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Max Abroad : The Best of Spain

Quite simply writing about the best things Spain has to offer and anything that might crop up along the way. Spain is a lot more than just sun, sand and sea...

Spain's smallest inhabited island
31 July 2013


The island of Tabarca is the largest inhabited island in the Valencian Community and the smallest in Spain. Tabarca Island is managed by the City of Alicante and is quite a unique destination attracting the interest of visitors to the area. It lies approximately 10 km south of Alicante close to Santa Pola. Some would debate that even calling it an island as it only measures 1800m in length and 400m wide but Tabarca is much more than a simple rock. Although small, people do live there and as a destination it offers an ideal refuge for a weekend getaway especially in the off season, a fantastic opportunity to enjoy its tranquillity and beautiful views.

It’s size and uniqueness has made it an important tourist attraction and can receive up to 3000 visitors a day in the peak season, one of the reasons why it is better to go in the off season, however this quaint romantic island is a wonderful choice all year round. The climate is very similar to Alicante, having an average yearly temperature of 18º C. One can reach the island from the mainland by ferry from Torrevieja, Alicante or Santa Pola, the closest, from where it only takes 30min to get there. Tabarca is a quiet fishing village offering an old fort, several fresh seafood restaurants, a rocky beach with clear turquoise water, several coves and tidal pools ideal for bathing. Everything you would want within walking distance.

Before 1700, the island was known as Illa de Sant Pau ('Saint Paul's Island') or Illa Plana ('Flat Island'). Believed to be the island that St. Paul disembarked on, the island was a refuge for Barbary pirates up to the end of the 18th century.

It was originally a part of the Republic of Genoa A group of Genoese sailors shipwrecked near the coast of Tunisia, mostly coming from the islet off Tunisian Tabarka, were rescued and settled there. The uninhabited islet was renamed Nova Tabarca. It wasn’t until 1741 that  it was conquered by the Bey of Tunis and consequently took the Genoese prisoners. In 1760, Charles III of Spain ordered the fortification and repopulation of the Spanish island and paid a fee to Tunisia to release the prisoners.  On the arrival, of the Spanish, the Genoese were first moved to Alicante, where they provisionally lived in the Jesuit School, empty after the expulsion of the Jesuits from Spain. Finally, the Genoese were moved back to the island jointly with a Spanish garrison. The military engineer Fernando Méndez Ras planned a fortified town and walls, bulwarks, warehouses and barracks were also built. From 1770, the island was known as Nueva Tabarca ('New Tabarca').

Despite the fact that the Genoese assimilated and shifted their language into Valencian and, later on, Spanish, the Genoese descent of the settlers can still be noticed today in the surnames of Italian origin common on the island. The island is twinned with Carloforte, in the Sardinian San Pietro Island, which was also populated with Genoese from Tunisian Tabarka.

The gateways are still visible and so are the Governor's House (currently a hotel) and the church of St Peter and St Paul, concluded in 1779. In 1850 the governor and the garrison were removed. At the end of the 19th century, the island had a population of around 1,000 people mainly devoted to fishing. Nowadays, the permanent population is around 50, making Tabarca the smallest permanently inhabited Spanish island, although this number is multiplied during the tourist season in Summer.

The main activity of the local population is fishing, with the catch brought to Santa Pola's fish market, but tourism becomes the most important resource during the peak season.

Tabarca is also a protected marine reserve called “Reserva marina de la Isla de Tabarca”, declared a Zone of Special Protection for Birds by the EU, with a varied marine fauna (sea bass, grouper, conger eel, gilthead etc.). Very clear and unpolluted waters surround it. Materials of volcanic origin, on top of which limestone and quaternary deposits accumulated over time, form this tiny island.

Tabarca was the last Spanish Mediterranean location where the critically endangered Mediterranean monk seal successfully bred before it became extinct in the 1960s. This proves the high quality of the waters around the island in terms of marine ecology. The waters around Tabarca were declared a Marine reserve in 1986, the first of its kind in Spain. This status was mainly granted due to its submarine posidonia prairie, which is the largest in the Spanish Mediterranean and has an extraordinary ecological value in terms of marine fauna and flora.

In order to both enhance the marine biodiversity and protect it from fishing, an artificial reef was laid near the island by the Marine Reserve authorities.








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Spain's most famous desert - The Wild Wild Oeste!
24 July 2013

Similar to Bardenas Reales which I wrote about last week, is Spain’s other desert “Desierto de Tabernas” en Almeria far more famous than the unknown jewel of Navarre and probably a lot closer to home for many readers and very similar in terms of its weirdly eroded ravines, barren slopes and dry river beds  evoking a surreal, almost Martian atmosphere. Although it appears to have a total lack of vegetation there are some fertile areas near the town of Tabernas, which is home to a lot of organic farming mainly due to the range of temperatures which can, through the year range from -3ºC in the winter to 48ºC in the Summer and as it is lodged between the Mountains of Filabres to the north and the Mountains of Alhamilla to the south/ south-east it is isolated from the humid winds of the Mediterranean Sea creating an extremely dry climate not favoured by flies, one of fruit farmers’ most feared pests facilitating the growth of organic fruits, mainly olives.
But what makes this landscape so famous is that Film makers have long been attracted to it due to its similar appearance to the North American Wild West, and so this desert has been the scene of many a “spaghetti” westerns. In fact there is a mini-Hollywood called Oasys now a Theme Park near Tabernas town  where many westerns were filmed such as “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly” and “A fistful of Dollars” as well as other films not so “western” such as “Cleopatra” “Lawrence of Arabia” or “Indiana Jones and the last crusade”. Actors such as Clint Eastwood, Brigitte Bardot, Anthony Quinn, Claudia Cardinale, Alain Delon, Sean Connery, Raquel Welch, Orson Welles and many others have all helped make this landscape a Hollywood classic. 

Tabernas desert has one of the most interesting landscapes in Europe, since it is clear evidence of the process of natural desertification and erosion. Its unusual features include sheer-sided gullies, carved out by the rare but torrential rains that only fall on a few days each year. Another curious feature is piping, where water permeates through the top of a hill and emerges further down through a hole, the water creating an underground pipe in the process. In certain places there are so many holes that the water has created a Swiss cheese effect.

Eight million years ago in the Miocene period the sea covered the Tabernas desert area, reaching inland as far as the foothills of the Sierra de los Filabres, where today a strip of fossilised coral dunes mark the former coastline. The deposited material consisted of sand and loam and this is what makes up the Tabernas desert today. A million years later the Sierra Alhamilla rose up, cutting off the Tabernas desert area from the ocean and creating an inland sea, where further sand, loam, clay, limestone and gypsum were deposited. At the end of Pliocene Epoch the sea receded, leaving the seabed exposed to erosion.

With its annual rainfall of 240mm concentrated in no more than four days a year, the plants that thrive here are those adapted to semi-arid climates that store water in their leaves or tiny plants that can shelter from the relentless sun near rocks or seek shelter in the shadow of bigger plants. With high levels of salinity in the soil, plants also need to be salt-resistant.


Given the arid conditions, mammals are less common with only 20 species inhabiting the desert the most important being the Algerian hedgehog believe it or not. As a North African species, this is one of the only places where it is found in the Iberian Peninsula. Abundant rabbits, hares and dormice provide plentiful prey for the carnivores and birds of prey in the area.

It may appear as if this harsh landscape is incapable of supporting much in the way of fauna, but along the edges of the seasonal rivers there is a wealth of vertebrates, most notably reptiles and birds. The most commonly seen reptiles are ladder snakes, spiny-footed lizards and Ocellated lizards. Around the more moist areas of the dry riverbeds you can see amphibians such as marsh frogs, natter jack toads and terrapins.
Birds of prey, which are abundant, include Bonellis eagles and Peregrines that use the desert as a hunting ground, visiting from the nearby Sierra de Alhamilla Natural Area. Other raptors are Kestrels and Eagle Owls. There are birds characteristic of rocky slopes like blue rock thrushes, rock sparrows and black Wheat eaters inhabiting the dry river courses of the ramblas. 

Tabernas the nearby town that gives its name to the desert has a 14th-century ruined hilltop castle, which used to be the second most important in the province after Almeria's. It served as the refuge of Ferdinand and Isabel during the siege of Almeria. Its 15th-century Mudéjar church is also worth a visit.

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Europe's Largest Desert - Where is it?
18 July 2013

Who would ever have thought that this landscape could be found in Northern Spain, A land of green pastures, valley, vineyards, lakes and mountains. A terrain more akin to the wild west or a scene with Peter O’Toole blazing his way to glory in the “Arabian” desert of Almeria. But this wonderfully mysterious land is just 70km from the ski slopes of the Pyrenees and holds the title of the largest desert in mainland Europe. 
 Bardenas Reales Natural Park is a place of wild beauty declared a Biosphere Reserve by the United Nations. It is a semi-desert landscape covering 42.500 hectares that is breath-taking and surprises anyone who might casts their eyes over it. An surreal spectacle in south-east Navarre, despite its bare and inhospitable appearance, is an oasis of natural assets.

The erosion of its clay, chalk and sandstone soils has sculpted capricious forms in the landscape to create almost lunar effects, full of gullies, plateaux and solitary hills. It has inspired painters and writers and has been the scene of TV adverts, music videos and films. A unique setting that seems out of place in Northern Spain and leaves nobody indifferent. You can visit this barren land on foot, by bicycle, on horseback or even with 4X4 motor vehicles. Specialist guides are available to help you to discover unforgettable spots with echoes of legends such as the famous highwayman Sanchicorrota, who used to fool his pursuers by putting his horse's shoes on backwards so they couldn’t follow him!

Bardenas Reales is a landscape sculpted over millions of years due to erosion. There are three distinct zones in the natural park which are, from north to south: El Plano, croplands characterised by very gentle slopes; the Bardena Blanca, the most photographed and visited area, where the main rock formations can be found in Castildetierra and Pisquerra. Also in this area, defined by its eroded crags, dry gullies and steppe-like appearance - in its lower part is a Firing Range used by the US Military, which explains the fighter planes; and the Bardena Negra, where the land darkens, giving way to the only Aleppo pinewoods in the area, accompanied by thicket.


Exceptional viewpoints show the differences between its different zones. From the Alto de Aguilares you get the best panoramic view of the Bardena Blanca. The Balcón de Pilatos ('Pontius Pilate's Balcony') is an exceptional observatory of birds of prey. These high points show the wealth of this territory, which contain three Nature Reserves: the Vedado de Eguaras, an oasis to the north of the area where the ruins of the Castle of Peñaflor still stand; the Rincón del Bu (in Bardena Blanca), occupying 460 hectares, where the eagle owl breeds; and the Nature Reserve of Caídas de la Negra (in Bardena Negra), which covers 1,926 hectares and has altitude drops of 270 metres.

The Bardenas Reales Natural Park also offers more than 700 kilometres of paths, tracks and gullies that can be followed by hiking and cycling enthusiasts. Nevertheless, it is advisable to use specialist guides in your first incursion into the natural enclave. Apart from avoiding the risk of getting lost in the desert, they will help you to interpret the landscape with a flora and fauna more appropriate to an African desert than the north of the Iberian Peninsula. In the remote past it was even inhabited by crocodiles and turtles. Eagles, vultures, owls, great bustards, foxes, mountain cats, genets, amphibians and reptiles range between scrubland, sisal thickets, salt marshes and reed beds.

Due to the extreme temperatures and the special conditions of the land, it is recommend that one avoids going when it is raining. The best time to visit Bardenas is between September and June. On 18 September, if you have the opportunity go to the "Sanmiguelada", the day when thousands and thousands of sheep from the Pyrenean valleys make their way to this vast extension along El Paso to graze during the winter. To do this, follow the Cañada Real (royal livestock trail) of the Roncaleses which links up the pastures of the Roncal Valley with the Bardenas. 

Places like this are what make Spain such a special country. One could even consider Spain to be a small continent as it offers almost every terrain you could possibly imagine, the choice and wealth of nature is far beyond what most people can even imagine, but wander away from the coastline and you can discover a world that will leave its mark forever.

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