Let the universe be your guide
Best stargazing spots across the world
THE wheel of heaven fascinates. From ancient zodiac temples to futuristic planetariums, there are numerous ways for travellers to be guided by stars. Cleopatra’s skies: See the stars as they appeared to Cleopatra in 50BC carved into the sandstone ceiling of the temple to Osiris at Dendera, Egypt. But you’ll need to head to Paris, not the Nile, to do so, as the ceiling was ripped out by Napoleonic archeologists and is now pinned in place at the Louvre. The Egyptians want the Dendera Zodiac back, as it’s the only complete map of the ancient world’s heavens. More: louvre.fr. Starry, starry nights: Escape city light pollution on a stargazing tour. Mauna Kea in Hawaii, Lake Tekapo in New Zealand and our own Uluru offer gazing opportunities and tours of sufficient inkiness. Or try Kejimkujik in Nova Scotia, a 400sq km Dark Sky Preserve and one of 12 across Canada.
Advanced indoor stargazing is available in San Francisco at the California Academy of Science’s digital Morrison Planetarium, which is like a fairground ride through the universe.
For more impressionistic stars, pick up the brochure from the tourist office and follow the Van Gogh trail through Arles, Provence. Linger at dusk on the quay where the sublime Starry Night Over the Rhone was painted in 1888, one of a number of nocturnal views of the town by the artist. More: arlestourisme.com. Steering by the stars: Among the most beautiful navigational instruments are historic astrolabes incised with planetary orbits and devices. Boston’s Harvard University has a clutch, as does the Museo Galileo in Florence and Madrid’s Museo Naval. But the world’s largest display (170 astrolabes among its 18,000 items) is at Oxford University’s Museum of the History of Science housed in one of the world’s oldest purposebuilt museums (1683). More: mhs.ox.ac.uk. Astronomical clocks: Religion met science in the astronomical clocks of medieval Europe. The 1410 Prague Orloj on the old town hall is one of the few still working, after being saved by locals from a Nazi arson attempt. Death in the form of a skeleton strikes the hour while figures of all 12 apostles step out above its zodiac face (it is an astrolabe too). Head southeast to Olomouc, the old Moravian capital where the Nazis also attacked the stars and moons of the town clock in its 14m-high niche. It was reconstructed under communism with socialist realist figures of athletes, factory workers and scientists instead of saints: More: olomouc.eu. Do the bossa nova: Best efforts couldn’t save Canberra’s Mount Stromlo observatory from the 2003 bushfire inferno, but you can still survey the Southern Cross through a telescope, glass of wine in hand, courtesy of the Canberra Astronomical Society, which organises public viewing nights. Check dates for Sunset Bossa Nova Beers & Bites. More: rsaa.anu.edu.au/cas. Things are looking up: The Royal Observatory at Greenwich (or ‘‘the home of time’’, as it likes to style itself) has the oldest object you could possibly touch: a 4.5-billion-year-old meteorite. At the Benedictine Kremsmunster Abbey in Austria, ascend an 18thcentury skyscraper, a nine-storey natural history museum layered with curiosities that include pocket sundials; it’s crowned with an observatory and chapel where monks could contemplate the meaning of the cosmos.
In Jaipur, in the Indian desert state of Rajasthan, the 1727-built Jantar Mantar, Maharaja Jai Singh II’s architecturally scaled outdoor observatory, is as sculpturally pleasing as it is serious Mogul-era science. More: incredibleindia.org. Star treks: Crane your neck as you climb the grand staircase of London’s St Pancras Renaissance hotel. Above is a vault of gold leaf stars. This richly gothic railway hotel has just been reopened after lying empty for decades. Once described as ‘‘too beautiful and too romantic to survive’’, it is the nearest you’ll get to staying at Hogwarts: St Pancras provided inspiration for the film version of the school for wizards. More: marriott.co.uk.
The digital Morrison Planetarium in San Francisco