Africa, Asia and Europe converge in a capital abuzz with surreal sights, finds Brett Atkinson.
To a generation of movie fans, Madagascar is an island inhabited by a self-absorbed lion, a neurotic giraffe and a hopelessly optimistic zebra. Add a preening, dancing lemur and a posse of devious penguins, and you've got a suitably bizarre cast list. Incredibly, the reality of the island nation adrift in the Indian Ocean is almost as surreal.
Relaxing with a perfect pain aux raisins and a robust espresso in an Antananarivo cafe, I see a vibrant green chameleon floating mid-air above the energetic buzz of Madagascar's capital. Attached to a simple knot tied around the reptile's neck, a slender bamboo pole stretches to a local boy with a bulging bag around his shoulders.
Further up the steepish incline of Rue Andrianary Ratianarivo, he transfers the high-flying reptile to his already squirming bag and again plunges the bamboo deep into the tropical vegetation enveloping a 19th-century villa seemingly transported from provincial France.
My buttery pastry crumbs also provide a Gallic echo, but the barking of street vendors touting everything from dried fish to model cars crafted from beer cans quickly dispels any European reverie. Others are proffering plump pods of the world's finest vanilla, almost with the furtive charge of a late-night drugs transaction.
The three-hour flight to Antananarivo across the Mozambique Channel from Johannesburg also scatters any lingering memories of Africa. Crossing the expansive coastline of the world's fourth-largest island, the emergence of swirling plains of red dust definitely evoke the African continent to the west. But leaving Antananarivo's prim and compact airport in a wheezing Peugeot, it's Europe and Asia that quickly combine in a compelling mix.
Cascading terraces of emerald-green rice paddies and the facial features of the Malagasy locals reinforce the initial habitation of the island by seafarers from Indonesia and Malaysia around 2000 years ago. French colonial rule from 1896 to 1960 lingers in battalions of Citroen 2CVs squeezing through winding streets lined with shop fronts straight from a sleepy French village.
Antananarivo's elegant hub is the Haut-Ville district, perched high on the serrated ridges above the busier, more frenetic Basse-Ville area. Elegant is a relative term, though, and the emergence of teak-lined boutique hotels is balanced by dimly lit, smoky bars run by grizzled Corsicans with shady former lives as Foreign Legionnaires.
Tucked behind Madagascar's royal palace on Haut-Ville's highest hill, the elegant La Varangue hotel boasts views of the city's tree-lined Lake Anosy, and a sensational French-Asian fusion restaurant run by a former personal chef of French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
Worn cobblestone roads meander down from more relaxed Haut-Ville to Antananarivo's bustling flower market. Phalanxes of vintage Citroens are decked out for weddings, and the city's dusty tropical haze is softened by shoals of colourful blooms.
It's a relatively laid-back scene, but an essential training ground before descending into the incessant buzz of the teeming Anakely market to the north of the lake. French colonial architecture, daubed in a faded yellowish hue, combines with local Malagasy hip-hop, still-writhing mud crabs and unrefrigerated butchers' stalls selling everything from robust garlic-studded sausages to shimmering slabs of horse meat.
Just off Anakely's manic labyrinth, the expansive Avenue of Independence extends to the closed wrought-iron gates of Antananarivo's graceful but discontinued main railway station. It's difficult to think of a more poignant symbol of the rise and fall of French colonial influence.
Many travellers to Madagascar bypass the country's fascinating capital, preferring to fly from Antananarivo airport to the simple resorts dotting northern islands like Nosy Be and Nosy Komba. Others venture deep into Madagascar's national parks and reserves to discover the island's
endemic flora and fauna left isolated for 80 million years since the break-up of the Gondawana super-continent.
Contrary to the output of Hollywood animation studios, there are no lions, zebras, or giraffes roaming the country, especially escapees from the Bronx Zoo in New York. But fans of dancing primates are definitely in luck.
Madagascar has around 70 species of lemurs, from black lemurs inhabiting the forests of Nosy Komba to long-limbed sifakas springing their way sideways in more isolated national parks. Sighting different species can involve many hours driving on Madagascar's tortured roads, followed by long treks to reach isolated habitats. A convenient shortcut for time-poor travellers is to visit the Madagascar Lemur Park, 25km from central Antananarivo. Nine species of lemurs, including sifakas, live in a protected stand of vegetation, unsullied by fences or cages. One of the aims of the park is to reintroduce lemurs back into the wild.
IF YOU GO
Since a coup in late 2009, Madagascar has been subject to some political tension and isolated street violence. See fco.gov.uk for travel advisories.