What’s on that island?”, a curious child asked his father as they strolled past me on the dockside in the spring sunshine. “Nothing, son. Just a few houses,” came the reply. “It’s one of those ‘ecological’ places.”
The description made me smile but it wasn’t too wide of the mark. In truth, there’s not a great deal to Tabarca. This island off the coast of Alicante, southeast Spain, is just under 2km long and no more than half a kilometre wide. The population fluctuates between a few dozen in winter and a few hundred in summer. There are no roads, mainly because there are no cars. Tabarca is indeed one of those “ecological” places: it sits at the centre of a 1400-hectare marine reserve where fishing and scuba diving are strictly controlled, making these pristine waters some of the best in Spain for snorkelling.
I took the Tabarbus, a speedy motor-launch that is the island’s only low-season connection with the mainland. From the port of Santa Pola, its closest landfall, Tabarca had been a sandy-coloured blot between sea and sky. Now it loomed up fast and in half an hour I was lugging my bag off the boat and up through the tiny harbour, past blue-and-white wooden fishing craft with curiously Italian-sounding names. Over the way was a small museum; behind it, an expanse of delectable beach.
Tabarca is a corner of the Costas that the spoilers forgot to spoil – a pars pro toto of Spanish seaside life before tourism and construction ruined it for ever. The island lies within reach and sight of the Costa Blanca, permanently scarred by half a century of badly-planned development. By a miracle, however, it remains almost untouched by the contagion – if we can overlook a few ugly new “chalets” that have sneaked in where they shouldn’t.
For such a scruffy, forgotten little place, it exercises quite a spell. Here is Mediterranean culture in concentrated form – in the pretty church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, flanked with palm trees; in the weathered battlements of the island’s historic fortifications; not least in the cemetery, resting place of the Genoese refugees who arrived in the 18th century and whose surnames, Russo, Parodi, Chacopino, have passed down to today’s Tabarquinos and their fishing boats.
Walk up a sandy slope, past a beach-shack restaurant, under a stone arch between more palm trees, and you’re in Tabarca town, a cross-hatch of streets with the salt-bleached look of the fishing village that it used to be. The island’s dog-bone shape divides into two parts: the town, ringed with sea walls; and a wide open space known as El Campo (“the countryside”), where the only buildings are a lighthouse, a fort and a ruined farmhouse.
My wheeled bag rattled on the cobbles. Distant sounds of children playing in the square mingled with squalling seagulls and the omnipresent murmur of the sea. No cars mean no noise, no parking hassles, no reason to look left and right as you cross the street, and no worries about the kids that roam the island on bikes.
Those of us with a soft spot for this Mediterranean microcosm only ever had one serious complaint about it: there was nowhere decent to stay. The problem has been partly remedied by a new hotel in a four-square stone building, once the governor’s house and Tabarca’s only residential building of any importance, where the blue of sky and sea comes right in your bedroom window.
The 15-room Hotel Isla de Tabarca describes itself as “boutique”, which must be an indication of size rather than any great degree of luxury. Its white-with-a-dash-of-colour Ikea-style modernism felt more like an upmarket hostel – but then anything more sophisticated might have jarred with the island’s ramshackle charm. I imagined myself coming in sandy-haired and barefoot from the beach and finding it likeably fresh and functional.
Over two nights and days last month, with the Hotel Isla de Tabarca as my base, I explored the island from end to end and from side to side. It had looked tiny from a distance, but, like the Tardis, seemed bigger once you were in. The town had been spruced up a little since my last visit 10 years earlier: the streets, once of yellow sand, had been paved, the sea walls repaired and the church partly restored, the odd fisherman’s house now doubling as a summer cottage with concrete balustrades and images of Virgins on coloured Spanish tiles.
Sandstone arches, pitted and worn by centuries of salt and spray, opened out on to vistas of rocks and sea. This could be Sicily, Greece, Tunisia. At the island’s western end the town fizzled out into wasteland, the fortifications resuming their timeworn look. A small dog seemed happy to walk itself.
On the Friday afternoon, there was barely a soul in town. There was one place open for dinner: Casa Ramos on the Plaça Gran (“big square”). From my table on the terraza I could see Doña Carmen in her little kitchen and hear the sizzle of the fryer. Manuel, her son, brought me a plate of tiny red mullet, fried in olive oil with a squeeze of lemon; I have rarely tasted anything so delicious.
The restaurants of Tabarca are as good a reason as any for a visit, specialising as they do in island-caught fish cooked in island-specific ways. The caldero, a Tabarca speciality, is presented in two courses: first the rockfish, simmered with potatoes in a rich fish stock; then the rice, cooked in the same stock, with a powerful allioli (a jellylike emulsion of garlic and olive oil) on the side.
There is more gastronomy, ecology and history here than in many islands 10 times the size. Modern-day Tabarquinos will tell you they are descended from Genoese coral fishermen who were expelled from the island of Tabarka, off the coast of Tunisia, in 1769. A visit to the island’s one-room museum fills you in on the details – like the extraordinary Enlightenment city planned for Nueva Tabarca, of which only the fortress and church were ever realised, and the almadraba, a giant fishing net of Arabic origin, last used in 1960. (The nets were stored in the building that became the museum.)
Saturday was even quieter than Friday. I spent the day yomping over the scrubby landscape of El Campo, watching hoopoes swoop among the prickly pears and a cormorant colony on an islet at the far eastern end. I scrambled round a string of tiny coves, perfect for bathing. Over the water, the peaks of the Sierra Aitana loomed above the off-white scum of buildings along the Costa Blanca.
Finally, on Sunday morning, the island bestirred itself. Boats came and went; locals wished each other bon día as they carried up cases of wine and Carrefour bags from the harbour.
The church had been closed all week but this was Palm Sunday and the doors were open, bright white sunlight streaming in. A local man, painting the weather-beaten doors, told me that when funding ran out the Tarbarquinos had stepped in and finished the restoration work themselves. Inside, coloured figures of saints stood garishly against the peeling whitewash.
Anita Chacopino Russo was just opening her chiringuito, or beach restaurant, by the San Pablo gate. She had been over to Santa Pola, where most islanders live in exile, to shop, and came back on the early boat.
She and her husband opened the first restaurant on Tabarca almost half a century ago. Juan sat with me and reminisced about the old days, when El Campo was planted with wheat and barley and goats wandered around the town. In the 1950s, he remembered, the island teemed with children.
For lunch Anita served me her magnificent caldero. For pudding there was coffee flan, a speciality of the house that was once enjoyed by none other than the chefs Ferran Adrià and Juan Mari Arzak on their visit a few years ago.
“Arzak asked for the recipe but I wouldn’t give it to him,” said Anita proudly.
I’ve been wondering who, if anyone, to recommend Tabarca to. Nostalgists for the Mediterranean in an earlier incarnation, perhaps, or connoisseurs of that rare and precious thing: the car-free island. You could come on your own, rent a house and write a book. Or bring the family, stay at the Hotel Isla de Tabarca, and make it an old-fashioned Spanish summer vacation. As a child, it might just be the holiday you remember for a lifetime.
There remains one major caveat. In the high season, tourist boats called Tabarqueras bring over hordes of day-trippers from Alicante, Benidorm and Torrevieja and the island is, consequently, rammed. On an August afternoon you might wonder what circle of hell you had arrived in. On a weekday at any time from October to June, on the other hand, you may be one of a privileged few.
Waiting for my boat back to Santa Pola, I repaired to the bar La Almadraba and drank a farewell gin and tonic, watching the dazzle of afternoon light over the mirror-like Mediterranean. Tabarca is like the pleasures it provides: small and simple yet, in a modest kind of way, spectacular.