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Stargazing in the Alentejo

The light never fades in the Alentejo. Not even at night. In fact, while the sky may turn dark after the sun goes down, the stars within become a vivid, seemingly endless dazzlement of light. 
In fact, that contrast between the profoundly dark night sky and the illumination of the stars, planets, and galaxies within it, is one of the things that make the Alentejo a rare and special place on earth. With development on the rise almost everywhere, the rural depths of southern Portugal are one of the last places to stay free from light pollution. And there are people fighting to keep it that way. 
All of this makes the Alentejo a stargazers’ delight. This is why Apolónia Rodrigues sought to get Lake Alqueva, at the southeastern edge of the Évora district, recognized as a Dark Sky destination back in 2007. 
Created by the International Dark Sky Association, the International Dark Sky Places conservation program "recognizes and promotes excellent stewardship of the night sky.” These can be reserves, which emphasize conservation, or tourism destinations, which promote astro tourism and education. 


In addition, UNESCO and the United Nations World Tourism Organization created a foundation called Starlight in 2007 to certify destinations that preserve the night sky and bring tourism and science closer together. Dark Sky Alqueva was the first in the world to receive it.
An Alentejo native, a longtime expert on sustainable tourism, and now president of Portugal’s Dark Sky Association, Rodrigues knew that she wanted the certification and the designation for Alqueva. "I work with future tendencies in tourism,” she says. "What I was seeing was a need for more nature, cutting off from the stress of the cities.” But at the same time, "no one was taking care of the night sky.” 
Meanwhile, destinations in Africa and New Zealand were starting to make a go of astrotourism. "I thought, we have a great sky,” she remembers. "We have a big sky. We have all our strategies for working with small, micro-, and nano-entrepreneurs. We have the network we need to create something interesting and different on an international level. And I saw that the sky was the best resource we could use for future trends.”
Alqueva Dark Sky has more going for it than that darkness. Along with the quality of the night sky, equally important are tourism offerings for people who want to look at and learn about the stars and constellations. That means that along with having astronomer guides at the reserve and some hotels in the area, they also have unexpected activities like night kayaking, night walking, and blind tastings (like literally in darkness) of Alentejo wines. And they have hotels that have looked after the practical considerations, like offering late breakfast and late breakfast for guests who have spent half the night looking at the star-lit sky.
Nuno Pereira Santos is an astronomer who works at Dark Sky Alqueva and leads guided stargazing sessions at the Alqueva center and the nearby hotel São Lourenço do Barrocal. "My job is to translate hard concepts into simple things,” he says of the hour-long presentations he gives about the night sky above. He explains how to find the North Star, points out constellations, and shows objects like star clusters, nebulae, and galaxies, including the Milky Way, when conditions are right. 


"I realize that most people who go aren’t highly related to astronomy,” he says. "And usually people enjoy it a lot. It’s very dark. People get that feeling that they are closer to the stars than normal.”
As for São Lourenço do Barrocal, the telescopes may not be as big as at the main visitor center, but the experience is magical in other ways. "There’s a special spot on the property that is very dark,” says Santos. It’s an historic circular structure, similar to a bullring, where the owners stored beehives a couple of centuries ago, when the property was a bustling farm.
The hotel will set up a small picnic, chairs, and blankets, along with the telescope. It’s all very comfortable, but that’s nothing compared to the history of the structure and the show going on overhead. "It has a special feeling because of the architecture of it,” he says. "If there’s no moon, you can see the Milky Way and a few other galaxies. The stars are right above their heads, not just something they’ve seen or read about on the Internet.” 
* Ann Abel is a freelance luxury travel writer with an adventurous streak: she’s been tattooed in Bora Bora, flown small airplanes over three continents, and been bitten by a massage therapist. The former travel editor of Luxury SpaFinder and ForbesLife, she writes regularly for Forbes.com and has written for Departures, Afar, Robb Report, Islands, Brides, and other magazines and websites. When not traveling, she is learning to fly trapeze.

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