Visiting the Island of Spinalonga in Crete
Jan 31, 2020
Another great article below about the fascinating island of Spinalonga from our good friend Clare Thomson posted in her superb travel blog Suitcases & Sandcastles.
I first heard about Spinalonga when I read Victoria Hislop’s novel, The Island, which describes how hundreds of lepers were forced to live on a tiny island off the coast of Crete.
I was fascinated by her story of the lepers who lived here, cut off from everyone they loved, yet managing to create a community among themselves. When we discovered that the island also had a fort, with stories of pirates, we became even more determined to visit.
We arrived on a small boat on a stormy day, the wind and the rain battering our faces as we made the crossing from Elounda. The sun finally came out moments before the round fortress on the hill emerged from the clouds and we docked beside a small, pebbly beach.
Spinalonga has not always been an island. In the 16th century, the occupying Venetians cut a canal between it and mainland Crete, creating one of the most important defensive sea fortresses in the Mediterranean. The Venetians built a fort here in 1579 to defend their trade route from pirates. It worked: even the famous pirate, Barbarossa, failed to storm the fortress here.
The Ottoman Turks finally captured Spinalonga in 1715 and built their houses on top of the foundations of the Venetian buildings. At the end of the Ottoman occupation of Crete, the island became a refuge for thousands of Ottoman families who formed their own community here in the 19th century. You can still see some of their two-storey houses, shops and workshops as you wander around the island today.
But it’s Spinalonga’s most recent history that fascinated us the most. From 1903, the island was used to keep lepers in isolation. It was one of the last active leper colonies in Europe and lepers were sent here from all over Greece.
The ancient disease of leprosy has been feared since biblical times when lepers were treated as ‘unclean’. The unsightly deformities affecting their faces and limbs were taken as evidence of past sins. This was believed for centuries and even in the early 20th century, leprosy was considered to be a highly contagious and incurable disease.
Many of Crete’s lepers used to live in caves. On Spinalonga, there was, at least, a hospital with nurses, a caretaker and a priest, but living conditions were poor and often squalid, much of which is described in Hislop’s novel, which takes place in the last years of the leper colony in the 1950s.
It’s an eerie feeling wandering down the empty streets, past the dilapidated dormitories where the lepers slept and under the beautiful stone arches left from the time of the Venetians.
You can see the impressive stone archway where the lepers would have first landed and Dante’s Gate, the tunnel that they had to walk through, not knowing what was going to happen to them. Part of a shopping street has been reconstructed to give visitors a better idea of what it would have looked like when the island was a leper colony. The empty streets and shop buildings reinforce the feeling that there was a real community here. The patients were responsible for earning their own livelihood. They lived and fell in love on this tiny island. They cultivated land, married and had children.
It’s only been 50 years since the lepers living here walked down these same streets, bought bread from the shops, prayed in the church and stood at the battlements of the old fort and looked out to sea. One of the most moving sights is the graveyard, the numerous gravestones covered in grass. Much of Spinalonga feels abandoned, a ghost town with too many sad stories. Unesco describes the island as a “monument to human pain”. Wild flowers grow in-between the cracks of the rocks and bells hang in silence from the walls. It’s hard not to imagine what the people living here must have felt, looking out at the beautiful blue sea from the walls of their island prison.
The island is being slowly restored and restoration work is likely to continue for some time. Spinalonga is now in the final stages of applying to be a Unesco World Heritage Site.
How to get to Spinalonga
Spinalonga is on the north-eastern coast of Crete. You can get boats to the island from the town of Agios Nikolaos (€25), Elounda (€10) and the village of Plaka (€8). In the summer, boats depart from Elounda every 30 minutes. In the winter, you can ask boat owners to take you across to the island from Plaka.
When you arrive on the island, you need to buy a ticket, which costs €8 per person. You can join a guided tour or walk around Spinalonga at your own pace. It will take you about an hour. There is a small museum, with information about the various historical periods and occupations. There is a small café beside the water, serving drinks and snacks. You’ll also find some tavernas serving excellent seafood in the village of Plaka, just across the sea.
Source : Suitcases and Sandcastles