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 water taxi fare, so they hitchhiked local fishing boats from the mainland.
Today Mr Mérimée, 52, who runs an elevator maintenance company, is going to the island in his own speedboat. He and his wife recently bought a holiday home here.
Nueva Tabarca is one of many small islands along the Spanish coast where a few tough souls have settled. Some, like Nueva Tabarca, which is only a mile long and half a mile wide, have no shops at all. In bad weather, residents can be stuck there for days. But for that they are free from the crowds and noisy tourists for most of the year.
Spain's tiny islands are also a relative bargain. While on Mallorca, where, for example, the Spanish royal family has a residence, villas run into the millions, houses on smaller, more remote islands cost significantly less. Although the all-time low interest rates are helping to reactivate the Spanish property sector, which saw prices drop 4 percent during the Barcelona pandemic, the holiday home market along the Spanish coast and its islands will remain sluggish until international tourism takes over, said Jesús Encinar, Founder of idealista.com, a real estate portal.
The Mérimées' three-room house in the only village on the island cost 200,000 euros or about 245,000 dollars. The front door of the house 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 them are protected as a marine reserve. In 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.
Real estate is hard to come by here. Although some show up on real estate websites from time to time and have a few “for sale” signs hanging from balconies, most homes are sold through word of mouth.
“The islanders keep the real estate to themselves,” says Tomás Joaquín, who runs the real estate agency Inmobiliaria Santa Pola on the mainland.
The residents are a tight-knit community. Over the centuries they have made a living from fishing. Recently they have been running restaurants for day trippers.
Most are descendants of Italian fishermen who were caught and sold into slavery on the North African coast in the 18th century before being freed and brought here by King Carlos III of Spain.
According to José Miguel Santacreu Soler, professor of contemporary history at the University of Alicante, the Mediterranean was then a sea of marauding pirates. The pirates hid in the bays of Nueva Tabarca and plundered the Spanish coast.
Soldiers were stationed on the island to deter them and civilians were required to provide their food. Carlos III had houses built for the Italian settlers with stones from the local quarry.
According to Dr. Santacreu Soler lived on Nueva Tabarca at its height around 400 people. There were schools, bakeries, a farm and a cemetery full of tombstones with the same half-dozen Italian surnames: Barroso, Bautista, Chacopino, Luchoro, Manzanaro, and Parodi.
José Chacopino, 56, who worked as a captain on a cruise ship as a young man, recently quit his job and went back to his roots.
For 270,000 euros, he and his wife Sandra Pérez, 49, bought his siblings from their inheritance, a 1,442 square meter house that previously belonged to Mr. Chacopino's mother.
Last year, before the pandemic broke out, they converted the ground floor into a sandwich bar and the airy upper floor with an outdoor terrace and sea views into a three-bedroom house where they plan to spend the summers with their teenage daughter.
Unlike her husband, Ms. Pérez was not born here. But the island and its ways are not alien to her. As a child she was always visiting – 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 when you eat,” she said. “You can't live here without a boat. And you also have to check the weather forecast. "
Masún Barroso, who runs an island-based construction company with her husband, says many islanders renovate their properties themselves because hiring a third party on the mainland can be expensive.
But she warned that it is not easy.
“You can't just throw the rubble in a dumpster and forget about it. It has to be bagged and taken off the island, ”she said.
A house that Ms. Barroso was supposed to core and renovate in 2006 was recently put back on the market for 180,000 euros.
Its narrow facade belies the 797 square meter interior. Following the structure of the original house, a mezzanine floor is arranged between the ground floor and the first floor. The walls in the living area and in the bedrooms are paneled with wood and kept in blue and white, which gives the interior a cozy, seafaring flair.
But it was in a dilapidated condition when the current owner, María Alcazar Benito, 74, bought it over a decade ago. There was no bathroom. The roof threatened to collapse. The only original feature to be saved was the brick floor.
“If you buy real estate here, be prepared to spend a lot of money. Everything is twice as expensive, ”said Ms. Benito, pointing out that hiring a plumber for a sea crossing, for example, has to be paid for.
Even so, she expects to cry when the house is sold. After years of summer vacation with her grandchildren, waking up on Sundays to the growling of seagulls and the ringing of church bells, she insists that "the island is a delight".
Mercedes González, 66, could not escape his fascination after working here as a nurse for a decade. When her contract ended, she bought one of the houses commissioned by Carlos III in the 18th century.
Fragments of shells are encrusted in the thick walls and archways made of sandstone extracted from the quarry. Determined to retain 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 of the islanders live and work on the mainland during the winter and only come here in the summer or on weekends to enjoy the tranquility and check out the handful of die-hard elderly residents who stay year round.
During the national quarantine last year, the island was cut off from the mainland for almost three months and had no Covid deaths despite its older population. Boats were not allowed to moor in the port, with the exception of boats that performed basic services and brought food.
Jesús Soria, the local police officer, estimates that the population ranges from nine in normal times in the bleakest winter weeks to around 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.
Crime is negligible. Even so, Mr. Soria is kept busy with neighborly disputes and requests for help with odd jobs even in winter.
"I'm often called to flip a switch or change channels on a television after a power failure," he said with a smile.
Josefina Baile, 94, who lives on a large, walled property by the sea, hasn't left the island's coast for two years.
She remembers how hard life used to be. Before pipelines were built in the 1990s, there was no running water or electricity. The islanders had to draw water from the well in the village square and catch rain from the sloping roofs of their houses.
“Life has changed for the better,” she says. "I like it when people come to the island."
A group of young people had passed by in a friend's speedboat on a cold winter afternoon.
Despite the constant use of technology by their generation, everyone agreed that Nueva Tabarca was unable to connect to the internet using their cell phones.
One of the students, Paloma Riera, who is studying law, looked wistfully at the sales sign on Ms. Benito's balcony. “If I had money, I would buy a house here,” she says.