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Fianarantsoa. The place where one learns the good

Welcome to Fianarantsoa (fi-a-nar-ant-soo), or Fianar for short, the gate to the Isalo National Park and the Ranomafana National Park, or to take the train to Manakara - the Fianar–Côte Est, a railway down to Indian Ocean. The county town of Fianarantsoa was founded in 1830 by order of the Queen Ranavalona 1 at the site of an ancient village Betsileo. Its name means "the place where one learns the good" and the city brings it well by the reputation of its university.

Fianarantsoa is like a mild version of Tana. You can enjoy a historic old town, a great local market, some interesting places to stay and a more laid-back ambience than that of the capital. Fhilippe Oberlé, who wrote several books on Madagascar, introduced Fianarantsoa as follows: "As in Antananarivo, the old quarters climb on a steep hill at the foot of which a cathedral-dominated square extends, Anosy lake shines on the foot of the cliff. The capital of the Betsileo spreads like its elder sister on several hills and on a vast plain where the city develops".

Surrounded by hills, it is both a regional commercial, administrative and religious center as well as a major transit point. If you’re heading south, this is where the dry country begins; if you’re going north, it’s where the central highlands atmosphere is fully established. Even if you’re only pausing in Fianar for a break and a bite to eat, the alleys and houses of the Haute-Ville – also known as the old town, or Tanana Ambony – make for a captivating, and surprisingly panoramic, walk. Fianar´s old town has been included in 2008 on the World Monument Watch List of the 100 most endangered sites worldwide.

The town is divided into three parts. Basse-Ville (Lower Town), to the north, is a busy, chaotic area with the main post office and the train and taxi-brousse stations. The Train Station inaugurated in 1936 represents an architectural masterpiece. Basse-Ville is full of hustle and trade.

Nouvelle-Ville (New Town), the business area, with banks and hotels. Here most shops, restaurants and hotels are located, and you can admire some fine examples of colonial architecture.

Haute-Ville (Upper Town), the architecturally fascinating old town has cobbled streets, a more peaceful atmosphere, numerous church spires and wide views.

Visiting of the Old Town, with the labyrinth of its narrow paths, and the clutter of its houses with brick columns and tile roofs patinated by time begins at front of the Ambozontany Cathedral built in 1871, at the foot of the main staircase-lane that runs up the old town hill, where located multiple beautiful old houses. Many of the houses have brick columns supporting their first-floor ornamental balconies (or lavarangana). Adjacent to the place, the Protestant temple of Antranobiriky built in 1859 is the oldest permanent structure of Fianarantsoa. A thirty-minute promenade along the cobbled pathway takes you right around the hilltop. Look west and you’ll see Lac Anosy (copied from the lake of the same name in Tana by Queen Ranavalona I, who moved her court to Fianar in 1830), a popular late afternoon strolling area. Past the Antranobiriky church at the summit you’ll reach a dusty school playground, where a plaque commemorates this as the site of the nineteenth-century Merina rova. A low fence of brightly painted stakes still symbolically protects the site along its western boundary.

At the foot of the paved alley through the old quarter is the market square. From there a road descends towards Lake Anosy while another leads to the summit of Kianjasoa from where the view embraces all the city and the surrounding countryside. Your eyes will be caught by the view of Kianjasoa hill (1374m) with a big statue of the Virgin Mary and her son. The hill was used long time as a fortification to contain the military incursions of the Merina and Tanala tribes.

What else to see and do? Cultural events - between May and September traditional Betsileo folk festivals are annually held. The Tolon'omby is a traditional Betsileo bull fight more similar to a Western rodeo than to a Spanish-style bull fights. Instead of riding the zebu (“omby”) the goal is to run into the center of the arena, catch it by the hump and try to pull it to the ground.

Visit Sahambavy. This small town lies about 23 km along the railway Fianar–Côte Est. Its main attraction is the Sahambavy Lake, nested at the foot of a hill, Lac Hôtel with a breathtaking view on the island unique tea plantation (520 hectares) which spread out as far as the eye can see. The plantation of tea was initiated here in the late 70s and it offers today a guided tour which explains you the manufacturing procedure of tea. The beautiful landscape with the charming lake is the perfect destination for a relaxing weekend.

Hiking. In the immediate surroundings of Fianar there are a couple of interesting destinations which invite you to a pleasant hike far away of the beaten track. Here we will present you some of them: Ampamaherana Forest station - located some 30 km this reforestation center invites you to a pleasant hiking; Rock of Alakamisy-Ambohimaha (26 Km) - huge rock on which inscriptions in Arabic that carved around the fourth century; Fanjakana (60 Km) - from a 1392m altitude, this point offers a magnificent view over a radius of 50 km.

Vineyards. Fianarantsoa is also known as the capital of wine. Excellent red and white wines are produced in the terraced vineyards surrounding the town. The most famous is the one produced by a large association of vine-farmers called Lazan'i Betsileo. Maromby is a small, peaceful village in the vicinity of vineyards, where wine can be bought at the monastery.

Watch more photos about Fianarantsoa  here.