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Ambositra

Ambositra is the wood-carving centre of Madagascar and offers a compact opportunity to appreciate the craft in decor throughout the town and in artisanal shops. Much of what's made here is exported throughout the country to other market stalls and shops.

As somebody who's slightly jaded of the familiar, repetitive ‘African’ carvings sold at home, some of the more ornate work I saw in town here was genuinely mesmerising. The town itself is decorative in parts thanks to the skills of residents living here but, oddly, the hilltop town square has yet to benefit from their influence.

Artisanal crafts aside, Ambositra has many picturesque vantage points looking across short valleys of paddy fields or up above them to elegant churches. Being quite small, it's quick to explore on foot or pousse-pousse and perhaps preferable as a day stop along the [RN7] for those who have no other business to attend to in the area. It's amassed a few comfortable hotels that will take good care of anyone staying the night and makes a good base for seeing the silk-weaving village of Soatanana, at about 45 minutes drive from here. Being quite close to Antsirabe, it offers an interesting alternative for those who need to make an overnight stop along the [RN7] in the area.

Malagasy Wood Carving

You may not be surprised to find out that Madagascar has a rich heritage of wood carving. You'd almost expect it to. Travelling around the country you'll come to know similar wooden sculptures being sold at market stalls and hotel lobbies. But if anywhere in Madagascar is going to showcase some exceptional pieces of art and sculptors with skill far exceeding the average it's Ambositra, where many of the exports originate from.

That's not to say that Ambositra has dominated the art throughout Malagasy history, nor is it taking the crown for wood carving without a fight. In the south-east highlands live the Zafimaniry people who created a style of carving not only influenced by Austronesian and Arab motifs but also, surprisingly, from visiting Scandinavian missionaries. The highly symbolic artform was inscribed in 2008 on the representative list of the Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO. It's no surprise that a lot of the Zafimaniry style is evident in Ambositra and throughout the country.

Excursions

Artisinal Market

There are a few independent Artisanal craft shops around town but the epicentre is the entire row of them at the south of the town centre and they typically contain the best pieces of work. Prices are reasonable and you are expected to haggle. Stalls will contain a lot of similar produce with variations and treasures of their own so take your time and browse each one before committing to a purchase. If you're looking for a variation, ask, as nobody knows the stock better than the stall owner and you may have missed one under a carefully balanced stack. We felt no pressure to make a purchase.

The work on offer ranges from small animal sculptures to enormous cauldrons depicting scenes circling the entire surface. My favourites are some of the wooden board games, particularly the chess sets where each piece is a work of art in its own right if you find the right set. Elegance thankfully dominates over kitsch but if you're a fan of the ongoing series of faux Tintin covers throughout the French-speaking world you'll be delighted to find your favourite trope in wooden inlay form, as well as a few inlays of Jim Fitzpatrick's famous stencil of Che Guevara. Interestingly, nobody in the stall had heard of Guevara and were insisting it was Gaddafi. I'm not sure if we convinced them otherwise.

Artisanal wooden market shop owner with wares, Ambositra.
Madame Jacqueline, an artisanal market trader, with some of her store's wooden crafts in Ambositra, the centre of wood carving in Madagascar.

The main row of stalls is closed on Sunday but the independent shops take advantage of this and stay open.

You may be asked on the street if you're interested in seeing artists at work in their studio, as part of a short tour. The gents we followed, out of curiosity, were well meaning but ultimately attempting to help out a group of friends who were producing sculptures far below the standard of those in the markets.

We declined to enter a black of flats to see the work in progress as we had crossed the threshold of what felt like a clever idea, having being misled about how far away it was. I would advise not to follow similar tours unless they're recommended by a trusted source.

Soatanana

The wider area around Ambositra is also known for its silk weaving tradition and if you are approached on the streets to by a seller, it's quite likely that you will be shown scarves. If you're up for exploring, instead, head to this small village that's had a renaissance of silk weaving. You can buy directly from a collective who have opened up their entire process for visitors to experience and meet the creators. More at: Soatanana

Accommodation

Hotel Artisan / Chez Victor

Comfortable and decorative hotel with main facilities and seperate bungalows arranged around a large entrance courtyard

Ambohibary, Ambositra

+261 32 519 9609 none[MGA80000]

Running with the reputation of artisanal carvers in the town, Hotel Artisan provides clean, elegant rooms and even manages to restrain its use of carvings into something quite tasteful. We found some beautiful herringbone hardwood floors and subtle decorations throughout the room that really made the hotel stand out from others with its hint of grandeur.

The motif continued into the restaurant with scenes of Madagascar depicted in wooden inlay on the backs all of the dining chairs. If such aesthetics aren't of interest, the hotel is otherwise pretty standard. Food was typical but nice, and reasonably priced.

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