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Best sites in France to watch the stars this weekend

Astronomy experts have recommended seven sites across France from which skygazers should watch the annual “Night of Stars” event, which is set for this weekend (Friday August 2 to Sunday August 4).

The event, organised by the French astronomy groups l’Association Française d'Astronomie (AFA), Planète Sciences - and in some years, la Société Astronomique de France (SAF) - encourages amateur stargazers to look to the skies every year.

It is timed to coincide with the often-spectacular Perseid meteor shower, which begins every year in mid-to-late July, and generally peaks in mid-August. This year, watchers may also be able to see the planets Jupiter and Saturn, to the south.

The annual Night of Stars event prompts many astronomy clubs to organise special themed evenings, and many sites across France host public gatherings too.

While it is possible to witness the meteor shower from within cities - including from the tower observatory at Montparnasse in Paris, or the space museum le Musée de l’Air et de l’Espace at le Bourget airport (Seine-Saint-Denis) - experts have recommended that the best views will be seen from more rural areas.

This is because they are further from the light pollution of cities and towns, making it easier to see the cosmic phenomena - whether looking with an amateur telescope, or with the naked eye.

The best time to see the shower is generally after midnight, when the sky is at its darkest.

There is no single place that is deemed “best” to watch the show, but experts at Le Figaro newspaper have picked out seven key recommended sites across France.

1. Le Pic du Midi de Bigorre (Hautes-Pyrénées)

With an observatory, planetarium, and a 15-bedroom hotel, the Pic du Midi de Bigorre is 2,877 metres high, and an ideal place to watch the stars. Since 2013, it has been classified as one of the global IDA International Dark Sky Place by the American group the International Dark Sky Association. It also offers great views of the Pyrenees mountains, and the sunset, and is accessible by téléphérique from the mountain station of La Mongie.

2. The Saint-Véran Observatory (Hautes-Alpes)

This commune has the honour of being the highest “most beautiful village in France”, at 2,042 metres. Its observatory, in the regional natural park of Queyras, is even higher, at 2,936 metres, and a three-hour hike from the village. The observatory was first opened in 1974, and renovated in 2015. It offers regular “Discovery Nights” through the AstroQueyras association, which includes an astronomy presentation, one night in the observatory, and breakfast. Places are limited.

3. The Provençal Baronnies Observatory (Hautes-Alpes)

Located near Moydans, this observatory is legally protected by a radius of 320 km² away from any light pollution. The site is usually open during the day, but visitors are invited to show up from 21h onwards to take part in observations this weekend. There are gites and rooms nearby in Mas-des-Grès.


4. The Quercy “black triangle” (Lot)

The Causses national park, north-east of Cahors, comes highly recommended as a stargazing site. As astronomy magazine Ciel et Espace once wrote: “There is only one large area in France where the sky remains dark: Quercy.” Around the park, 32 communes turn off their public lights and street lamps after midnight, in an effort to conserve this rare darkness. Some - as listed on the Parc du Quercy website - also have telescopes, or are happy for members of the public to bring their own.

5. The National Park of Cévennes (Ardèche, Gard, Lozère)

Only the second International Dark Sky Place in France - after the Pic du Midi de Bigorre (above) - classified only one year ago, in August 2018. With a vast space of 3560 km², the park is the largest Dark Sky site in Europe and the third-largest in the world. Its “Heart of the Night” exhibition is taking place until September 10, and includes seven interactive “skies” allowing visitors to discover more. There is also an observatory on higher ground - the Météo France Mont-Aigoual meteorological station.

6. The Rocbaron Observatory (Var)

This site - 40 km north of Toulon - is opening its three observatory domes for the Night of Stars event. The public will also have access to the 232 mm telescope, which is one of the largest in France. From 17h, visitors will be able to watch the Sun through special H-Alpha glasses, with the stargazing event beginning at 21h30. Use of the telescopes is free to the public on Saturday 3 and Sunday 4.

7. Mount Beuvray (Nièvre)

This 821 metre-high site is found in the Morvan regional natural park, in Bourgogne, and one of the only truly dark places in the north of France. Next Saturday, the site is holding a nighttime walk from the Bibracte museum to the summit, with a presentation scheduled for 20h. The space is also aiming to be named an International Dark Sky Place before the end of the year - in the hopes that this will speed up the proposed construction of an on-site astronomy centre, including a planetarium and an observatory.

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