The Dark Skies Over Alqueva

I first came across the name Alqueva during one of my mindless surfing bouts, searching for places to visit in Portugal. What caught my eye was the tagline on the page <> which said – “First Starlight Tourism Destination In The World”. Having always been a lover of astronomy and all things “outer space”, I was intrigued.

Having seen innumerable images of the Milky Way as seen from remote spots on earth, I had always envied those who could glimpse and photograph these magnificent skies. As a city dweller, I had been severely deprived of these sights and so, the website had me hooked.

Further research into the Alqueva Observatory led me to the conclusion that this was something we must do. All three of us are astronomy buffs and jumped at the idea of a trip to the Alentejo region of Portugal. Planning began in earnest.

Deciding when to go was easy. Since we all sleep early, summer was a bad time as the sun would only set around 8.30 – 9.00 pm. So Autumn it would have to be. SInce Soli was visiting us in November, we decided to take him along, expose and stimulate his grey cells a bit.

Figuring out how to get there was a bit of a challenge, but in the end we decided that an overnight halt in Lisbon would be a good choice. For our stay, we were limited to places that were walking distance from the Observatory, since we didn’t yet have a car. Luckily, the good folk at the observatory told us about Monte Santa Catarina, a homestay about a 15 minute walk from the observatory, so we were set.

We caught a bus from Lisbon Sete Rios bus stand for Reguengos de Monsaraz, a drive of about one & a half hours. From there we had arranged for a cab to take us to Monte Santa Catarina <>, on the outskirts of the town of Monsaraz which sits on a hill. The ride was another 20 mins. Along the way we passed numerous vineyards for which the region is famous.

Monte Santa Catarina

Monte Santa Catarina was a revelation. A farm of over 40 hectares has been converted by the owners into an animal shelter where they care for animals that have been abandoned. As we entered the driveway, we were greeted by two dogs, a German Shepherd and another of uncertain breed, both exceedingly friendly and frisky. The cottage where we stayed had 3-4 rooms along with a separate section for the owners, Susana & family.

The farm itself was divided into different sections, each populated by a different species. There were meerkats, llamas, ponies, donkeys, deer and an emu along with hordes of sleek, well-fed cats and some dogs too. Eva, a blind German Shepherd became our good friend and Lana for one, was in heaven.

The Starfield

Our appointment at the observatory was for 6.30 pm and it was with great excitement that we set off. The skies were already dark with just a smattering of stars visible by the time we reached the observatory. There was a short AV lecture in the auditorium to help get us oriented and then it was out to the open grounds where two unassuming telescopes had been set up for the session. There was a brief flurry of excitement when it was announced that the Starlink satellites were passing overhead and indeed they were. A long line of yellow dots were making their transit across the sky, Musk’s signature, pretty as you please.

And so the session began. The sky got darker; more stars appeared like bashful teenagers and the night got progressively colder. Our resident astronomer Fred, in his own humorous manner, explained to us what we were going to see. It started with the moon, went on to show us the Pleiades (Seven Sisters) and another stair cluster, Saturn, Jupiter and a couple of nebulae and M31, the Andromeda Galaxy.

The moon was a half moon and we could see the craters clearly through the scope, a bright black and white vista that looked just like in the pictures. The distant stars looked just like stars, too far away to be magnified into anything but dots in the sky. But along with the Seven Sisters were so many more stars than one could see with the naked eye!

Saturn resolved from a pinpoint of light into an oval shaped disc with the rings clearly visible. Jupiter could be seen with a couple of its moons, the Great Red Spot a black dot on its disc. A ring nebula looked like a smoke ring in space, and for me, the Andromeda Galaxy was just a light smudge in the sky, nothing more.

For the first time I was able to make out the Milky Way as a faint band of stars in the sky. Disappointingly, it wasn’t the bright band that we were expecting from the pictures, but Fred explained that this was because at this time of the year, the Earth faced towards the outer region of the Galaxy, which is much less densely populated than the centre. To view the Milky Way centre, we would have to visit in June, when the heat down south can be quite intimidating. Something to consider. 

For me, the best part of the observatory was just looking up at the beauty of the night sky, something we seldom see in the city. It tells of the beauty of the cosmos and shows us a different perspective on our place in it. Very humbling.

I am so glad we went.

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