Alentejo – Beyond the sky

on Sep 1, 2017 in Now Boarding | No Comments

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

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movie DARK SKY ALQUEVA by Dois Meios

DARK SKY ALQUEVA from Up Inflight Mag on Vimeo.

 

Arquivos

Apolónia Rodrigues

A woman of the north who fell head over heels for the Alentejo, where she spends most of her time, Apolónia has a degree in tourism management and planning from Universidade de Aveiro and has a successful career in this area. A big nature lover, from early on she has been involved in projects that combine sustainability and things rural. Amongst other projects, Apolónia ran Genuineland – Village Tourism Network in the Alentejo, and is the heart and soul of Dark Sky Alqueva.

 

Miguel Claro

Professional astro-photographer and official astro-photographer of the Dark Sky Alqueva project, he’s the author of the books, Astrofotografia – Imagens à luz das estrelas and Dark Sky Alqueva: A star destination. Two-time finalist for the Astronomy Photographer of the Year award and one of the winners of the International Earth and Sky Photo Contest 2011, Miguel has had images published internationally in specialist magazines, such as Astronomy Magazine, BBC Sky at Night, Ciel et Espace and publications like National Geographic, Visão and Fugas. Many of his photographs have been distinguished by NASA as picture of the day in the Earth and Science and Astronomy.

miguelclaro.com

 

Dark Sky Alqueva

The world’s first “starlight tourism destination”, Dark Sky Alqueva is a pioneer in Portugal and, for the moment, the only one offering this type of service. The “pollution-free luminous starry sky” includes the municipalities of Alandroal, Barrancos, Moura, Mourão, Portel, Reguengos de Monsaraz, all on the banks of Lake Alqueva. In addition to the reserve area, the project offers a route made up of different accommodation options, restaurants, local products and producers and tourism companies that offer activities related with stargazing and the night sky, such as canoeing and wine tasting with sun observation through a telescope. Dark Sky Alqueva was created 2009 by Apolónia Rodrigues.

darkskyalqueva.com

 

Sem-Fim

On solid ground is the restaurant, an old olive oil press refurbished to receive guests with the appetites of lions. The transformation was the work of Gil Kalisvaart, a Dutchman in love with Portugal, who’s been settled in Monsaraz for many years and is also responsible for the work exhibited in the restaurant’s small art gallery. From the kitchen, expect traditional Alentejo delicacies: açorda, gazpacho, salt cod with garlic olive oil, rabbit with pennyroyal, lamb roasts and grilled black pork. But Sem-Fim also has a branch with a licence to navigate the waters of the great lake. It’s a sailing boat from 1913 that used to transport cargo along the canals of his native country. Converted into a recreational boat, it takes visitors to discover the charms of the great lake for a couple of hours or for a couple of days, always with a lot of very good food on board!

sem-fim.com

 

Casa Saramago de Monsaraz

In the village of Telheiro, set in the foothills of the walled town of Monsaraz, this rural tourism accommodation is a family house with doors open to anyone who comes in good faith. It has seven rooms in the main house and three on the patio as well as a pleasant pool with a view over the walls of Monsaraz Castle. Expect traditional Alentejo hospitality.

casasaramago-monsaraz.com.pt

 

Pançona

At the reserve’s main house, right opposite Noudar Castle, the man in charge of the kitchen at this local accommodation restaurant is Nuno Santos, a man who divides his time between pots and pans, the vegetable garden, orchard and the property’s wooded grasslands. Apart from the heavenly dogfish soup, Nuno is also an expert in chargrilled salt cod and game dishes (in season). Pançona is not only the superlative form of pança (belly), but is also the name of a spring located on the banks of the River Ardila, near Monte da Coitadinha, where the people of Barrancos go for picnics.

parquenoudar.com

 

Break Aventura

The motto of Francisco Guerreiro and company is to make every visitor an unconditional fan of the Alentejo. That means letting them get to know the region through a handful of activities, some more radical than others. The most sought-after are those that involve the lake: these include stand up paddle and canoeing – daytime and night.

alentejobreak.com

 

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