Island of the Lepers
The tiny island lies just off the northern coast of Crete and at the mouth of Elounda’s bay, which is created by the Spinalonga peninsula.
Famously, the ruins of the Venetian fortress dominate any approach to the island. the Venetians acquired Crete, from the Byzantine Empire, after the successful sacking of Constantinople during the 4th Crusade in the very early 1200s. The Venetians created a commercial power-base on Crete which endured for 4 centuries, despite more than a dozen major uprisings against their rule. The threat of invasion, from an increasingly strong Ottoman Empire, prompted the Venetians to construct defensive fortresses which can still be seen today. Spinalonga’s, one of the strongest on Crete, was built to protect the entrance to the Gulf and dates from 1579. It couldn’t save Crete itself, which finally fell to the invading Turkish troops of the Ottoman Empire in 1669, but the fortress of Spinalonga remained in Venetian hands, as a haven for Christians fleeing before the invading Turks, until 1715 but in that year it was handed over to the Turks who remained there until 1903 when they, in their turn, were forced to leave the island.
The history of the name ‘Spinalonga’ is in itself subject to conjecture but it is widely accepted that its roots lie somewhere in the Olous, Olondi, Elounda location, and the words meaning long and thorn. Spinalonga is actually the name of the sizeable but slender peninsula and on maps, the small island is identifiable by the name Kalidon.
Acquired from the Byzantine Empire at the start of the thirteenth century Spinalonga was to become a crucial part of the Venetian powerbase on Crete for the next four centuries. Huge fortifications still dominate this tiny but strategically important dot on the map.
Such was the natural isolation and manmade defenses of this tiny island that it managed to hold out against the Ottoman Empire for almost fifty years (from 1669 to 1715) after the fall of the rest of Crete into Turkish hands. From 1715 until the turn of the twentieth century it was held by the occupying Ottomans and populated by civilians.
The island is probably best known to the wider world for its twentieth-century role as an isolated community of leprosy sufferers, a function that it fulfilled from 1903 up until 1957. This, however, is only one phase of a lengthy and varied history. Many of Spinalonga’s most striking features, the massive fortifications, date back five centuries or more to the Venetian occupation. In beginning to understand the past and significance of Spinalonga at times, it is important to appreciate its geographic position in relation to the rest of Crete’s northeast coastline.
If you use the Spinalonga satellite map and zoom out you can easily tell how crucial a strategic position the island occupies. Its location guards the entrance to the shallow and relatively sheltered bay on which Plaka and Schisma (Elounda ‘town center’) sit. Along with ‘Big’ Spinalonga, or Spinalonga peninsula, it marks the edge of a shelf where the land falls away into the deep waters of north Mirabello bay. With major walls, fortifications, cannon emplacements, and battlements the Venetians were able to command naval control over any ships passing to the north or south of Spinalonga into these shallow waters. The bay it protects has two main residential settlements on its shores. Plaka sits directly opposite Spinalonga and Elounda, a far more populous area, is at the southern end of the bay. At the far southern end of the bay the small causeway is bisected by a narrow canal suitable only for open fishing boats. All large commercial and trip boats must enter and exit the bay at the northern entrance, past Spinalonga. Mirabello Bay, into which the canal gives access, is a large bay on the northeast coast of Crete. Its sweeping curved coastline almost forms two-thirds of a circle and Mirabello itself offers a safe haven to large ships in extreme weather even today.
Crete’s earliest cities date back over four thousand years to the early Minoans and it is impossible that they wouldn’t have utilized the parts of Spinalona peninsula and island that were above the waves back then to their greatest advantage. Constant seismic activity in the Aegean has ensured that the features visible today would not have been familiar to the first inhabitants of Crete
Although there are no visible Minoan or Dorian remains on the island, the wider Spinalonga area would have been of great strategic importance to even the earliest settlers on Crete. By the third century bc the city of Olous, now buried under the silt and seas south of the causeway, had become a regional powerhouse with militaristic tendencies akin to those of its near neighbors Lato and Oxa, all three being frequently involved in local struggles, alliances, and enmities. Ruins of an ancient acropolis from this period are purported to lie under the huge Venetian fortifications.
Fortress of Spinalonga
The earliest major structures visible on the island today are still its most striking and substantial. During the lengthy Venetian occupation of Crete, huge fortifications were built at different levels on Spinalonga. Huge stone battlements and gun emplacements ensured total control of the waters giving access to the tiny bay. High walls and natural features turned the island into an impenetrable fortress, home to the troops that defended it.
The next wave of inhabitants came during the Ottoman occupation and it is the shops and residences from this period that form the majority of the buildings on the west coast which is somewhat sheltered, facing across to Plaka. The east side of the island has few structures except fortifications and a chapel and is open to the winds of the Aegean sea.
By the twentieth century, many of the old Ottoman buildings had been reopened to house the region’s inhabitants suffering from leprosy. Houses and structures that were hundreds of years old had an arrest placed on their decline as those exiled to the island forged a dignified community out of shared affliction in a decaying place. Although none would have chosen to be confined in such a tiny place village life did continue and the twentieth century’s technology reached across the water. Modern dormitories were built during this period; these are the large concrete buildings to the north of the church and Ottoman period buildings. For the first time visitor probably one of the most poignant sections of a circuit of the island is right at the very end. Just before descending from the walls back down to the landing stage, the visitor has to pass the twentieth-century cemetery, the final resting place of many sufferers of the disease. Its views to the open sea may be glorious on a summer afternoon, but only if you are free to leave.
The virtually abandoned island of Spinalonga entered upon the next phase of her sad history when it was chosen as the location for a leper colony ………… a place to which the sick and maimed were transported and left to fend for themselves with little if any hope of again leaving the island – ever. It remained, as such, for the first half of the century until the last leper left in 1957, and it was left with the dubious distinction of being the last leper colony in Europe. At the turn of the century, leprosy was a dreaded disease in Crete and the government of the time decided that the tiny, deserted island, was the ideal spot for a colony ………. not too far for supplies to be ferried across but far enough to prevent the spread of the disease on Crete. Once on the island, the sufferers were expected to accommodate themselves as best they could in the old buildings that had been abandoned when the Turks were ejected. The lepers were expected to make their lives as best they could, in their island isolation, with little help from anyone else. Family and visits were not allowed, for fear of contagion. As the years passed things did begin to improve, a little, as a small number of doctors, priests and nuns arrived on the island to try to alleviate the suffering of the inhabitants. The years of the German occupation of Crete during the Second World War were years of deprivation, starvation, and lack of medical supplies ……… the lepers of Spinalonga were largely ignored and left to barely subsist.
Is spinalonga inhabited?
The island of Spinalonga has been uninhabited since 1962 when the last priest had remembered the fifth anniversary of the last resident death and burial on the island in 1957.
Vathi is a small bay on ‘Big’ Spinalonga or the Spinalonga Peninsula. It sits approximately opposite Tsifliki and is occasionally used by BBQ trip boats. It is also a popular destination for small local pleasure boats or visiting yachts to drop anchor away from the bustle of the Schisma side of the main (Korfos) bay.
How to get to Spinalonga
It is now possible to visit the island, by boat, from Elounda, Plaka or Agios Nikolaos. When the boat docks the visitor enters the ruined village through a long, narrow tunnel. One can go directly into the village or follow the path around the island and past the now ruined, but still formidable, fortress, and into the remains of the village itself. Doors hang from broken hinges; roofs are lost and dwellings open to the elements. But the layout of the village, the homes, the streets, the church, the burial place, etc., are all still there to be discovered. It is an island of despair and unhappiness but also of stoicism and fortitude.
Spinalonga Boat Trips and tours
Both the Elounda boat cooperative and Plaka boats offer regular trips to and from the island. From Plaka the crossing takes a matter of a few minutes and from the Elounda boat station around fifteen minutes. Tickets may be purchased from the booking desk in each location. Boats also depart from close to Voulismeni Bridge in Agios Nikolaos, offering day trips including onboard lunch and return trips to the island. Trips from further afield normally see visitors transported by coach to either Agios Nikolaos or Elounda for embarkation. There is also a small charge to go onto the island which is a national historic site.