleman, rocks the hamburgers by finishing them off with blue cheese.
How to get there: For Pousse-Pousse, it’s in the small market (Antsenakely) just near the Shoprite. Chez Dom is an unsuspecting house on a small road just off the RN7 by Zandina’s. Look for the giant sign to point you in the right direction
And a few more photos before I leave…
Photos: (1) A street kid shying away from my camera (2) A view of the maple trees from Ravaka hostel (3) Outdoor seats at La Cabana (4) The main avenue at sunset, just near the Alliance Francaise (5) A cobblestone street near Antsenakely (6) The RN7 about 15 kilometers south of Antsirabe (7) Taking photos while anxiously awaiting our hamburgers at Pousse-Pousse cafe (terrible lighting) (8) Rush hour traffic outside the Cathedral d’Antsirabe (9) Another shot of the maple trees (10) Another street kid