Starstruck by Portugal: From meteor showers to midnight canoe tours – Alentejo’s dark skies are out of this world
- The Dark Sky Alqueva reserve in Portugal is an area in which local municipalities commit to clear night skies
- Visit Lake Alqueva and Monsaraz on the lake’s north-west shore – also known as ‘the balcony of the Great Lake’
- Siobhan Warwicker was riveted during a 90-minute ‘solar observation’ at the region’s Dark Sky Observatory
Astronomer Nuno Pereira Santos looks like he’s about to fire a missile to set off World War III. He’s jabbing buttons as twin projectile-like machines whir into action.
But this is not the onset of Armageddon. These are the heavyweight telescopes of the Dark Sky Observatory in the village of Cumeada in Portugal’s Alentejo region, just over 100 miles inland from Lisbon.
To boost its ‘dark sky’ credentials, five years ago the village replaced all its public lights with LEDs that point towards the ground and can be dimmed to ten per cent or totally switched off.
Pictured is the starry night sky over Da Orado convent in Monsaraz in the Dark Sky Alqueva reserve
Santos’s observatory is within the Dark Sky Alqueva reserve, 3,900 square miles around Lake Alqueva in which local municipalities have committed to clear night skies.
The result is one of the most spectacular windows to the universe in Europe. Through Santos’s ultra lens, Jupiter’s stripes look like a gobstopper and you can clearly make out the Milky Way with the naked eye.
On a 90-minute ‘solar observation’ there are plenty of mind-blowing moments. The Deneb supergiant star we’re shown, for example, may no longer exist, being 2,600 light years away.
The activities don’t stop after dark. True night owls can also choose astrophotography lessons, nighttime tours on horseback or by canoe, nocturnal bird-watching and even ‘blind’ wine-tasting.
The Dark Sky Alqueva reserve makes up 3,900 square miles around the manmade Lake Alqueva, pictured above
The medieval walled city of Evora, pictured, is between Lisbon and the Dark Sky Alqueva reserve
Dark Sky Alqueva reserve is about a two-hour drive south from Lisbon with the medieval walled city of Evora en route.
It’s not all about darkness, though. As a yolk-like sun blazes across the landscape, the rays warm my bones as I bob on Alqueva Lake with boatman Francisco Guerreiro. The rolling shoreline opens on to plantations of olives, grape vines and cork trees.
Two decades ago, this expanse of water wasn’t here. A 295 ft dam built in 2002 realigned the river that snakes down the Spanish-Portuguese border. This is Europe’s biggest manmade lake. Its perimeter, 684 miles, is longer than Portugal’s entire coast.
Pretty in pink: Monsaraz village – also known as ‘the balcony of the Great Lake’ – overlooking Lake Alqueva
The creation of the lake was a surreal experience for the people of Luz, whose homes, windmills and even the once-prominent castle now dwell in the gloomy depths.
An exact replica was built and the people moved. Guerreiro once witnessed a family of boars, including ten paddling piglets, swimming between islands that used to be hilltops.
Monsaraz, on the lake’s north-west shore, deserves its nickname, ‘the balcony of the Great Lake’. The ground seems to drop away from my feet at the village’s edges.
The population of around 50 all know each other, and greetings fly over my head. The only vehicle belongs to the baker, who leaves bags of bread hanging on the doors of those not in.
The homely feel extends to my hotel, the Monte da Estrela, at the east of the lake. The design is set up for starry-eyed romance, with a lounge firepit and outdoor cushions for stargazing.
No matter that I’m travelling solo — a free-standing tub beside sheer curtains means literally bathing in moonlight.
As I throw open my window to see that dawn sun, I realise my cosmic experience has renewed my reverence for our own remarkable planet.