Spinalonga Island

All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware.

To be completely honest I didn’t know anything about Spinalonga before I landed on Crete Island and discovered Plaka village and beach. The island of Spinalonga, officially known as Kalydon, is located in the Gulf of Elounda in north-eastern Crete, next to the town of Elounda. Spinalonga is also known as the Leper Island, as that is where lepers from Crete and the rest of Greece were quarantined until 1957.

I couldn’t leave the island without visiting this ancient fortress. So, one morning we found a captain with a boat willing to take us there from Plaka village.

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During summer months thousands of tourists visit Spinalonga for a tour of its ruined buildings, which the Archaeological Service is laboriously trying to maintain. You can get to Spinalonga taking the boat from Agios Nikolaos, Elounda or Plaka. Boats depart from Agios Nikolaos in the morning and they offer lunch and the opportunity for a swim off the beaches behind the Kolokytha Peninsula.

If you are staying in Elounda every 30 minutes you can find a boat going to Spinalonga throughout the summer and the ride takes only 15-20 minutes. But the shortest way to get on Spinalonga island is taking the boat from the little village of Plaka just north of Elounda. There are no scheduled boat trips to Spinalonga during winter, but you can find a boat owner to take you across at the seafront tavernas in Plaka.

Spinalonga is known as the last leper colony in Europe and is the most popular archaeological site in Crete after Knossos Palace.

It’s original name “Stin Olounda” was derived from Greek language meaning to protect the ancient port of Olounda (present day Elounda). Spinalonga had a strategic position for the control and defence of Elounda harbor that marked the rocky islet with a turbulent history. Originally, Spinalonga was not an island, it was part of the island of Crete. During Venetian occupation the island was carved out of the coast for defense purposes, forming the most impregnable island fortress from Crete. They renamed it originally to Spinalonde and later to Spinalonga, meaning like a “long thorn” because of its shape. First the Venetians used it in farming and selling salt, but soon they had to build dual fortifications as of the threat of pirate invasions as well as take-over by the nearby Turks, based on their profits in salt-mining. The Fall of Constantinople hurried their development. During the Cretan war, in 1715, the Turks took over the whole of Crete. However, the island remained a Venetian stronghold for another 65 years, as a result of its outstanding fortification. Throughout this period, the Cretan revolutionaries who fought the Turksused Spinalonga as their base. They later moved to the mountains. In 1898, the last Turks left Megalonisos and Crete was finally free.

Spinalonga however, still played a vital part in the history of the area, because in 1905 became a leper colony for Crete. Hansen’s disease, also known as leprosy, was a contagious skin disease that disfigured almost all of the people it infected. Those with leprosy were considered to be highly contagious and were being shunned.

Our driver from the airport commented, “imagine some people lived their whole lives out there in isolation, during that period”.

When Crete joined Greece, the island grew into the leper colony of the entire Greek population. They worked, married and had children, while isolated on this little island. Even during the Italian-German occupation, the conquerors were afraid to release them, and provided them with food and whatever else they needed, by boat. The lepers’ life on the island was at first wretched. Decadence and misery are the only words that can describe their situation. Things changed, after Law student Ramoundakis got sick and was transferred to the island. He riled up the rest of the island’s inhabitants and demanded better human conditions. And they succeeded. Houses were repaired and cleaning crews were created. The facility was closed down in 1957, after the discovery of the cure for Hansen’s Disease.  Nowadays, Spinalonga island is abandoned, but is constantly being improved, since it attracts a lot of touristic interest.

The author Victoria Hislop wrote a novel about Spinalonga, entitled “The Island”, with a homonymous movie having been released. I plan to read it to get a greater context for the history.

Today the name Spinalonga is only applied to the islet, but the Venetians used it to include the large peninsula of Nissi or Kolokytha, which is connected to Elounda by a narrow isthmus.

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You must definitely visit Spinalonga if you spend your holiday in Crete !

Don’t forget to bring water and the bathing suit!