Being famous for having less of something isn’t often a draw card for a destination, but around the mighty Lake Alqueva in the rural region of Alentejo, Portugal there’s a commodity in very short supply – and it’s attracting astronomers from all over Europe.
That commodity is light pollution, and in this rural area of Portugal near the border with Spain, it’s virtually unknown.
Less than two hours drive from either Lisbon or the Algarve, Alqueva makes a great side-trip from either, and with an average of 286 clear days every year there’s a better chance of clear skies than almost anywhere else in Europe.
It’s as much that fact as the area’s lack of light pollution that has earned Alqueva Starlight Tourism Destination certification, the first designation of its kind.
It’s been awarded by the Starlight Foundation and supported by UNESCO, UNWTO and the IAC, which insist on the trinity of atmospheric conditions, the number of observing nights, and tourism linked to the night sky.
“It’s easy for a region to say ‘we have the best wines’ or ‘we have the finest stargazing’ so we wanted to prove it by getting certification for our dark skies,” says Apolónia Rodriguez, a representative of the Alqueva Dark Sky project, and who is passionate about both astronomy and Alqueva.
It’s she who has pulled together the various hotel owners, local politicians and others to recognise the area’s fabulous resource – the night sky – and promotes it to astronomers and casual stargazers across the world.
A matter of status
So why not go for Dark Sky Reserve status, like Galloway Forest Park in Scotland and Exmoor?
“We had two possibilities – to go for Dark Sky Reserve status from the International Dark Sky Association, which only measures light levels, or the Starlight Tourism certification, which also considers tourism,” says Apolónia, who decided that the latter took priority; the Alentejo region that contains Alqueva is one of Portugal’s poorest.
After over a year’s work on the project the region applied for the certification back in October 2010 after collating light measurements, monitoring, and developing night sky-related strategies for both schools and for scientific tourism.
Alqueva received official Starlight Tourism certification in December 2011.
On the light measurements aspect, Alqueva – and more specifically the municipalities of Alandroal, Reguengos, Monsaraz, Mourão, Barrancos, Portel and Moura – passed easily.
This is a dark, dark place where numerous hard to see deep sky objects, such as galaxies, nebulas and star clusters, are visible down to 52 degrees south declination.
During my brief visit I studied Jupiter’s four moons, our Moon, and the Orion Nebula, though perhaps the biggest draw is the Milky Way.
The region is full of activities that will appeal to non-stargazers, too, with the Alqueva Dark Sky Route, a loose association of accommodation and activities, widening the area’s appeal.
There are organised stargazing walks – some even with night-vision binoculars, too, to search for wildlife – horse-riding during both Full Moon (for beginners) and New Moon (star-lit astro-equestrian … for experienced riders only!), and even night-canoeing on Lake Alqueva.
“In a New Moon you have to find your way only by hearing each other’s voices,” says Apolónia, “and sometimes the fish don’t even know you’re there are jump over the canoe.”
That should make looking for Pisces a little more entertaining … as will moonlit massages, and wine tasting (the local red wine is superb). In the day, vineyard visits, horse riding, charming villages, canoeing and bird-watching are all favourites.
Astro photography is on the agenda, too.
While in Alqueva I met Miguel Claro, a specialist in astrophotography featuring landscapes who’s just written a guide to the art. Miguel lives in Lisbon, but frequently visits Alqueva.
“The best time to visit Alqueva is in May through to July when the Milky Way is at its clearest,” he told me.
A contributor to the August 2012 issue of Sky At Night Magazine, Miguel regularly runs Photo Nature workshops on astrophotography at various establishments in the Alqueva region; each session lasts five hours and includes a lecture and practical advice.
Will Alqueva go for Dark Sky Reserve status, too?
“Yes, and we will get it,” says Apolónia, commenting that it’s more connected to light pollution and measurements thereof, and less to do with the whole package behind astro tourism.
“It’s complicated by the financial situation of Portugal,” she says, using the example of globe-shaped lighting used to illuminate public buildings at night. “Most of the light goes to the sky, not the ground, but to change them all is costly.”
The municipality has made public lighting like this the most urgent thing to change, though there’s little in the way of road lighting, so its practical affect on the clarity of the region’s night sky is negligible.
Besides, all church and monument lighting is now switched-off at 11pm, something that saves the authorities money – an argument that’s hard for even the most disinterested politician to refute.
When it comes to dark skies, the privileged people of Alqueva are clearly streets ahead.
Where to stay?
Local hospitality is not to be missed; below the intriguing town of Monsaraz are two traditional and very welcoming houses both firmly on the Alqueva Dark Sky Route. Monte de Santa Caterina (€70 for bed & breakfast) is owned and run by Vasco and Susana, a young and enthusiastic couple with knowledge and passion for astronomy, and a 12-inch Dobsonian telescope for searching out deep-sky objects.
Close by is Monte Alerta (€70-120 for bed & breakfast); here owner Vitória provides a very warm welcome and a Meade ETX-125 telescope ideal for hunting down the planets, along with a swimming pool, hydro-massage, a home cinema, delectable cuisine and even a Scaletrix room! English is spoken very well at both Monte de Santa Caterina and Monte, both of which ask for a nominal payment of €10 to use telescopes and binoculars, guided stargazing included. Late dinners and breakfasts can be arranged.
Sunvil offers a number of flight plus accommodation packages from the UK, including houseboat accommodation on the Alqueva Lake (£942 pp based on two sharing for seven nights plus airport transfers), as well as at two properties near Alqueva Lake, Refugio da Vila (£378pp based on two-sharing, four nights B&B plus car hire) and Horta da Moura (£371pp based on two-sharing, four nights B&B plus car hire), none of which have telescopes, but are well placed for naked-eye stargazing.