On my first visit to Crete, I came armed with my trusted Crete, Lonely Planet guide with dog eared pages of some of the sites that I wanted to visit. The Island of Spinalonga was one! I had booked a four month stay in a fully self contained one bedroom traditional Cretan cottage in the village of Plaka. As I’m not one to research everything; I’m happier with winging it. I didn’t realise that there are two villages with the name Plaka; that happen to be at opposite ends of the island. Not to worry!
So, on my first visit I learnt that I needed to hire a car to get me to the seaside village with the same name – Plaka that is located close by the natural port of Elounda Gr – Ελούντα in the Lasithi GR – Λασίθι prefecture of Crete. Only to learn that during the winter months the Island of Spinalonga is inaccessible.
My first view of Spinalonga from the seaside village of Plaka – so close.
Believing and accepting at the time that I would miss the opportunity to ever see this historic island, I went on my way to experience other locations around the area of Elounda. However, fate has a magical way of reshuffling the course of your life and after two return journeys back to Australia; I was back in Crete during the summer of that year and again during the following winter for a 12 month long stay (and I’m still here). During late March a friend came to stay with me and we made reservations to stay overnight in the seaside village of Plaka. Again I tried to visit Spinalonga, only to find that we were one day outside of the tourist season starting and despite asking some locals, no boats were going to the island.
Many tavernas and stores were closed and the owners were in preparation mode for the coming summer season. We found one local fish taverna opened and enjoyed a wonderful lunch along with views across to Spinalonga.
Having extended my 12 month stay along with befriending many locals from the village of Plaka, Apokoronas in the Chania prefecture the opportunity to share the experience with locals presented during early summer the following year – third time lucky!
From the mainland, ferry services are available from the Piraeus Port, in Athens or flights from Athens international airport to either Heraklion or Chania. From Crete’s capital – Heraklion you can arrange a day trip.
Alternatively, public bus services are available from Heraklion, Rethymno and Chania to Agios Nikolaos, with connecting local bus services to Elounda and Plaka. Both provide local boat service. From the seaside village of Plaka, you can arrange a local return boat service and half day trips are available from the port of Elounda. Agios Nikolas is a larger town and its harbour has been in operation since ancient times. There’s also the option to hire a car and make a day trip from Chania (approx. 3 – 3.5 hours’ drive one way), Rethymno (approx. 2.5 hours’ drive one way) or from Heraklion (approx. 1 hour one way).
From the seaside village of Plaka one can clearly see the fortified, arid and barren rocky land of Spinalonga. The small 8.5 hectares island is no longer inhabited, however over the centuries the islands strategic location as a fortified setting has served a variety of purposes and provided refuge to many.
As I was travelling in the company of local friends; we caught a local boat from the seaside village of Plaka.
As we crossed the Gulf of Mirabello and neared Spinalonga, the fortified walls became more prominent, as did the original entrance that was once used by smaller boats over the centuries. Our boat continued to another drop off location that now provides a small jetty.
History during the centuries:
Byzantine and early Roman
Given Spinalonga’s close proximity to the natural port and harbour of modern day Elounda; known as Olous or Olounda during ancient Minoan times the small island was walled and maned to protect the ancient city of Olous. Ancient Olous was also known during the 2nd century for being a place of worship with a Temple to the God Zeus [Tallaeus] and Goddess Artemis [Britomartys]; Goddess of the woods and mountains – in Crete. The ruins of the ancient city of Olous is now submerged underwater and can only be seen during low tide.
During the Greco/Roman era the name Zeus became known as the modern day astronomy and astrology name – Jupiter. Representing abundance, good fortune, faith and hope for the future.
The ancient city was an important and lucrative trade harbour and housed many salt pans along with a rich history that flourished during the Byzantine and early Roman times. Until the 7th century when Olous experienced continuous raids by Arab pirates and near diminished any trade until the occupying Venetians further fortified Spinalonga in 1579. The additional fortification was needed following the subsequent fall of Constantinople in 1453, along with improving the defence of the port and the continuous pirate raids and from a new threat; the advancement of the Ottoman forces.
The Roman built fortress on Spinalonga consisted of 35 cannons and its stronghold continued to withstand the Ottoman forces. As did the port locations of Gramvousa and Souda located in the Western region of Crete. Many Christians found refuge within Spinalonga’s fortified walls that remained in Venetian hands until 1715, to escape persecution from the Ottoman rulers. Despite Crete being taken and occupied by the Ottoman forces nearly 70 years prior. It was also during the Cretan War that refugees and rebels took refuge on Spinalonga and continued to pursue the Ottoman occupants, using the island as their base.
With the capture of Spinalonga by the Ottoman forces, the Venetian garrison withdrew and the last remaining Venetian fortress along with all trace of Venetian military presence was removed from the island of Crete with Roman soldiers taken prisoner.
From the year 1715 Muslims settled on Spinalonga, building their dwellings atop the foundations of Venetian buildings. By the early 19th century and due to the isolated and inaccessibility there was only about 250 inhabitants living on Spinalonga. However, after the mid-19th century, the settlement experienced an influx of inhabitants and by 1881, the resident population reached 1,112 with 25 shops or workshops marking the island as the largest Muslim trading centre in the Gulf of Mirabello.
A number of the well-constructed two-storey houses and shops built with the principles of local and Balkan architectural traditions with many continuing to be preserved today and other left in ruin.
Following the Cretan revolution of 1886 and the end of the Ottoman occupation, Spinalonga and the fortress became a refuge for many Ottoman families residing across the Mirabello region, fearing Christian reprisals. Spinalonga was again held by the occupying (then Ottoman) forces during the subsequent Cretan revolt by Christian insurgents in 1878. In 1881 the remaining 1112 Ottoman occupiers having formed their own community, where the last to leave Crete leaving their homes on Spinalonga in 1903.
With the last of the former occupation residents now having left, the Cretan State established the Island of Spinalonga as a Leper colony in 1903. Initially, only Cretan State residents inflicted with leprosy where deported to Spinalonga, with the first 251 patients arriving in 1904. However, when Crete unified with Greece in 1913, lepers from across all Greek states were then deported to Spinalonga. Those diagnosed, were stripped of their property and financial assets seized, along with their citizenship revoked before being deported. Spinalonga was one of the last active leper colonies in Europe.
The ill resided in many of the existing dwellings that were left following the departure of the last remaining Turks from the Ottoman occupation. In addition, to more newly built dwellings constructed during the 1930s. They lived out lives independently, in their own dwelling and were responsible for earning their own livelihood. Despite their illness and the limitations imposed on them by state regulations, they maintained their desire to live. With each resident making every effort to create their home, along with participating in the cultivation of the land, falling in love, marrying, having children and continuing the right of education. Within the small community, there was a physician-director, nursing staff, a caretaker overseer, a financial department, and a local priest. The building activity that was undertaken during the period of being a leper colony changed the foundation of Spinalonga. Large sections of the once Roman fortified walls were demolished by dynamite in 1939, to make way for a widened pathway to be built around the island.
When a treatment for leprosy was found during the early 1940s, the Spinalonga colony continued to remain in operation for a further 17 years, closing in 1957. During the German occupation of WWII, the Germans continued to provide the inhabitants with food and supplies, in addition to being granted the privilege and freedom to listen to radio broadcasts provided by London and Cairo. However, they didn’t post a guard on the island.
The last inhabitant being a priest left the island in 1962, following the Greek Orthodox practice of commemorating the deceased 40 days, 6 months, 1 year, 3 years and 5 years after death.
From 1962 Spinalonga remained desolate and uninhabited. Known for being a place of confinement for lepers, and who experienced the reality of death in isolation and desertion. This brought stigma to the name, with “Spinalonga” becoming synonymous with suffering.
Today, the uninhabited island is a popular tourist attraction. In addition, to the fortress and abandoned village that last served as a leper colony, Spinalonga is also known for its small pebble beaches and shallow waters. Spinalonga has also been under consideration to become a UNESCO World Heritage Site since January, 2019.
A stroll around the island takes about an hour, however I take my time and let the recent history tempt me to stay longer. Take advantage of the opportunity to take some time for a swim.
Whilst many still know the island’s name as Spinalonga, the official Greek name is now Kalýdon GR – Kαλύδων. Cayldon was an ancient Greek city that honoured the Goddess Artemis. During antiquity the city of Patras (located close to the ancient city of Calydon), held a festival each year in honour of the Goddess Artemis. Legend has it that a gigantic beast, known as the Cayldonian boar was sent by the Goddess Artemis to devastate the ancient city, when the city dishonoured her.
Let’s take a Walk:
Weather you choose to take a guided tour or roam around on your own, Spinalonga with its stunning views, ancient past and architectural ruins will delight; yet its more recent history will also send a shiver down your spine.
No less than when you disembark from the boat and make your way through the lepers’ entrance, a tunnel known as Dante’s Gate. A name given as the leper patients did not know what was going to happen to them once they arrived.
However, on arrival they were given food, water, and medical attention along with a small social security payment. Such niceties hadn’t been available to Crete’s leprosy patients, who mostly lived in the area’s caves, away from civilization.
Emerge from the other side of the tunnel and walk down an abandoned village street lined with ruined Venetian and Turkish homes. Noting a door and roofless stone ruin building that once served as a taverna run by lepers.
Then continuing through the arched walkway down the semi restored commercial street of the 1930s, with what was once a café and a small school. Today the brightly coloured wooden shuttered buildings is home to the islands museum where you can see the exhibits showing images of what Spinalonga looked like during the days of being a leper colony.
I also learnt about a young male Law student from Athens who was forced into exile being unable to hide his symptoms from the disease. He was instrumental in forming the Brotherhood of Spinalonga and set about supporting others to improve their living conditions. Of a number of rules that were incorporated and accepted by the community was the to ban any use of mirrors, as no one wished to see themselves. However, it was impossible not to witness the decline in other residents.
Continue along the path past the ruined building used as workshop…
… and a number of long forgotten dwellings left in ruin.
To arrive at one of three churches located on the island. The church of Saint Panteleimon where the local Orthodox priest once lived.
Not far away stands a cavernous stone building that still houses the open fireplace incinerator that used to burn infected clothing of the descended.
Before passing by the remains of the hospital, and the Venetian water fountains.
Then taking the stairs to the Venetian fortress walls, built over the ruins of the acropolis.
Note the Roman Lion Inscription and climb to the top to take in the views of clear blue waters across to the mainland, even on an overcast day.
Making my way back down the stone stairs to and passing through the 16-17th century Tiepolo Bastion.
Then continue further down to visit the small Church of St. George, built by the Venetians centuries ago. Nearby is a small cemetery that once housed the remains of those where were taken by the disease. In 2013, the bones of the deceased were removed and placed in a purpose built ossuary close to the old cemetery and today is covered by concrete plaques.
Gazing out to sea whilst standing in the small cemetery, the silence aside the rustling of the wind moving through the grass and the faint sounds of boats arriving and departing, provides moments of respect as does the small plaque as a reminder of those who were buried on that rocky hillside overlooking the sea and the mountains of Crete.
From the Church of St. George you can walk the 1.5km path that the lepers made by demolishing sections of the ruined fortified walls.
Along the way you’ll see a number of long forgotten dwellings left in ruin. Some on the dwellings still have grape vines that continue to flourish. A local produce that once served as the source for making the local Cretan Raki; a strong grape-based spirit popular in Crete.
It had taken several decades for the story of the Spinalonga Leper Colony to be told. Since the closure little was known about the island and the government was anxious to erase any trace of the colony’s existence. With the survivors of the disease choosing not to speak of their experiences; as if the Spinalonga Leper Colony had never existed.
Until, Spinalonga appeared in novels, television series, and a short film. The British television series Who Pays the Ferryman? and Werner Herzog’s experimental short film Last Words.
Amongst other book titles, it is also the setting for the 2005 novel The Island by Victoria Hislop, and the story of a family’s ties to the leper colony. Hislops’ book was modified and a short television mini series was produced by Mega Channel Greece. Have you read ‘The Island’, by Victoria Hislop?
Some extra information:
Entrance tickets to visit Spinalonga are extra to the cost of the boat ticket (unless otherwise specified)
Adult ticket 8 €, reduced ticket 4 €
Opening hours: From April 1st until October 31st, 08:30-20:00 daily
Comfortable footwear is recommended if you want to walk to the top of the fortress and enjoy the view.
A moving and memorable experience, and one that was worth the wait.
Following our visit to the Spinalonga, we re-boarded the boat and returned to the seaside village of Plaka to enjoy a lunch of local seafood.
This blog is part of a series of blogs providing information on day trips, starting at the Venetian Harbour city of Chania. Sharing historic events, Greek mythology, ancient historic sites and the hypnotic wonders of other parts of Greece and her Islands. Read and learn more about other location within Greece and her Islands here.
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