Three days, two nights and many adventures later, we’ve got everything to tell you about the project that puts the Alqueva on the itinerary of star-lovers everywhere. Dark Sky Alqueva is the name of the first reserve in the world certified as a “starlight tourist destination”. Apolónia Rodrigues, mentor, and Miguel Claro, astrophotography star do the honours.
It arrived around 11 p.m. Not quite full, but intense enough to illuminate a canoe trip on the Alqueva Lake and “bright enough to let us see the stars comme il faut”, says Miguel Claro, astrophotographer and partner of Apolónia Rodrigues, the person in charge of Dark Sky Alqueva.
Close to the village which gave its name to the lake that totally transformed the landscape of this corner of Portugal (as well as a portion of neighbouring Spain) at the beginning of the last decade, we’ve come with the adventure company Break to row on this mirror of water with nothing more than the Moon and the silence for company. Apolónia and Miguel share the canoe, as they share a love of the cosmos, of the Alentejo and of so many other themes. They’re partners not only in the project we’ve come to discover, but also in life. Just a short time ago, at the table of the restaurant Sem-Fim in the quiet village of Telheiro – also the address of the Casa de Saramago, our haven for these few days – we heard the story of how the stars mapped out their fate.
Between one snack and the next, Apolónia tells the story of Dark Sky Alqueva, from its early days and the idea “to create a destination where the attraction would be the fruition of a starry sky free of light pollution”, through the first light measurements and the key contributions of the Portuguese Association of Amateur Astronomers, to the reserve’s official opening in 2009. A work of “undeniable daring” (as Miguel wrote), slow but joyful and which today attracts visitors from all over the world to the lands of the great lake.
From night to day
The canoe trip ended with a picnic in the moonlight and by the time we made the return journey from Alqueva to Telheiro, in the Monsaraz foothills, it was already dawn. That’s why today we’ve set alarm clock for a little later so we can then go out and discover the Noudar Nature Park, in the municipality of Barrancos, an hour away.
Noudar is as hot as, or hotter than, Amareleja, a town where the thermometers creep up to 50 degrees centigrade. The summer solstice is bursting there, but the heat today is the same as the height of summer. The first thing to do at the main house of the Herdade da Coitadinha, the headquarters of the Natural Park, is to take a dip in the swimming-pool. Then it’s time to quell our craving for the classic dogfish soup, and only close to 3 p.m. do we feel capable of facing the sun and going out on a ride around Noucar, the trams that take the visitor to the four corners of the reserve where, sooner or later, the Iberian lynx will be returned to its natural habitat. Nuno Santos, the man who made the dogfish soup, knows as much about cooking as he does about this ecosystem, where wooded grasslands, olive groves, pasture and grazing lands as well as woods and holm-oak forests all co-exist. We’re sorry not to be staying the night, especially because Miguel never tires of singing the praises of the park – which is part of the network of municipalities covered by the Dark Sky reserve – to observe the stars. In his book Dark Sky Alqueva – A Star Destination, the astrophotographer published several images captured in the skies of Barrancos, including an impressive photo of the Milky Way over Noudar Castle, a medieval fortress important in the defence of the border with Castile in the early 14th century.
The next destination is Cumeada, at the entrance to Reguengos de Monsaraz, and the reason that brings us here is to see something we’ve always been told not to look at full on: that’s right: the sun. With a solar telescope acting as intermediary, we can admire the ball of fire responsible for our existence. We’re at the primary school Apolónia converted into the base of Dark Sky Alqueva and with us is João Passos, a specialist in the Alentejo in its solid state (he’s a geologist) and liquid state (he’s an oenologist) and Dark Sky partner on these late afternoons of sky observation that are kept well refreshed by wine and gin. We’ll be back later, but for now it’s dinner-time. We settle in at the Aloendro, a traditional restaurant at the entrance to Reguengos. Gazpacho for some, black pork secretos for others, and again the conversation takes off to well above the earth’s atmosphere. Miguel’s fascination for the cosmos began before his passion for photography. He was just a kid when he started to get interested in astronomy, and the enthusiasm with which he talks about phenomena such as zodiacal light or earthshine, “one of the most beautiful celestial phenomena, first described by Leonardo da Vinci” is still almost child-like. Photography came later and as a result of the former.
It’s already gone 11 p.m. when we return to the Dark Sky base to observe the sky. The moonlight is still very intense for observation with the naked eye and the southern wind has brought dust clouds from North Africa to hinder the mission. So we look deeper and in more detail. We look at space with the aid of telescopes. Jupiter, which we can make out with the naked eye among the sparkling dots in the black sky, is the first to come into the sights of one of the most powerful telescopes in the observatory. We can see its moons and make out its stripes. Saturn and its rings are next, before we look in detail at the craters of our natural satellite.
From night to day
The morning was set aside for a balloon ride over the great lake. We would have to take off before the sun came up over the horizon and hitch across the skies with the help of the breeze for a couple of hours. Fate would have it that the breeze would be a wind and that our plans would disappear on its wings.
Our foiled plan was a great pretext for going up to Monsaraz, a scenic town with its whitewashed houses shining bright under the morning sun. Taking the opposite direction to an excursion group, we came out into the castle courtyard, not before peeping into the mother church, the old Paços da Audiência and half a dozen handicraft shops where we somehow managed to resist bringing back in our bags the traditional Alentejo shawls. Looking across the countryside from the top of the keep isn’t exactly the same as a balloon ride, but it isn’t far off. The golden plain on one side, the blue lake on the other. In the distance, the cromlech of Xerez, beside the Convent of Orada. The megalithic monument is one of several of its kind in the region and the only one in the region to have been transferred in 2004 due to the construction of the Alqueva dam. A little beyond it, the recently inaugurated river beach of Monsaraz. Who would have said 30 years ago that you could go for a swim on this plain?
It’s from the landing stage next to the beach that we set sail on a Dutch sailing boat from 1913. The boat belongs to Sem-Fim (the Kalisvaart restaurant) and is one of the most sought-after for trips on the lake. Heading the crew is Tiago Kalisvaart, who gives a quick presentation on lake figures: “The strategic reserve of water is 100 kilometres from end to end, has 2500 thousand cubic metres of water and a shoreline of 1180 kilometres – a few more than the Portuguese coastline. Supplied by the flows of the Guadiana, Degebe and Alcarrache rivers, the reservoir flooded the plain, swallowed up the prairies and the village of Luz [which was moved to another site] and gave rise to the largest artificial lake in Western Europe.” The wind takes us to a small island where, apart from a line of sand, we also have a view over two castles, Monsaraz and Mourão. We cast anchor, throw ourselves into the water, which is a wonderful twenty-something degrees, and let the embers catch fire to roast the black pork plumas. Apolónia and Miguel take the opportunity to catch some rays. In little over a month, they’ll be wrestling with another edition of the Dark Sky Party, an event that brings together hundreds of inquisitive eyes and a handful of astronomy stars.
Hours later, with our bellies as full as our souls, we navigate back on the wind to the river beach of Monsaraz. Three days, two nights, a handful of adventures and thousands of calories later, we’re ready for the goodbyes. We leave Apolónia and Miguel with the promise to return. And we take with us the certainty that our promise will be kept.
by Maria Ana Ventura /// photos André Carvalho
movie DARK SKY ALQUEVA by Dois Meios
web design & development 262media.com