La Belle Étoile: Why You Should Go Stargazing in France This Year

The pandemic saw a rise in Dark Sky Reserves opening across Europe. But no nation has done more to protect the nighttime stars than France.

Pic du Midi observatory

At the Pic du Midi observatory in the Pyrenees, travelers can view the night sky in all its glory.

Photo by Anibal Trejo/Shutterstock

In July 2021, the City of Lights went dark—or at least, it was supposed to. France’s Environmental Ministry, which aimed to make the country a dark-sky pioneer, had issued a decree, requiring all shops and offices in Paris to shut off their lights at night. But the law, originally introduced in 2020, was ignored by many big corporations and fashion brands, which use their neon signs in the City of Light as free advertising.

Enter Paris-based parkour collective and guerrilla activists, On The Spot, who decided to take matters into their own hands. Its members climbed walls and scaffolding to turn off the illuminated signs themselves, a rebellious act that helped raise awareness of the city’s light pollution problem.

Dubbed “Lights Out Paris,” the movement eventually caught on across the city. Officials even dimmed the Eiffel Tower, replacing bulbs and projectors with modern LED technology—which reduced energy by up to 80 percent—and decreasing the tower’s sparkling effect from 10 to 5 minutes each hour.

It’s all part of the larger Dark Skies movement, which started in the southwestern United States in the 1970s but has taken off globally in recent years, with a constellation of new certified Dark Sky Reserves opening in places like Israel, Croatia, Brazil, and Japan. Europe, the continent with the most light pollution, has jumped on the night-sky preservation bandwagon—with France leading the way.

Since 2020, France has adopted the planet’s strictest and most progressive light-pollution policies: imposing light curfews; curbing light pollution; significantly reducing glare emissions of blue light, and outright banning lasers, sky beams, lit waterways, and other light “trespasses.” Even stricter rules are expected in 2023. The country has also developed a network of International Dark Sky Reserves, places to nurture your inner astronomer while abroad.

All four of France’s Dark Sky Reserves—Réserves de Ciel Etoilé or RICE for short—form a necklace across the southern half of the country where skies are typically clearer. They’re dreamy places to be during the autumn meteor showers—Orionids (September 26–November 22), Taurids (September 28–December 2), Leonids (November 3–December 2), and Gemenids (November 19–December 24)—and also destination-worthy parks where you can appreciate France’s great biodiversity and nature à la belle étoile. Here’s everything you need to know about France’s Dark Sky Reserves.

Allos Lake in Mercantour National Park

Head to southern France to see stars shine in Allos Lake in Mercantour National Park.

Photo by Elementals/Shutterstock

1. Alpes Azur Mercantour Dark Sky Reserve

Alpes Azur Mercantour Dark Sky Reserve is located in Provence, about 30 minutes northeast of Nice. The 888-square-mile reserve was designated a Dark Sky Reserve in 2019—France’s third—and is home to an especially diverse set of nocturnal creatures, including wolves, fireflies, bats, and moths. Also part of the reserve: 75 municipalities that adhere to strict light-emission rules, making it possible to observe more than 3,000 stars here.

Since the 19th century, the region, which includes Mercantour National Park, has been considered an astronomy epicenter. As a result, there’s a network of six professional and amateur astronomy sites, including the ruins of Mont Mounier Observatory, the Plateau de Calern, and Vallon de la Moutière, home to a hypertelescope.

Even St. Tropez’s famed beach clubs, located in the village of Ramatuelle 30 minutes from the park, have transformed themselves from party zones into plastic-free places that strictly limit light and noise pollution.

In 2019, the government forced club owners to rebuild all 27 historic beach clubs, removing four clubs in the process, to help decrease light pollution. The 23 new clubs—La Réserve, Cheval Blanc, and Byblos, to name a few—were built with sustainable flat-pack materials, have banned plastics outright, and have strict light-emission laws. While swimming and sunning are still the main focus, they’ve become romantic spots to watch sunsets, full moon rises, and meteor showers.

Where to stay

Terre Blanche: About 20 minutes from the park, Terre Blanche is a low-key luxury resort set on a rolling slope planted with native Provencal plants like Aleppo and maritime pine, wild thyme, and lavender. The property is a leading figure in dark-sky conservation: It uses motion sensors throughout the resort, dims all pathway lights at night, and has built light-free migration corridors for nocturnal animals, among other things.

The resort’s villa terraces are orientated for stargazing and, at night, the lights automatically dim, allowing travelers to watch for red dwarves and blue supergiants (while sipping a glass of local rosé, naturally). Plus, Terre Blanche’s two 18-hole golf courses—home to the occasional stargazing event—are arguably the world’s greenest: They’re 100 percent bio- and pesticide-free and, soon, will be totally light-free.

2. Cévennes National Park

The vast, untrammeled, 1,148-square-mile Cévennes National Park was designated an International Dark Sky Reserve in 2018. Situated in the southeastern flank of the Massif Central—a highland region of mountains, plateaus, and hills, thickly wooded with old-growth trees—the park is also a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve with 2,300 plants and 2,410 animals, more species than anywhere else in France.

Hiking, wildlife-spotting, camping, canoeing, and rafting are popular, but stargazing has been on the uptick. Astro-pilgrims are especially drawn to Mont Aigoual Weather Observatory, where amateur astronomers regularly meet for informal stargazing hikes, to spot comets and meteors, or simply to get a better glimpse of Orion’s belt.

Where to stay

The park partners with organizations that offer dark sky–friendly accommodations ranging from furnished bivoacs, cabins, and campsites to gîtes (small vacation homes) and bed-and-breakfasts. You can even sleep in a glass pyramid or embark on a six-night star-focused mountain journey with donkeys.

3. Pic du Midi Reserve

The Pic du Midi Reserve in the Pyrenees, certified as a Dark Sky Reserve in 2013, offers overnight programs for visitors who want an in-depth and intimate connection with galaxies and other celestial objects. The wheelchair-accessible reserve is accessible via a cable car from La Mongie, at the base of the Col du Tourmalet, and home to a museum of astronomy, a planetarium, mountain bike trails, and a traditional restaurant serving local trout and lamb. While the park is a refuge for bears, lizards, capercaillies, chamoix, and bearded vultures (the region’s largest bird of prey), it doubles as summer pasture for cows, the source of Pyrenean “tomme” cheeses.

Where to stay

Pic du Midi partners with the NGO starwatch group Ferme des Étoiles to bring guests up to the observatory for overnight experiences. Guests stay in comfortable rooms designed for visiting astronomers and climate scientists and start with sundowner cocktails, followed by a chef’s tasting dinner and an astro session at the Charvin Dome Observatory where the 400-mm Smith-Cassegrain telescope awaits (single rooms from $469). You can arrange a less ornate dinner atop the mountain for $29. Ferme des Étoiles also offers seven- to nine-day astronomy camps for kids age 8 to 17.

4. Regional Natural Park of Millevaches

This park, designated a Dark Sky Reserve in 2021, is located in Limousine, marked by a moody landscape of heather moors, peat bogs, wetlands, and old deciduous forests where otters, pearl mussels, wetland azures, and linnets dwell. The birds and flora are especially diverse, with white-tailed eagles, nightjars, and woodlark flitting around the sphagnum mosses and droseras. The park is also one of the best places to see the Milky Way with the naked eye; the average zenith night sky brightness measurement here is 21.6 mag/arcsec, which in layman’s terms means it’s so dark you can see distant starshine.

Where to stay

Stargazing overnighters are spoiled with choice: park-affiliated lodgings include a ranch, a donkey farm, lodges, self-catering gites, and cottages. Creatives can also seek out the artist’s residency on Isle de Vassivière, a remote and wooded lake island. The paid residencies aim to draw artists to the park to raise awareness of the endangered night skies and illustrate nocturnal landscapes so that star enthusiasts can appreciate the wild nature of our universe for generations to come.

Adam H. Graham is an American journalist and travel writer based in Zürich. He has written for a variety of publications, including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, National Geographic Traveler, Condé Nast Traveler, Travel & Leisure, BBC and more. Assignments have taken him to over 100 countries to report on travel, sustainability, food, architecture, design, and nature.
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