Exploring Tabarca – Alicante’s island

Tabarca is so small, it only takes you a minute – literally – to walk right across the place at its narrowest point. It’s the smallest permanently inhabited island in Spain (just over 50 inhabitants at the last count) and it lies just a few miles off the Alicante coast.

Coming in to Tabarca harbour – the church and the 18th century fortifications

It’s a fun day trip, it’s a marine nature reserve with crystal clear waters, and it has some cool history – not least how it came to get the name Tabarca in the first place.

But more of that shortly. First, how to get there. The trip is part of the fun; there’s always a hint of adventure going to an island, even on a tourist boat.

Ferry from Santa Pola arriving in Tabarca harbour

You can jump on a catamaran from a number of places along the Costa Blanca coast. The fishing port of Santa Pola is the closest (around 25 mins, €10 return from ticket booths on the quayside) but you can also get there from Alicante marina, from Torrevieja to the south, and Benidorm or El Campello to the north.

The boats all make a big thing about underwater vision and have viewing windows cut into their hulls, but frankly it’s a bit of a waste of time. The viewing areas are cramped and you only see the odd passing fish.

Tabarca harbour

Tabarca is definitely an island of two halves. Once you step off the boat at the tiny harbour, you turn right for the inhabited and fortified part, and turn left for the flat open spaces and small rocky coves of the rest of the island, where it’s possible to get away from the crowds for some great views and some solitude.

Head first for the old town and some history. Tabarca was originally known as Isla Plana (Flat Island). Yes, it is an island and it is definitely flat, but clearly there wasn’t a lot of imagination going on in the naming committee.

Back in the day it was handy base for pirates (corsarios) preying on shipping and coastal communities along the Alicante coast. Eventually King Carlos lll had had enough of all this nonsense and decided to fortify Tabarca in the mid-1700s – you can see the remains of the walls and gates everywhere around the old town.

Carrer d’Enmig, the main street, runs the length of the little settlement

Fascinating fact!

Getting people to live on what was frankly a rather barren lump of rock was a bit of a challenge, until a rather neat solution came up – at least as far as the Spanish crown was concerned.

A brief rewind – in the 1530s, Spain had captured Tunis in north Africa, including the island of Tabarka. People from the Italian republic of Genoa were brought in to populate the island and work its coral reefs. Fast forward 200 years and Tabarka was seized by the Bey (a kind of sub-king) of Tunis, who made slaves of the still Christian population.

To cut a long story short, King Carlos III of Spain eventually paid a ransom to liberate the Genoese Tabarkans, brought them to Alicante and used them to settle Isla Plana. The new arrivals called the island Nueva Tabarca after their former home – and the name stuck. There are still clues to the Genoese heritage on the island – some Italian family names survive, there’s a Calle Génova and also a connection with the tiny island of San Pietro off the coast of Sardinia, where another Tabarkan exile community was established.

The main gate to Tabarca – Porta de Levant

Wander through the main gate, the Porta de Levant, down the main street Carrer d’Enmig to the Porta de la Trancada at the other end for views across to the mainland and the Cantera (Quarry) Islet where they dug out a lot of the stone to build the defences.

Looking out from the Porta Trancada (aka Puerta San Gabriel) to the mainland in the distance
The tiny islet of La Cantera, where a lot of the stone to build Tabarca was quarried

Walk along the town walls to reach the church, easily the dominant building in the town, but rather spoilt by a) being closed and b) having a half-ruined building obscuring the eastern façade. Head round to the opposite side of the village for the little pebble beaches of Cova de Birros and Llop Mari where you can swim in gin-clear waters.

The restored 18th century fortifications with the church in the background
The church of San Pedro and San Pablo – unfortunately closed. There is a legend that San Pablo (St Paul) landed on Tabarca – the island was sometimes known as Isla de San Pablo

Then the choices are: have something to eat – rice dishes are a speciality, especially a caldero tabarquino, a very filling combination of fish and rice. Or go snorkelling – Tabarca is a marine reserve and some of the best things to see are underwater. Or head down to the unpopulated east of the island to the lighthouse.

The little pebble beach of Cova de Birros

We were too late in the year for guided snorkelling tours (try here during the summer season), but you can still swim off the main beach (Platja Central), which gets pretty crowded in high summer, or head off to some of the little coves dotted around the coast of the island and do your own thing.

The main beach of Platja Central – quiet in October, but it gets a lot more crowded in summer

You can’t miss the squat, chunky tower of the Torre de San Jose, part of the island’s fortifications and a one-time prison. It was the Guardia Civil post, but it clearly hasn’t been used for a fair old while and you can’t go in.

The rather forbidding Torre de San Jose
The tower entrance – sadly shut!
Looking back to the town of Tabarca from the tower – the landscape is dry and flat, with lots of grasshoppers underfoot!

Further on is the lighthouse (again, you can’t visit) and right at the eastern tip of the island, the cemetery. Head a little further on to the rocky Punta Falcó for some great views out to sea and some tranquility away from the tourism.

The faro (lighthouse) of Tabarca
The lonely cemetery at eastern tip of the island
Looking out to sea from Punta Falcó, right at the eastern end of Tabarca

You can stay on the island after the ferries stop – the sunsets and stars are supposed to be spectacular – but we headed back to Santa Pola. On your way home, it’s worth stopping off at the Cabo de Santa Pola – the cape that overlooks Tabarca that you saw from your ferry – where there’s a lighthouse and spectacular views across to the island and along the coast. If you’re lucky, you might also see paragliders soaring over the cliffs – find out more in my post here.

Looking out to Tabarca town from the clifftop on Cabo de Santa Pola.

Tabarca travel tip!

Check the weather before you go. If the sea’s rough, the ferries might not run. And out of peak season, some restaurants will not be open, so check that too. We ate at La Caleta in late October – a good arroz negro (black rice cooked in squid ink) with calamar (squid), eaten on a terrace overlooking the sea.

For more things to do and see around Alicante, check out these blog posts:

You’ll find a lot more on Spanish food, wine and history especially here on the Costa Blanca, on my blog so feel free to take a good look around!

© Guy Pelham

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