Portugal Holidays: Joys of Dark Alentejo Skies, From Meteor Showers to Midnight Canoe Tours

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Starstruck by Portugal: from meteor showers to midnight canoe trips – dark Alentejo skies are to die for

  • The Dark Sky Alqueva Reserve in Portugal is an area in which local municipalities are committed to brightening the night sky
  • Visit Lake Alqueva and Monsaraz on the northwestern shore of the lake – also known as the ‘Balcony of the Great Lake’
  • Siobhan Warwicker captivated on 90-minute ‘solar observation’ at the region’s Dark Sky Observatory

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Astronomer Nuno Pereira Santos appears to be about to fire a missile to start World War III. He pushes buttons as twin projectile-like machines kick in.

But this is not the start of Armageddon. These are the heavy telescopes of the Dark Sky Observatory in the village of Cumeada in the Alentejo region of Portugal, just over 160 km inland from Lisbon.

To reinforce its “dark sky” references, five years ago, the village replaced all its public lights with LEDs which point towards the ground and can be dimmed at ten percent or completely extinguished.

In the photo, the starry sky above the Da Orado Convent in Monsaraz in the Dark Sky Alqueva reserve

The Santos Observatory is located in the Dark Sky Alqueva Reserve, 3,900 square miles around Lake Alqueva, in which local municipalities are committed to cleaning up the night sky.

The result is one of the most spectacular windows to the universe in Europe. Thanks to Santos’ ultra-lens, Jupiter’s stripes look like a gobstopper, and you can clearly distinguish the Milky Way with the naked eye.

During a 90 minute “solar observation” there are many breathtaking moments. The supergiant star Deneb shown to us, for example, may no longer exist, 2,600 light years away.

The activities don’t stop after dark. True night owls can also choose from astrophotography lessons, nighttime horse or canoe trips, night bird watching, and even blind wine tasting.

The Dark Sky Alqueva Reserve spans 3,900 square miles around the man-made Alqueva Lake, pictured above

The Dark Sky Alqueva Reserve spans 3,900 square miles around the man-made Alqueva Lake, pictured above

The medieval walled town of Evora, pictured, lies between Lisbon and the Dark Sky Alqueva reserve

The medieval walled town of Evora, pictured, lies between Lisbon and the Dark Sky Alqueva reserve

The Dark Sky Alqueva Reserve is about a two-hour drive south of Lisbon with the medieval walled town of Evora en route.

It’s not just about darkness, however. As a yellow-like sun blazes across the landscape, the rays warm my bones as I float on Lake Alqueva with boatman Francisco Guerreiro. The hilly coast opens onto plantations of olive trees, vines and cork oaks.

Two decades ago, this body of water was not there. A 295-foot dam built in 2002 realigned the river that winds along the Spanish-Portuguese border. It is the largest artificial lake in Europe. Its perimeter, 684 miles, is longer than the entire coast of Portugal.

Pretty in pink: the village of Monsaraz - also known as the “balcony of the Great Lake” - overlooking Lake Alqueva

Pretty in pink: the village of Monsaraz – also known as the “balcony of the Great Lake” – overlooking Lake Alqueva

Creating the lake was a surreal experience for the people of Luz, whose once-important houses, windmills, and even the castle now dwell in the dark depths.

An exact replica was built and people moved around. Guerreiro once saw a family of wild boars, including ten paddling piglets, swimming between islands that were once on top of hills.

Monsaraz, on the north-west shore of the lake, deserves its nickname “balcony of the Great Lake”. The ground seems to be moving away from my feet on the outskirts of the village.

The population of around 50 knows each other and greetings fly overhead. The only vehicle belongs to the baker, who leaves bags of bread hanging on the doors of those who are not there.

The warm atmosphere extends to my hotel, Monte da Estrela, to the east of the lake. The design is made for star-eyed romance, with a living room fireplace and outdoor cushions for stargazing.

It doesn’t matter if I’m traveling alone, a freestanding tub next to sheer curtains literally means bathing in moonlight.

As I open my window to see this dawn sun, I realize that my cosmic experience has renewed my respect for our own remarkable planet.


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