The journey from Santa Pola to Tabarca is a unique spectacle, an incredible mosaic of scenery, land and sea. The crossing is a short trip, barely three miles, leaving behind the salt flats and sailing from Santa Pola’s beaches, some rocky, some with fine sand, to the flat island of Tabarca. The island, the only one inhabited in the Region of Valencia, is a genuine natural monument. The human aspect of its single town complements a beautiful, virtually-unknown protected area.
Santa Pola, a perfect example of a Mediterranean fishing town, is the starting point for a journey through nature, history and local tradition, passing peacefully from rocky coves to sandy beaches and from La Sierra to the Albufera area of Las Salinas. Ancient civilisations left their mark on Santa Pola. A walled, Iberian town from the 4th century before Christ is the first example. The town has a fishing port that has boasted its fame since the time of the Romans, who called it Portus Ilicitanus. Remains from that period can also be seen in the luxurious Roman villa of El Palmeral and in the fish-salting factory from the 4th century before Christ, next to the Iberian excavation.
The castle, a magnificent example of 16th-century Renaissance military architecture, was built for King Felipe II as a defence against attacking pirates from the northern coast of Africa. Its purpose nowadays is to exhibit Santa Pola’s history and culture: it houses two Museums, the exhibition hall, the bastion of the Duke of Arcos and the Chapel of La Virgen de Loreto. The aquarium, another highly-recommended visit in Santa Pola, covers an area of 700 square metres and its central hall contains nine large tanks with Mediterranean flora and fauna. Santa Pola’s three watch towers – Tamarit Tower in Las Salinas, Escaletes in La Sierra and Atalayola at the modern, day lighthouse, were built in 1552 to prevent attacks from the Berbers.
They are strategically positioned to Santa Pola has over 15 kilometres of coastline of which 11 are beaches of fine sand, offering a wide range of possibilities: urban beaches, small bays with crystal-clear water, shallow beaches ideal for children and adults alike and, on the promontory, rugged, barely-visited coves. To the west, Pinet beach next to the Salinas Natural Park is a virgin area over 3.5 kilometres long which can only be reached on foot. La Gola, next to Salinas Natural Park, has a zone set aside for kitesurfing, and this area is reached by walking from Pinet or Tamarit beaches. The last of these has an old saltworks dock built in 1897 to unload wagons of salt onto ships anchored in the bay. Gran Playa and Playa Lisa beaches have all kinds of urban services plus designated areas for windsurfing and skating.
To the east, Varadero and Levante beaches and the bays of Santiago Bernabeu are fully-urban beaches. It was off the Levante beach where, in 1900, the British Navy ship Theseus anchored with English and Scottish astronomical commissions to witness an eclipse of the sun. While waiting for the day to arrive, sailors from the Theseus played a game called foot-ball on the beach, under the astonished stares of the locals, until they finally decided to join in. Also in the eastern area are the beaches of Santa Pola del Este and the promontory’s coves are located in solitary settings with great landscape value. The last cove, next to the Hermitage of La Virgen del Rosario, is Santa Pola’s municipal boundary. You should not leave Santa Pola without visiting the promontory, facing Tabarca, which at a height of 144 metres is Europe’s only example of a coral reef from the Messinian era.
Communicate with each other using smoke signals by day and lights by night. Other sights in the town include the Plaza del Calvario, the Market, the Glorieta, the maritime boulevard and the port, which is where, among others, the boats that join Santa Pola and Tabarca are docked.
Tabarca does not disappear from the horizon as you sail towards it, but the light seems to break up during the journey: the sky seems redder when you look to the west, bluer to the north and when you reach the port, it descends and disappears in the island’s crystal-clear water. The wind, a fresh breeze that blows constantly, is an invisible ally of this stretch of brown land protected by the Mediterranean, ancient refuge of pirates and corsairs and a paradise for those in search of sunshine and tranquillity.
Tabarca, classified as a Historical-Artistic Site, is surrounded by small islets such as La Cantera, La Galera and La Nao and a number of reefs such as Negre, Roig, Cap del Moro and La Naveta. The size of the island, whose shape is reminiscent of a Spanish guitar, reaches over 1,800 metres at the longest part and 450 metres at the narrowest. The island, where St. Paul anchored according to the chronicles of Strabo and Ptolomy, dates back a long way, to the north-western edge of Tunisia, on another island called Tabarka, emporium of the Mediterranean’s coral fishing, point of origin for a handful of Genoan fishermen freed by the king of Spain to repopulate the island. From that moment on, it was known as Nueva Tabarca. Carlos III contracted the engineer Fernando Méndez de Ras to build a fortified enclosure following an 18thcentury urban layout.
The town was built with stone from the island of La Cantera as a perfect model, walled in with three entrance-ways: the San Rafael, San Gabriel and San Miguel gates. The monumental Baroque church in honour of St.Peter and St. Paul highlights its outlines. Another historical building is the Governor’s House, now converted into a hotel, a construction that still has details from the original residence, arches and walls that takes visitors back in time. Outside the town walls, in the countryside, two solitary constructions stand out: the San José Tower, which was built in the second half of the 19th century, and the old lighthouse. In spite of its size, there is no time to be bored on Tabarca. When the boat arrives in the small port, the path to the left leads to the countryside, past the San José Tower and the lighthouse and comes to the small cemetery, from where you can see a spectacular refuge for seagulls on the island of La Nao. In summer, it’s well worth taking a swim here. When the sun beats down, bathing on Tabarca can take on another meaning with some simple diving goggles, showing you an incomparable marine landscape.