Stargazing in Portugal – heavenly holidays in Alentejo province
By Graciete Amaro
One of my most remarkable summer holidays, when I was a child, was without doubt the two weeks I used to spend with my father’s uncles and cousins, who lived in Abegoaria, Ferreira do Alentejo.
The first thing that impressed me was the journey from Ferreira, where I would have just arrived by bus. Uncle’s farm was some distance away and the only means of transport we could take was horse-drawn. My uncle and cousins took their best cart to collect their guest of honour. Its interior was sparkling clean and the seats were covered with a manta alentejana, a very colourful woollen blanket, so typical of the Alentejo. That would prepare us for the bumpy and dusty ride that followed.
The scenery was of an immense plain covered with wheat, barley and rye. The bright red poppies were there to salute us as we looked around. There were a few hills and only the occasional tree. Dotted here and there were the white farmhouses called montes.
The sun was about to set, and the sky was turning red. The sunset in the Alentejo is very beautiful, as is the sunrise.
After dinner, we would sit outside under the star-laced black sky to enjoy the cooler breeze of the night. Total silence, except for the chants of crickets and cicadas. Under that immense, dark sky, I had never experienced such beauty. We looked up and could see, with the naked eye, thousands of little lights, some nearer than others. There were the Ursa Major and Ursa Minor and the Milky Way, just above our heads. We could count the scintillating stars and witness a falling star from time to time. It was so exciting, so memorable!
Nowadays it is thrilling to know that the Alentejo (the name of the province is Portuguese for ‘beyond the River Tagus’) truly – and officially – is a star destination.
It is worthy of that designation because of the purity of the atmosphere around the magnificent Alqueva reservoir, the largest man-made lake in Europe with a shoreline of almost 1,200 km and up to 100 m deep. What is branded as Dark Sky Alqueva Reserve is the first site in the world certified by the Starlight Foundation as a Starlight Tourism Destination.
The certification, which extends over a wide territory around the lake, is supported by Unesco, the World Tourism Organisation and the International Astronautical Congress. The Starlight Initiative, launched in 2007, aims to help protect the endangered heritage of the night sky and the general right, in a murky world, to observe the stars. It underlines the value of clear skies for humankind, for science, education, culture, technological development, nature conservation and tourism.
The reserve fosters a deeper appreciation of the planets, the Milky Way, constellations, and phenomena such as red-blue nebulae and bright radiation emissions.
I was delighted to learn more about this “tourism of the skies” when I met two of the Dark Sky team during the World Travel Market 2019 in London. Nuno Pereira Santos is the project’s astronomer and coordinator of its observatory; and Rebecca Slade is its specialist in sustainable tourism and ecology.
They explained that on the ground the framework encompasses both Portuguese and Spanish local council areas, making it the first cross-border Starlight Destination and “proving that the sky has no boundaries or limits of any kind.”
Starlight Destinations are characterised by low levels of light pollution that enable visitors to enjoy wonderful views of the night sky compared with much of Europe where atmospheric conditions are mostly unfavourable. Clarity above Alqueva makes stargazing a joy most of the year.
Minimum criterion for the Starlight qualification is the absence of clouds on 50 nights a year. The reserve has an average of 286 nights that are “clean” and In some places it records impressive brightness measurements of 21.60 mag/arcsec2 (magnitudes per square arcsecond).
At the Dark Sky Alqueva observatory, the boast is “you will never have been so close to ‘touching’ the stars, galaxies and planets, or the valleys, seas and craters of the Moon.”
The quality of the sky is certificated in 10 Portuguese municipalities: Alandroal, Barrancos, Moura, Mourão, Redondo, Reguengos de Monsaraz, Portel, Évora, Mértola and Serpa. Moura, Mourão, Mértola and Serpa are noted for their historic centres, while Évora is a world heritage site, and the fortified hill town of Monsaraz is described by tourism chiefs as a “medieval village near the sky.” Thirteen Spanish municipalities are within the certification, bringing the cross-border ensemble to 10,000 sq km.
The large capacity double-curvature concrete structure damming the Guadiana River, one of the longest on the Iberian Peninsula, was completed in 2002 near the village of Alqueva.
Megalithic remains in the region provide a link with the men and women of earlier civilisations who observed and interpreted celestial movements. Later the Greek astronomer Hipparchus of Nicaea produced in around 150 BC what was probably the Western world’s first catalogue of the stars.
Today, towns and villages retain their heritage of attractive architecture, and rural landscapes have olive, cork and holm oak trees: a magnificent backdrop for spectacular photography of star clusters and the phases of the moon.
Dark Sky experts make telescopes and binoculars available and offer practical courses and guidance in stargazing and photography.
Tours are operated depending on the phases of the moon, the month for the intended observation, weather conditions and the availability of the observatory. Evenings begin with a guided tour of the Dark Sky Reserve astrophotography exhibition, and then out of doors the celestial sphere is explored with the unaided eye, along with observations through optical instruments.
In addition to stargazing, the Alqueva Dark Sky Route has opportunities for bird watching, hiking, horse riding, wildlife watching, canoeing, lakeside dining and children’s activities. Accommodation has been designed for the needs of astro-tourists, including late meals and take -way food packs.
Among the ‘cosmic’ experiences for starry-eyed visitors are several afloat, including a river cruise. A commercial marina has been developed to the southeast of the town of Amieira, providing many boating services.
A vintage sailing boat, the Westlander, built in 1913 in the Netherlands for transporting flowers and other goods, now is used for meals, parties and wedding receptions.
In July 2019 there was a two-day Dark Sky Alqueva party with free entrance, at Reguengos de Monsaraz.
Founder and coordinator of the Dark Sky Alqueva Reserve is Apolónia Rodrigues, who was honoured by the International Dark Sky Association with the Dark Sky Defender Award 2016.
Her Dark Sky Alqueva project was runner-up in the Ulysses Prize in 2013, and in 2019 took the bronze Chinese Tourist Welcome Award. In the latter year, in the World Tourism Awards, Dark Sky Alqueva received the Europe´s Responsible Tourism Award 2019 – ahead of other nominees Costa Navarino of Greece, Norwegian Cruise Line, Starwood Hotels & Resorts and Virgin Atlantic Airways.
Ms Rodrigues is the president of the Dark Sky® Association, and president of the Rede de Turismo de Aldeia do Alentejo.
Resident astronomer Nuno Pereira Santos was born in Évora and was from an early age a prize-winner in his speciality. He has researched extra-solar planets and asteroids, and collaborated with the Border Observatory, Estremoz Science Centre.
Rebecca Slade graduated in ecology and wildlife conservation and gained a masters in tourism and hospitality management from Bournemouth University. After marine conservation and research in Greece and Madagascar, witnessing the battle against poaching in Mozambique, and conservation of butterflies and subsistence development work in Cambodia, she returned to Portugal to encourage sustainability in the Alentejo.
Official astro-photographer is Miguel Claro, who specialises in photography that makes a connection between the night sky and aspects of the Earth, represents Portugal on The World at Night and is jury president of the annual Paris international competition for night sky photography, the Photo Nightscape Award.
In this article all photos of sky observation are courtesy of Miguel Claro | Dark Sky® Alqueva.
At the end of 2016, Dark Sky Alqueva Reserve was included in National Geographic’s assessment of the seven best places in the world to see the heavenly stars. In 2016, the attraction was recognised by the European Commission as a sustainably managed ETIS (European Tourism Indicators System) Social & Cultural Impact Achiever.
“With a raft of new boutique hotels, the Alentejo region is the place to go,” The Times travel section reported on Saturday November 2, 2019. “Discerning travellers are avoiding the busy streets of Lisbon and the crowded beaches of the Algarve, and instead heading to this region that stretches from one side of Portugal to the other, taking up about a third of the country.”