High above the citrus groves of the Almanzora Valley, beyond the sun-baked terraces of traditional Spanish pueblos, a series of large, white domes loom imposingly atop the pine-clad mountains of the Sierra de los Filabres. In this dusty heartland of Spain, these splendid structures stand out among the scattered communities and isolated fincas. A little further examination reveals one of south-eastern Spain’s least-known and most unusual attractions.
At an altitude of 2,168 metres, nestling among rocky outcrops and occasional herds of prancing Spanish Ibex goats, lies the Calar Alto Observatory, the largest astronomical complex in continental Europe. And it’s surprisingly accessible, as I discovered on my most recent visit to the Almería region!
Calar Alto location and surroundings
The setting is spectacular. At 50km in length, the Sierra de los Filabres is the largest mountain range in Almería Province, and Calar Alto its highest point. To the south lies the desolate Desierto de Tabernas, Europe’s only true desert, doing a fair impression of the barren lunar landscape.
Far towards the west, the noble Sierra de Nevada rises between the coast and the outstretched plains of Granada, slivers of perennial snow lacing its uppermost slopes. Calar Alto’s location is undeniably worthy of the majesty of the heavens it observes.
Astronomers in Almería and the future of humanity
Generally, the Almería region (pronounced Almer-Ria, not Al-MEER-iya ) is best known for its dusty towns, ex-pat valleys, and the palm-fringed paseos of popular coastal regions such as Mojácar and San Juan de los Terreros. But upon these peaks, exciting things are happening. Not only is the Observatory home to the largest telescope on mainland Europe (a 3.5m reflector), it also houses an impressive range of state-of-the-art instruments.
One of these, the CARMENES Planet Hunter, was developed to scout for ‘second Earths’ – potentially habitable planets capable of sustaining life as we know it. It’s a bit worrying when you realise that, at the very least, any such planet will be at least 40 trillion kilometres away. Based on the fastest spacecraft so far, it would take well over 260 million years to reach it. At the rate we’re destroying our own planet, it doesn’t bode well.
Meanwhile, to ensure we’re not annihilated by incoming comets or asteroids, Calar Alto, in conjunction with the European Space Agency (ESA), is currently monitoring those Near Earth Objects (NEOs) that approach within a certain range of our atmosphere. Or even invade it, as in the case of the 2013 Chelyabinsk meteor incident in Russia. It’s not that we’re in any imminent danger that we know of, but the more we learn about the composition and motion of these NEOs, the better equipped we’ll be to deal with any rogue wanderers, without having to go all Armageddon on it.
Since the onset of Covid-19, I’ve often wondered what it would take for human beings to really…I mean, really take stock of things and behave in a kinder, more responsible way. Coronavirus has made many of us re-evaluate our priorities, but it has also brought out the worst in human nature in some quarters. Maybe the imminent threat of extinction from outer space would do the trick? Or maybe not.
A stellar step forward for astrotourism
For many years since it first opened in 1975, Calar Alto remained an almost anonymous centre for respectable (if not widely promoted) scientific endeavour. In the last few years though, the Observatory has undergone a considerable improvement to its public image. Today, locals and tourists can visit the site and enjoy the invigorating scenery and guided tours of the grounds and facilities.
In January of 2016, a team of enthusiastic scientists and entrepreneurs launched Azimuth, an astrotourism and outreach company. The Azimuth team provide a wide range of astro-themed events and activities, in partnership with the Observatory itself. From guided Observatory visits and classic stargazing sessions, to combination events such as ‘Astronomy and Gastronomy’, where night sky observations are coupled with a gourmet meal – there are now many options to entice you away from those noisy, crowded beaches and up into the deliciously healthy air of Calar Alto.
With astrotourism widely acknowledged as a growing niche in the travel industry, Azimuth offers not only sustainable tourism services, but brings the valuable work of the Observatory into the public domain.
Daily life at the observatory
While tourists come and go, routine life continues for the long-term scientists and staff, who often stay on site for long periods of time. While the telescope domes dominate the site architecturally, other buildings, some tucked away behind a mossy slope or a cluster of pine trees, serve equally important purposes.
The working hub of the Observatory consists of the modest control centre, from where the telescopes can be remotely pointed to the chosen area of sky. On another side of the complex lie maintenance facilities and the modular, functional sleeping quarters for the on-site scientists and technical staff. Across the road is the social hub, comprising the canteen, hotel reception area and shady, contemplative chill-out zone. This isn’t your typical workplace. It’s more of a community, but as office hours here aren’t exactly 9 to 5, it’s just as well.
Take a moment to just be at Calar Alto
Most days, the weather up here is mighty fine, as it was during my visit. The skies are picture-postcard pretty and the sound is pure, devoid of the constant background rumble of industry and modern life. Ironic, given the high-tech establishment here. The panoramic views up here encompass several distinct landscapes – a shuffle of your feet in any direction can change hazy coastlines into glistening ski slopes or shimmering desert plains. It’s a place which simultaneously calms and invigorates, and a visit is worthwhile on that basis alone.
As I strolled around (slightly breathlessly due to the thinner air) taking snapshots of domes, goats and valleys, I wondered why, in all my trips to this region, I hadn’t discovered this place before. Especially with my lifelong love of all things ‘astro’. Spain’s tourism organisations have only recently begun promoting its exceptional astrotourism credentials, so they must have realised they were missing a trick!
Spain will always appeal as a vacation destination, and there are many ways to immerse yourself in the rich culture and environment of this south-eastern corner of Iberia. You could dance away to flamenco and reggaeton at a frenzied village fiesta. You could take a road trip through the dry, russet valleys & devour fallen roadside oranges. Or you might take it easy and sip a glass of sangria at the beach-front bar, as the sea rolls gently back and forth. These are the things you’d expect to do.
Just remember to look above the horizon from time to time. That is where the unexpected awaits you, and there’s no better example than Calar Alto Observatory.
How to get to Calar Alto Observatory
While visits to the interior of the Calar Alto Observatory need to be arranged in advance via Azimuth, the Observatory site itself has open access and is easily reached by road. These are mountain routes and have lots of twists and turns, but they are excellent roads.
From the main highway along the Almanzora Valley (A-334), take the A-1178 on the outskirts of the village of Serón (pictured above). Follow the road for just over 26km. Keep a lookout for a turning on the right, onto the AL-4404, which will be signposted to Calar Alto. Continue on this road for a couple of kilometers and you’ll soon see the telescope domes in the distance. The AL-4404 actually passes right through the astronomical site and onto the other side, eventually connecting with the A-92 highway to the south of the mountain range.
However, if you ARE approaching from south of the Sierra de los Filabres, you’d be better off picking up the A-1178 from the town of Gérgal, which lies just 5km further east along the A-92. This is the same road you take from Serón when you approach from the north and it traverses the entire mountain range. Continue northwards for just over 20km until you reach the AL-4404, this time on your left. Continue as before until you reach the domes.
For what else to see and do in the area, visit Turismo Almanzora.
For a tantalising taste of the Observatory’s incredible location, visit their external webcams here.
Do you know this part of Spain? Did you ever notice the strange white objects on the mountain tops but never got around to exploring further? We’d love to hear from you, whether you’ve visited Calar Alto or not!