If asked to name the best stargazing places in Europe, most people might think of mid-Wales, Iceland and the Canary Islands, all on the western edge of the continent. But as much of western Europe is blighted by light pollution, have you ever considered a stargazing trip to eastern Europe?
There is no consistent definition of the precise area covered by the term ‘eastern Europe’, but it generally includes the likes of Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and Croatia, all of which have fewer cities and large rural areas, including many huge national parks.
Several of these are now establishing themselves as ‘dark sky’ parks with a growing reputation for stargazing and astronomy.
Some, like Hortobágy, Zselic and Bükk in Hungary, are International Dark Sky Parks certified by the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA). Others have no official designation but use names such as ‘starry sky park’.
Many owe their existence, or at least their designation, to local astronomers from nearby cities in search of darkness.
“We’ve always travelled from Zagreb, Croatia’s capital, to find dark-sky places to enjoy astronomy,” says Boris Štromar, president of Croatia’s Beskraj (meaning ‘infinity’) Astronomy Society.
“We started organising annual star parties for amateur astronomers in 1999 and the event became very popular. But the skies at the location soon deteriorated because of the rising light pollution.”
It was then that Štromar discovered Petrova Gora, about an hour’s drive from Zagreb.
It’s now an iconic place to visit for astrophotographers thanks to its bizarre-looking war monument.
“We realised that if we don’t make an effort to protect the night sky, we will just keep being pushed farther and farther away, and our children will not have the ability to see the Milky Way anymore,” says Štromar.
Rapid economic development in eastern Europe has worsened light pollution in the last 15 years, with some areas of Poland now as bright as some of Europe’s top industrial regions such as the Netherlands, Belgium and northern Italy.
That situation has sparked a dark-skies movement committed to reducing light pollution in areas that still have dark skies.
One of its successes has been Zselic Starry Sky Park in Hungary’s Zselic National Landscape Protection Area.
“The initial success of the park helped the other two locations – Hortobágy National Park and Bükk National Park – to start their dark-sky programmes,” says Professor Zoltán Kolláth, coordinator at Zselic Starry Sky Park and the man who started the dark-sky park programme in Hungary.
All three are now accredited International Dark Sky Parks and host star-watching walks, while Zselic has a visitor centre and public observatory with a digital planetarium and various exhibits.
Better still, Kolláth’s university in Budapest (Eötvös Loránd) won a grant that’s helping fund a new lighting system in two villages, one in Zselic and one in Bükk.
“We finished the remodelling at the end of 2018 and now there is a system with minimal light pollution that has good lighting for the citizens,” says Kolláth.
That’s impressive progress, but in Croatia there’s even a new ‘dark-sky law’ coming into force soon that’s unlike any other in Europe.
It essentially limits all public lighting and bans the use of light beams, while in protected areas the limits are much tighter.
“It makes all the protected areas in the country – 12 per cent of the total land area – compatible with International Dark-Sky Association requests for ecological lighting,” says Štromar.
Its credentials assured, how should you plan a trip to check out the dark skies of eastern Europe?
First, do your research. Try to coincide your trip with a star party or a scheduled night-sky tour. That will likely mean that you arrive at New Moon, which you should aim for regardless to catch the darkest skies.
Take a flight to Prague, Budapest, Krakow or Zagreb, rent a car, and go and explore one of Europe’s newest and most intriguing dark-sky settings.
Seven eastern Europe dark-sky locations
Hortobágy National Park, Hungary
A UNESCO World Heritage site and Biosphere Reserve as well as an International Dark Sky Park since 2011, the 82,000 hectare Hortobágy National Park in eastern Hungary has an observatory with a 140mm apochromatic lens telescope. “We organise star walks and observatory programmes for the public,” says István Gyarmathy, Hortobágy’s dark-sky park coordinator.
Beskydy Dark-Sky Park, Czech Republic, Slovakia & Poland
The region of eastern Czech Republic that borders Slovakia, the Beskydy Protected Landscape Area, is mostly mountains covered in indigenous primeval forests. It’s possible to take part in various stargazing activities in the mountainous setting of Gruň, including a ‘relaxation under the stars’ sky tour. There is ski-style accommodation available.
Bükk National Park, Hungary
This vast International Dark Sky Park in the Bükk Mountains of northern Hungary hosts a landscape littered
with thousands of caves and hiking trails. “In a couple of years we will open an astronomical visitor centre in our national park, near the village of Répáshuta,” says Richárd Novák at Bükk National Park, who helped set up the Star Park two years ago.
Zselic National Landscape Protection Area, Hungary
Zselic Starry Sky Park in southwest Hungary has been an International Dark Sky Park since 2009. “There are star-watching walks organised by the visitor centre and there have been astronomy camps in the vicinity,” says Zoltán Kolláth, Zselic Starry Sky Park coordinator.
Izera Dark-Sky Park, Czech Republic & Poland
Established a decade ago in both the Czech Republic and Poland, the Izera Dark-Sky Park is a project of the Astronomical Institute CAS (Czech Republic) and the Astronomical Institute UWR (Poland). Star parties – including lectures and telescope observations – are held in spring and autumn.
East Carpathian Dark-Sky Tripark, Slovakia, Poland & Ukraine
How about a ‘dark sky corridor’ that covers three different countries? This tripark is one of the largest dark-sky areas in the world. In Poland’s Lutowiska, Brzegi Górne and Stuposiany there are viewing terraces, while the latter’s information centre has scopes and a mini observatory.
Petrova gora-Biljeg, Croatia
Established in June 2019, this dark-sky location in Croatia is home to the iconic Petrova gora-Biljeg, a ruined stainless steel World War II monument which is ideal for nightscape photographers and observers. A star party is held on the plateau beneath the monument at New Moon each year in September.