Tabarca Island has been inhabited sporadically since Roman times, when it was known as Isla Plana (the flat island). Its history as a populated island began in the mid-1700s, when the Spanish king ransomed a group of Italians who had been captured and were being held by Muslim pirates in another city called Tabarka, on the coast of Tunisia. King Carlos III was concerned about the activity of Turkish marauders along the Spanish coastline near Alicante, and he decided that the “flat island” could provide a solution to his problems: he could build a military garrison there as an early warning system for the coast, and he could start a settlement with the Italian prisoners on the island so it could not be easily invaded.
In 1760, the king moved the former prisoners to the island, now called Tabarca, and built them small fishing homes along three main streets. He also had the soft golden stone cut and transported from an adjoining island, and used to build a city wall, a magnificent church and a watchtower on the part of Tabarca that was not inhabited. There were plans to build more monumental structures and a palace on Tabarca as well, making the island a fortified city.
Unfortunately or happily for Tabarca, money ran out and the king´s interest dwindled, and the city was left with only the first beautiful stone structures, which are still standing. The inhabitants eked out a living farming on the uninhabited side of the island and fishing in the rich coastal waters, especially for tuna. Fishing eventually became a bonanza for the island and the population rose to about 500, with a school for the children, a health center and many local businesses.
However, since Tabarca lacked fresh water or electricity until the end of the 20th century, it was protected from the frenzied development and construction that spoiled the Alicante coast beginning in the 1960s. The island was declared a national monument in the 1960s, which protected its historic structures and the crumbling city wall, and in the 1980s it was made Spain´s first marine reserve, which ended commercial fishing there. Tourism became the mainstay of island life, and the population dwindled as inhabitants migrated to the mainland. This combination of factors preserved the island of Tabarca as the Mediterranean paradise it is today.
Today, to visit Tabarca Island is to catch an almost unspoiled glimpse into a Spanish village of the 1950s, with its whitewashed rows of houses, mom and pop businesses and exclusively local cuisine. There are no cars, no banks, no chain stores and no billboards. A few fishing boats still depart the harbor each morning, just before boat after boat of sunbathers arrive to enjoy the gorgeous beaches and pristine waters of the island.
Tabarca's waters are warm and teeming with marine life. Octopus climb up onto the ledges along the coasts, fish swim through the underwater “pastures”, and the tidepools around the island. Birds, too, thrive on the island and the many islets just off its coasts. The city, with a population of only two dozen people in winter, is bustling with tourists on summer days who visit the many taverns, restaurants, galleries and shops. In the evenings those remaining after the boats depart gather to watch the sunset from the western gate of the city, wander lovely beaches and meander around the streets and city walls under the moonlight, listening to spontaneous Spanish music or watching their children play on the playgrounds on the town squares.