A long, winding road leads to the top of Portugal’s highest mountain, and here, unlike many other European peaks, visitors can drive straight to the top. The peak rises 1,993m above sea level and although its real name is Torre (Tower), most people simply refer to it by the same name as the mountain range it rises over: Serra da Estrela or “Mountain of Stars”. .
During the day the drive offers wonderful views across the rolling countryside of this narrow country – from the red hills of Spain in the east to the blue Atlantic Ocean in the west. The real spectacle, however, comes when the sun goes down. Not only is this mountain a popular spot for watching golden sunsets, but for those who stay later, it offers a shimmering nighttime fresco covering the sky, composed of millions of white pinpricks scattered in glorious imperfection.
In the last decade, Portugal has gained recognition as one of the best places in the world for travelers to observe the night sky thanks to the creation of the 3,000 km² Dark Sky Alqueva Reserve in Portugal’s central Alentejo region. In 2011, the reserve was certified as the world’s first Starlight tourism destination by the Starlight Foundation, a Unesco-supported international organization promoting science and tourism. This status recognizes the region’s ideal viewing conditions (low light pollution and an average of 286 cloudless nights per year, resulting in some of Portugal’s darkest skies), but also the broader tourism infrastructure that has inspired it and caters specifically to stargazers.
Dark Sky Alqueva is also the starting point for a stunning 3-hour road trip that takes you through some of the least light-polluted parts of Europe, meandering along the Dark Sky Route (a curated collection of activities and accommodation) and ascending to Portugal’s highest peak, the aptly named Serra da Estrela or “Star Mountain”.
My friend and I began our intergalactic journey 300km south of Serra da Estrela on a particularly dark night in the village of Cumeada, where a school has been converted into the Dark Sky Alqueva Observatory, which hosts stargazing and astrophotography exhibitions. Here we met Miguel Claro, a guide and official photographer of Dark Sky Alqueva.
“Portugal is awakening to this immensely unique and valuable natural resource that has long been underestimated,” said Claro. “Dark Sky Alqueva is the astronomical equivalent of the giant wave that was ‘discovered’ by surfers in Nazaré – something that had been hiding in plain sight, waiting for those with the right sensibilities to take a closer look.”
Claro is a deep space specialist, and when he’s not leading groups on nocturnal stargazing expeditions, he spends his time photographing distant objects like nebulae, galaxies, and star clusters. These are things that may look faint and unimpressive to the naked eye or even through a telescope’s eyepiece, but explode with color and detail when photographed.