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  • Thomas Grohmann

Around the Adriatic Sea - Landscape, Nature and the Hunt for Dark Skies

Aktualisiert: 9. Feb. 2022

These at least were the ingredients of a summer road trip that had been planned for some time and would take us through at least 8 countries along the Adriatic and the Balkans. After the 2020/2021 winter lockdown, the plan gradually turned into a real project in the spring of 2021. There were some very concrete places in our minds that we wanted to see, discover for ourselves and photograph. Mostly, however, there were just rough ideas about which regions and countries the journey would actually take us to. Because apart from the fact that many areas were terra incognita for us, different Corona regulations had to be observed and the extreme summer heat that was developing during the trip had to be included in the daily route planning. Some highlights of the tour are described in this blog entry.

One of the specific destinations was a region in the Abruzzi, which lies on the Italian boot at about the latitude of Rome. There, at the highest point of the Apennines, the Corno Grande (2912m) in the Gran Sasso massif, glaciers have formed a plateau 1500 to 1900m in altitude, the so-called Campo Imperatore.

The approximately 80 km² plateau is little known in Germany. Its landscape is somewhat reminiscent of Tibet and has been used for nomadic grazing since time immemorial. In winter, skiing enthusiasts enjoy the area. Because of the good visibility conditions on clear nights, an observatory is located in the summit region where near-Earth objects are searched for.

At night you have a beautiful view over the observatory and the plain with the summer Milky Way.

On the Campo and in the surrounding mountain villages there was the opportunity on several nights to capture the open star cluster and gas nebula IC1396 with the famous Elephant Trunk Nebula with a total exposure time of about 7 hours.

The small town of Ascoli Piceno, richly blessed with cultural and historical buildings, is the gateway to Abruzzo. On the Piazza del Popolo, framed by the Palazzo dei Capitani del Popolo and the Loggia dei Mercanti (market hall), people meet in the evening after 10 pm and enjoy life. The hustle and bustle in the square is crowned in the sky by the claws of the constellation Scorpio.

Unfortunately, the tectonic substructure of the region is anything but stable.

Due to the complex interaction of geological and tectonic processes, violent earthquakes often occur with sometimes devastating effects (most recently Aquila in 2009 with over 300 deaths, Amatrice in 2016 and 2017 - complete destruction with also over 300 victims). Reconstruction often takes a long time due to inefficient administration and corruption. Clean-up work is still taking place in many places today, and some damage will probably never be repaired or removed. More impressions can be found here.

The quest for dark skies takes us further south and across the Ionian Sea to two places in northern Greece that impressed us at night for the darkness of their skies and during the day with the rural "Greek way of life".

One is the Pindos, the high mountain range that stretches from Albania about 150 km in a north-south direction and rises up to 2,630m with the second highest mountain in Greece, the Smolikas. Between the individual massifs, relatively small rivers have eroded deep into the rock and formed enormous gorges. The most famous is the Vikos Gorge, which has even made it into the Guinness Book of Records as the deepest gorge in the world. The information about the maximum depth differs enormously (between 600 and 1,000 m!), the decisive factor for the record was actually the ratio between depth and width.

From the so-called Vikos balcony, in any case, you have a breathtaking view of the gorge.

On the high and meadowy areas above the mountain village of Monodendri at an altitude of a good 1300m, even extreme summer temperatures can be easily endured. The cooler and clear nights also offer excellent celestial observation opportunities.

At the opposite end of the Vikos Gorge, the rock towers of Astraka look down on the mountain village of Papigo, revealing a starry sky no less impressive than in Monodendri.

In the area of Zagoria, which means "behind the mountains", the individual villages used to be accessible only via narrow, winding and paved roads. Even today, many well-preserved bridges can be seen, spanning small rivers and streams.

Secondly, the search for high sky quality takes us to the most north-western point of Greece, to the border region with Albania and northern Macedonia.

This region is also sparsely populated and has one of the darkest skies in the country, if not in the entire Mediterranean region. Nevertheless, it is easy to reach on well-maintained roads.

We are talking about the Greater and Lesser Prespa Lakes. Situated at an altitude of about 850m, the lakes are important as breeding and wintering grounds for many rare bird species, such as pink pelicans and Dalmatian pelicans, because of their abundance of fish. The Prespa Lakes are probably home to the world's largest population of Dalmatian pelicans, with around 1500 breeding pairs.

But we also observed bee-eaters, bitterns and red-backed shrikes.

Here, too, we were thrilled by the starry sky. The pleasant night temperatures invite you to linger outside and marvel.

In the small fishing village of Psarades, on a hill, a mosaic with many known objects in the Central Dust Band of the Milky Way could be exposed.

There are also regions with high sky quality in the neighbouring country of Albania. This country, unknown to us until then, is characterised by many peculiarities. It is beautiful and sometimes littered, often contradictory, but in any case incredibly exciting. Every now and then, in conversations, we managed to get a glimpse into the soul of the people. We focused on the Ionian coast, the UNESCO World Heritage city of Berat, the Albanian Alps and the city of Shkodra on Lake Scutaria.

If you drive from the south along the Albanian Riviera to the north of the country, you will climb up the coastal mountains to the Llogarapass. The views from the top are fantastic, stretching across the Ionian Sea to Corfu.

In the area around the pass there are some grasslands and areas for observing and camping under very appealing skies.

Photographic impressions from Berat, the Valbona valley and views from the many panoramic roads are compiled here.

Landscape night photographs from the road trip and shots with other celestial objects can be viewed here.


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