Stephane and Flavia at Sky Andaluz. / SUR

Reaching for the stars in Alhama de Granada

Stephane Mandelert has been fascinated by astronomy since he was seven and now he wants to share that passion with others

Jennie Rhodes
JENNIE RHODES

Stephane Mandelert and Flavia Spreafico are a Swiss-Brazilian couple who have recently opened Sky Andaluz; an observatory in the sierra just outside Alhama de Granada.

The couple (Stephane is half Swiss and half Brazilian and Flavia is Brazilian) moved to the town in Granada province after years of research to find the optimum place to house their two telescopes and observatory. "My goal is to provide a wonderful first observational astronomy experience to as many people as possible," explains Stephane, 57, who has been fascinated by astronomy since he was just a young child.

"My passion for astronomy started when I was around seven years old. I received my first book on the subject and was hooked."

He was then given a comic by a teacher that explained the Big Bang theory and the expansion of the Universe. "I was fascinated," Stephane recalls.

At the age of 17 and on holiday in Switzerland (Stephane was brought up in Rio de Janeiro) he started to buy more "sophisticated" books on astronomy and his first telescope, "A 110 mm telescope that gave me problems at customs," the astronomer confesses.

However, the 110 mm was limited and while working for the banking sector in his father's native country of Switzerland, having left Brazil as a young man, he came across an advertisement for Stellarzac, a place in France where his now friend Frédéric Gea had a one-metre (40 inch) telescope.

"It seemed like a dream, a one-metre telescope available in a perfect place was an opportunity that I did not want to miss," says Stephane. It turned out that Gea built telescopes and Stephane went on to be his first customer.

After 30 years in the banking industry and with literally an entire galaxy to explore, Stephane, having by then married Flavia who came to Europe after a successful career as a PhD student and then teacher of Biochemistry in Rio de Janeiro, decided he wanted to start up his own observatory.

Finding the perfect site

This started years of research, looking into the best place with optimum conditions. The list of criteria was long: the couple needed a high plateau, away from light pollution, turbulence and other obstacles, but not too far out of the way so that visitors to the observatory would be able to reach them easily.

After considering a return to Brazil and looking at Italy, Morocco and even Chad, the list was narrowed down to southern Greece and Andalucía.

They eventually settled on the high plains outside Alhama de Granada which sits at over 1,000 metres above sea level, is surrounded by the Tejeda, Almijara and Alhama mountains and has views over the Sierra Nevada.

They arrived in July 2020 and after an 18-month process of getting the licences needed and building the installations (an observatory and visitor's centre as well as space and shelters for the two telescopes) Sky Andaluz opened in January of this year.

The couple divide the responsibilities into administrative and website (Flavia) and Stephane describes himself as the "artistic prima donna" who runs the tours. Although I must say that Flavia is a pretty good guide too!

The couple are warm, welcoming and passionate about sharing their love for astronomy. I visited in late July and as well as enjoying a fascinating stargazing experience when I got to see Jupiter and Saturn up close, as well as many shooting stars, my goodness the cool night air of the mountains was welcome!