Spinalonga is an islet located on the northeastern side of Crete. It is hard to believe that this area which covers only 8,5 hectares, once was a place of suffering, death, and lost hope.
Actually, Spinalonga is known as a leper colony, where leprosy patients from Crete and from all over Greece lived and died until 1957. Today it is a famous tourist location and one of the highlight places to visit on Crete, the biggest island in Greece.
The route around the island is about 1.5 km long. So take a deep breath and find out more about this unusual island.
How to get to Spinalonga
Spinalonga is located in Mirabello Bay, opposite the fishing village of Plaka.
There are three ways to get to the island.
The quickest and cheapest way is by boat from Plaka. The trip takes about 5-10 minutes, the return ticket costs 10 € per person, and departures are about every 20 minutes.
Then, you can go from Elounda city which is 5 km far by fishing boats every 30 minutes during the summer. The return ticket is 12 €, and you can just take the next boat when you want to come back. The trip lasts about 30 minutes.
The third way is from Agios Nikolaos by ferries or organized tours. Since we were located in this picturesque city, we went on the island with the Nostos Cruises agency. There are two types of 4 hours mini-cruise every day from the port of Agios Nikolaos. One guided tour includes visiting Spinalonga and swimming in Kolokitha Bay. The price is 16€ for adults and 8€ for children. The other tour includes swimming in the Kolokoitha beach, a barbeque, and visiting Spinalonga. The price is 25€ for adults and 15€ for children.
Additionally, the entrance fee for Spinalonga is 8€. You can buy a ticket in the ticket office when you arrive on the island.
What you should know before visiting Spinalonga
- Wear comfortable shoes during the visit island because the path around the island is full of various stones.
- Take sunglasses, sunscreen, a hat, a cap or a scarf to protect yourself from the hot sun. Usually, it is very windy in Spinalonga.
- Bring a bottle of water with you. There is a small cafe at the entrance of the fortress, but it is pretty expensive.
- It is forbidden to enter the ruined houses and buildings.
- Since it is an archaeological site, smoking and using alcohol are not allowed.
A few words about the history of Spinalonga
The history of Spinalonga dates back to ancient times, i.e. during the Minoan period.
Spinalonga was very important for the ancient harbour of Olous (or Olounda), which is now a modern Elounda city on the mainland. At that time, Olous was a powerful city-state with a temple, harbour and had its own coinage. It flourished, particularly in Roman and Byzantine times, but it was destroyed by an earthquake in 780 AD. The city sank and remained in ruins until the Venetians came in the 15th century.
Spinalonga during the Venetian and Ottoman periods
By the way, the original name of the island is Calydon, but the Venetians called it Spinalonga. In Italian, it means “the long thorn”.
The Venetians built an impressive fortress in 1579 to protect Elounda Bay from the pirates and the Ottomans. Also, they cut down a portion of the peninsula and made the island of Spinalonga. Owing to the good natural position of the harbour and shallow water, the Venetians built salt pans and they were trading the salt in the Mediterranean.
The fortress with bastions and walls still looks impressive, with a carved statue of a lion as a symbol of the Venetian Republic. By the way, it is one of the best-preserved fortresses in the Mediterranean Sea.
So, the fortified walls with 35 cannons were all around the island. Even when the Turks conquered Crete, the Venetians still held Spinalonga for more than 50 years despite Turkish attacks. Spinalonga fell under Ottoman rule in 1715 during the last Ottoman–Venetian War and became a home for Ottoman refugees. Ottomans ruled the island for almost two centuries. A few years after the Crete Revolt revolution (1878) against the Ottomans, in 1903, the last Turks left the island.
But this tiny island is also known for leprosy, which has changed many lives in Crete and Greece.
What is leprosy?
Leprosy is a chronic infectious disease, an infection caused by slow-growing bacteria called Mycobacterium lepra. Also, it is known as Hansen’s disease by Norwegian doctor G. A. Hansen, who discovered bacteria in 1873. Actually, leprosy symptoms can occur between one year to 20 years after infection.
The disease affects nerves, skin, eyes, and nose. Usually, it blocks the sensation of pain and reduces the possibility of moving the fingers. That is a reason why leprosy patients have burns and various injuries that lead to infections. As a result, they lose their fingers or become blind.
This disease has been known for thousands of years, and it is mentioned in the Bible. Probably you remember the famous film “Ben Hur“ and the scenes with the leper colony. It also hit Europe in the Middle Ages. Since there was no cure for leprosy, the only way to stop it was to isolate the patients. These places were known as leprosaria.
Although leprosy is eradicated in Europe today, it is still present in some countries of Africa, India, Brasil. Every year more than 300,000 people are infected with leprosy worldwide. Today, the disease is curable with multidrug therapy that lasts from six to twelve months.
The leper colony
In 1903, the Greek government decided to make a hospital for leprosy patients in the Spinalonga fortress. It was a perfect place: the island was close to shore because of the transport, and far enough to isolate the sick people. Also, it was one of the reasons why the last Turks abandoned this area.
Spinalonga was a leper colony (leprosarium) from 1903 to 1957. The first patients were from Crete and then they came from other cities in Greece. It became the island of the living dead… Some people thought that leprosy was God’s punishment, meaning that only sinners had leprosy. Also, it was a shame for the family to have leper members.
There were two entrances to Spinalonga. The first entrance leads to a small pebbled beach and from there, the island receives food and supplies. The second and main entrance was for the lepers, a tunnel known as “Dante’s Gate” or “The Gate of hell”. It got this name according to the poem “The Divine Comedy” by Dante Alighieri and 9 Circles of hell.
And we entered Spinalonga through this gate. But even today, it is dark and it looks a little bit scary.
Hm, we can only imagine how the leprosy people felt when they came to Spinalonga…
Life on the leper island
In the beginning, leprosy people lived in caves and in very bad conditions on the island.
Since it was no cure, patients know that they could not come back home to their families. There were up to 1.000 patients on the island.
Only a few hundred meters separated them from normal life on the mainland and their beloved. But they have to stay on the island waiting to die. The food, doctors, and nurses were coming from Plaka in small boats.
But everything changed when Epameinondas Remoundakis, a third-year law student came to Spinalonga in 1936. He was ill, but also he wanted to live despite losing his arm and going blind.
So Epameinondas founded the “Fraternity of Patients of Spinalonga” and he demanded from the state better conditions for living. The government gave them small amounts to buy food from the mainland. But for leprosy patients, the prices were double, so they made small gardens and started to cultivate vegetables and aloe plants as well.
And day after day, the people started to care about one another.
Mirrors were banned because no one wanted to see what they looked like.
The leprosy patients painted houses, planted trees and constructed the only road that goes around the island. They created a new community and its own world, similar to the life they had before.
Close to the entrance, there was a market street with several small shops in houses from the Ottoman period.
Today we can see a few restored objects with colourful windows and doors.
Inside the former shops, there is a permanent exhibition with various items from different periods. For example, there are Ottoman, Venetian and Orthodox tombstones, informative panels with photographs, display cases with syringes and morphine vials, pottery, etc.
It is interesting that they got an electric generator before Plaka had it. So they had a cinema, and classical music could be heard from loudspeakers. They built a bakery, “kafenio”, a barbershop, and a small school.
Once it was 7 churches, but now we can see only three. And there was one priest who stayed voluntarily on the island, together with lepers, although he was not infected.
The will for living
Close to the market street is the old the Church of Saint Panteleimon built in 1709. The leprosy patients restored the church and it was used only for prayers, weddings and baptisms.
Well, the will to survive was stronger than the disease.
Some of the lepers fell in love, got married and lived together in small houses. More than 150 babies were born healthy in Spinalonga. Unfortunately, they could not stay on the island. Babies were taken away to the special hospital in Athens and adopted. Actually, they never met and saw their real parents. This story brings tears to your eyes and breaks your heart, doesn’t it…
In front of the church on the left side, there are ruins of a large water tunnel. It was built by the Venetians and it goes all around the island. Since there was no fresh water, they had to wait until the winter comes, collect the rain and store it in the tanks.
Around the path, you can see the ruins of abanded houses.
The biggest building between them was a hospital.
Fortified walls from ancient times, the Venetian period, and Ottoman times are all around the island.
Very impressive is the Mezzaluna Michiel bastion with walls built in the 16th and 17th centuries.
The strong wind is blowing through the holes in the bastion.
The view of the sea and walls is fascinating.
Then, the path leads to the Church of Saint George, built by the Venetians.
Going further, we came to the small cemetery on the northeast Donato Bastion. In 2013, the bones were placed in one ossuary next to the cemetery and covered with new plaques. There is one plaque that stands in memory of all those who lived, suffered and died on Spinalonga.
It seems strange, but from this place is a wonderful view of the sea and harbour.
The end of leper life in Spinalonga
Finally, around 1948 the first antibiotics and effective therapies for leprosy were found. And then, exactly on 25.08.1957., Spinalonga was officially closed.
In the meantime, many people recovered and went home. Some of them died deformed and in pain, and they were buried in the cemetery on the island. In 1957, the last twenty patients were transferred to a leper hospital Agia Varvara, an Athens hospital. Only the priest stayed until 1962, to maintain the Greek Orthodox traditions and hold the memorial services. After that, Spinalonga was abandoned and forgotten in the next two decades.
But coming back to normal life was almost impossible because of many restrictions and hygienic conditions. Everything changed and many families were separated. Most of the surviving people went to a leper hospital Agia Varvara in Athens and built there their own village, close to it just like in Spinalonga.
“The Island” book by Victoria Hislop
Since that Spinalonga was closed, the Greek government burned the files about the leper colony. The leprosy survivors didn’t want to talk about life in Spinalonga. It seemed that the leper colony never existed.
And then, everything changed when Victoria Hislop, a British novelist, wrote the book “Island” in 2005. The book became an international bestseller and won several awards including Newcomer of the Year at the 2007 British Book Awards in 2007. It is a story about one family, tragedy, war, love, passion and Spinalonga. Also, Victoria was a script consultant on a Greek television series “The Island” – “To Nisi” (in Greek) in 2010, based on the book. It is one of the most expensive Greek television productions ever with a budget of €4 million.
The book “One August Night” is the long-awaited sequel “The Island“. It describes what happened with a family after Spinalonga was closed.
So if you find this story interesting, I highly recommend these two books. I am sure that this dramatic story of love, betrayal, allegiances, suffering and happiness will leave you without a breath, as it happened to me.
Spinalonga is a protected archaeological area since the 1970s.
Also, it enters the final stage of its nomination as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Every year over 300.000 people visit the tiny island of Spinalonga. It awakens a storm of mixed feelings.
The blue Aegean sea, fortified walls and ruins of the abandoned houses are the scenes that you cannot easily forget.
For some people, it was the last trip without coming back. But there is always hope to survive.
At least, “In Spinalonga, no one died alone” were the words of Epameinondas Remoundakis.
And according to his and the words of our tourist guide, Spinalonga is the island of hope, the island of light.
It gives us a big lesson today: humanity has to come always first.
Well, at the moment when the whole world is still struggling with COVID-19, being humane is necessary more than ever.