Nueva Tabarca is one of the smallest inhabited islands in the Mediterranean and still a relative bargain.Credit...Samuel Aranda for The New York Times
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By Rachel Chaundler
This article is part of our latest special report on Waterfront Homes, which focuses on living near, and sometimes even on, the water.
NUEVA TABARCA, Spain — As a teenager, Federico Mérimée dived for sea urchins on the tiny island of Nueva Tabarca. Back then, he and his friends couldn’t afford the fare for the water taxi, so they would hitch rides from the mainland on local fishing boats.
Nowadays, Mr. Mérimée, 52, who runs an elevator maintenance company, motors over to the island in his own speedboat. He and his wife recently bought a vacation home here.
Nueva Tabarca is one of many small islands along the Spanish coastline, where a few hardy souls have made their homes. Some, like Nueva Tabarca, which measures just one mile long and half a mile wide, have no stores at all. In bad weather, residents can be stuck there for days. But in return, they are free of crowds and rowdy tourists most of the year.
Spain’s tiny islands are also a relative bargain. While mansions run into the millions on Mallorca, where the Spanish royal family has a residence, for instance, houses on smaller, more remote islands cost far less. Although all-time low interest rates are helping to reactivate the Spanish real estate sector, which experienced a slump in prices of 4 percent in Barcelona during the pandemic, the market for holiday homes along Spain’s coastline and on its islands will remain sluggish until international tourism picks up, according to Jesús Encinar, founder of idealista.com, a real estate portal.
The Mérimées’ three-bedroom house in the island’s only village cost 200,000 euros, or about $245,000. The home’s front door opens onto a cobbled street where residents set their tables for al fresco dining on summer evenings.
There are no cars on the island, and the crystal-clear waters around it are protected as a marine reserve. In just a few steps, Mr. Mérimée’s children are on the beach.
“I’ve wanted a place here for years, and now I have one,” he said.
Properties here are hard to come by. Though a few pop up from time to time on real estate websites, and a smattering of “for sale” signs hang from balconies, most houses are sold by word of mouth.
“The islanders keep the properties amongst themselves,” said Tomás Joaquín, who runs Inmobiliaria Santa Pola, a real estate agency on the mainland.
The residents are a close-knit community. Over the centuries, they have fished for a living. In recent times, they run restaurants for day-trippers.
Most are descendants of Italian fishermen who were captured and sold into slavery on the North African coast in the 18th century before being liberated and brought here by King Carlos III of Spain.
At the time, the Mediterranean was a sea of marauding pirates, according to José Miguel Santacreu Soler, professor of contemporary history at the University of Alicante. The pirates hid in the coves of Nueva Tabarca and plundered the Spanish coast.
Soldiers were stationed on the island to deter them, and a civilian population was needed to supply their food. Carlos III had homes built for the Italian settlers with stones from the local quarry.
At its peak, some 400 people lived on Nueva Tabarca, according to Dr. Santacreu Soler. There were schools, bakeries, a farm and a cemetery, which is full of headstones with the same half-dozen Italian surnames: Barroso, Bautista, Chacopino, Luchoro, Manzanaro and Parodi.
José Chacopino, 56, who left as a young man to work as a captain on a cruise ship, recently gave up his job and returned to his roots.
For €270,000, he and his wife, Sandra Pérez, 49, bought his siblings out of their inheritance, a 1,442-square-foot house that previously belonged to Mr. Chacopino’s mother.
Last year, before the pandemic struck, they converted the ground floor into a sandwich bar and the airy upper floor, with its outdoor terrace and sea view, into a three-bedroom home where they intend to spend summers with their teenage daughter.
Unlike her husband, Ms. Pérez was not born here. But she is no stranger to the island and its ways. She used to visit as a child — that’s how she and Mr. Chacopino met and fell in love — and she knew what she was getting into.
“You have to be well organized with food,” she said. “You can’t live here without a boat. And you also need to check the weather forecast.”
Masún Barroso, who manages an island-based construction company with her husband, says many islanders choose to renovate their properties themselves because hiring a third party on the mainland can be expensive.
But she warned that it’s not easy.
“You can’t just throw the debris into a dumpster and forget about it. It must be put into sacks and taken off the island,” she said.
One house that Ms. Barroso was hired to gut and renovate in 2006 was recently put back on the market for €180,000.
Its narrow facade belies the 797-square-foot interior. In keeping with the structure of the original house, a mezzanine is sandwiched between the ground and first floors. The walls in the living area and the bedrooms are paneled with wood and furnished in blue and white, giving the interior a cozy, seafaring feel.
But it was in a state of disrepair when the current owner, María Alcazar Benito, 74, bought it over a decade ago. There was no bathroom. The roof was in danger of collapsing. The only salvageable original feature was the brick floor.
“If you buy property here, be prepared to spend lots of money. Everything is double the price,” Ms. Benito said, referring to the fact that hiring a plumber, for instance, requires paying for a sea crossing.
Even so, she expects to cry when the house is sold. After years of summer vacations with her grandchildren, of waking to the sound of sea gulls cawing and church bells ringing on Sundays, she insists that “the island is a delight.”
Mercedes González, 66, was unable to resist its allure after working here for a decade as the resident nurse. When her contract ended, she bought one of the houses commissioned by Carlos III in the 18th century.
Bits of broken seashells are encrusted in the thick walls and archways made from sandstone extracted from the quarry. Determined to maintain these original features, Ms. González admits that housekeeping often involves sweeping up the sand that crumbles from her living room walls.
“I just have to accept it,” she said, broom in hand.
For practical reasons, most islanders live and work on the mainland in the winter and come here only in the summer or on weekends to enjoy the tranquillity and to check up on the handful of die-hard elderly residents who stay year round.
Cut off from the mainland for nearly three months during the national quarantine last year, the island had no Covid deaths despite its elderly population. Boats were not allowed to dock in the harbor, except those providing essential services and bringing food.
Jesús Soria, the resident police officer, estimates that in normal times the population ranges from nine residents during the bleakest winter weeks to about 4,000 at the height of the tourist season, when a statue of the Virgin Mary is carried out of the church and placed in a boat that sails around the island with a procession of tourists and residents in its wake.
Crime is negligible. Nonetheless, Mr. Soria is kept busy, even in the winter, by neighborly disputes and requests to help with odd jobs.
“I often get called out to flick a switch after a power cut or change channels on someone’s TV,” he said with a smile.
Josefina Baile, 94, who lives in a large, walled property on the seafront, has not left the island’s shores for two years.
She remembers how hard life used to be. Before the construction of pipelines in the 1990s, there was no running water or electricity. The islanders had to draw water from the well in the village square and capture rain from the slanted roofs of their homes.
“Life has changed for the better,” she said. “I like it when people come to the island.”
On a chilly winter afternoon, a group of young people had cruised over on a friend’s speedboat.
Despite their generation’s constant use of technology, they all agreed that part of Nueva Tabarca’s appeal is the inability to connect to the internet on their cellphones.
One of the students, Paloma Riera, who is studying for a master’s degree in law, looked wistfully across the street at the for-sale sign hanging from Ms. Benito’s balcony. “If I had money, I would buy a house here,” she said.
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