El Torcal by night: the gateway to heaven

An image of the Milky Way, taken from El Torcal, in Antequera.
An image of the Milky Way, taken from El Torcal, in Antequera. / S. SALAS
  • Twinkling dots at infinite distances. The Milky Way alone has billions of stars. To discover the full beauty of the night sky, you don’t need to travel to a desert island. In Malaga province there is a unique place to enjoy some fascinating sights

You might not be lucky, but if it is a fine day and there are no clouds, it is like touching the gateway to heaven. Pitch black and so dense, the night almost takes form as it surrounds the visitor centre at the highest point of El Torcal. There is no light to pierce the darkness, except that from the torches. The air seems to crackle. You can hear the whistle of a bird or nocturnal insect. Somewhere, a mountain goat is bleating.

"If you want to see stars, this is the best place," says Francisco Gálvez, the manager of the Astronomical Observatory at El Torcal nature reserve in Antequera. Here, at 1,200 metres above sea level, there are no urban developments casting artificial light or any other emissions to cloud the view.

Most people who come here to stargaze do so with some hopes and expectations of what they will see. Many of them will be looking for the Southern Cross, the legendary constellation that explorers, adventurers and navigators used as a nocturnal compass to cross the oceans of the world. And also the Milky Way, with its more than a billion stars, stretching like the hand of a clock across the horizon.

It is a few minutes to midnight and the wind is blowing keenly between the thousand-year-old rocks of El Torcal. In perspective, they resemble the skyscrapers of an enormous city of stone. The air is dry and clear. The temperatures, while in Malaga city people are talking about heatwaves, are very low and, as advised, we are all wearing warm clothes.

A glance upwards reveals a captivating sensory spectacle of nature. Thousands of stars above you, following their fixed route and forming an enormous, far-reaching vault. It stretches across the infinite sky, making everything below it tiny.

"And at night I love to listen to the stars. It is like five hundred million little bells," reads a passage from the book The Little Prince. Here, in El Torcal, that passage begins to make real sense.

After a few minutes gazing into the infinite darkness, you gradually forget everything around you. The sky shines, the pulse quickens and the beauty of what you see makes you start to feel sentimental. The mind floats and the body feels lighter. However, seeing stars is one thing. Identifying the constellations is an impossible mission for the untrained eye.

That's why Francisco Gálvez is here. He has been leading astronomical observations from El Torcal for 25 years. Every Tuesday, Friday and Saturday this activity takes place, and it could almost have been created for the concept of social distancing.

"The only thing you need is a folding chair and warm clothes. And it's better to have too many layers than not enough," he says.

Francisco has a degree in Mathematics and long hair. He bought his first telescope when he was 12 years old. "I spent my childhood in Melilla. I saw it in a shop window and it was love at first sight," he recalls.

Clear explanations

He brings a vast amount of equipment with him, loaded into a van which he parks beside the visitor centre. It comprises telescopes, cables, cameras and tripods that come with counterweights. Once they are set up, the two telescopes are as high as a person. They have lenses the size of well-trained quadriceps and are connected to a projector which makes visible what is normally hidden from the human eye.

"The majority of people who come have never seen the Milky Way and when they do, they are fascinated by it. It's awe-inspiring," he says. But what is the Milky Way, really?

"It's our galaxy, seen from within. It is the biggest astronomical object that we can see with the naked eye and it is made up of over 150 billion stars," says Francisco, displaying the passion he feels for the night skies.

The explanations he gives are clear and easy to understand. Unlike what is transmitted by the human eye, the telescope reveals a reality that is not static. The Milky Way proves to be dynamic and animated, crossed and wandered through by a myriad of stars. Even in the part of it that draws the characteristic curves in the sky, like spiral arms, the stars are surprisingly fleeting. Through the telescope you can see how they suddenly disappear, and then re-emerge somewhere else.

To this we must add that the Milky Way doesn't exist on its own. Like street lamps attracting insects, it is surrounded by small companions. These mini-galaxies have an impact on the core itself. "We shouldn't see the Milky Way as something isolated. Together with the satellites, it forms a complete system in which each element has an influence on the other," says Francisco.

Technology is also a help at El Torcal. The image of an astronomer spending entire nights clamped to instruments and monitors in a control room, his only journey being to the kitchen for more coffee, belongs in the past. Automation means that what you see can be controlled through a single computer. Francisco takes screenshots which he then shares with the people who are attending these sessions.

At El Torcal it is very probable that you will be able to enjoy some views that others only dream about. If it isn't the Milky Way, there are other options. The Moon, seen through a telescope, looks different: pale grey like cement, with craters intermingled on the surface, looking like a hollowed cheese. It is silently fascinating.

Apart from that, the following lesson applies: the sky is alive, and how! The weak lights of the satellites are visible to the naked eye from here. Suddenly, the ISS appears: that's the crewed international space station. It disappears just as quickly. The speed at which it travels, nearly 30,000 kilometres an hour, makes it only vaguely discernible.

Venus, with its impressive silhouette, also moves off towards the western side of El Torcal. Then a shooting star passes through the sky above. But it is fast, too fast even to make a wish.