“ Country: Greece / World Region: Europe „
The name of the island, Spinalonga, is Venetian, and means "long thorn . As I had recently read Victoria Hislop's 'The Island, 'I was very interested in paying a visit to Spinalonga, which is the island of the title.
This is the story of Cretan family's hidden past which is set against the backdrop of the Second World War and the island of Spinalonga itself. The story is very much that of Spinalonga as a leper colony but is also a love story and is around the time of the German occupation of Crete.
The island of Spinalonga, or Kalidon as it is often shown on maps is a small island just off the north east coast of Crete. It was quite a long drive away from Rethymnon to just beyond Eloundra so we got up early - about 6.30 am had a quick breakfast and then left for our drive to Spinalonga.
We drove via Elounda the small town where they filmed where they filmed the TV series 'Who pays the ferryman' and then on to the small town of to Plaka and on the way we could clearly see two islands, the smaller of which was Spinalonga . Both islands are very close to the shore and within very easy swimming distance so you do wonder why the lepers that were fitter didn't swim ashore. Lepers were sent to this island of misery from all over Greece not just places in Crete.
Plaka was the small fishing village on Crete where the main characters in the book lived. The fisherman in the book lived in Plaka and it was his little boat that took the lepers on their journey across to be isolated on the island of Spinalonga.
It was a bonus to be able to take a small boat over to the island from Plaka as I felt this was probably the same journey as the lepers had to make for all those years. The only thing was their journey was usually a one way trip. We paid 8 Euros each return for the short trip over to the island. On this small boat
Once on the island we bought entrance tickets at 2 euros each for the museum which was the entire island.
The whole island was a Byzantine fortress originally and won by the Greeks in the early 1200s.It was a very strategically important base for the Greeks for the next 400 years. Even today the huge fortifications still dominate this tiny rocky island .Its importance lay in the fact that it guards the entrance from the deep waters of the Cretan Sea into the sheltered and shallow bay.
From 1715 until the turn of the twentieth century Spinalonga was a settlement for the occupying Ottomans.
Its saddest time in history was from 1903 until 1957 when it was used as a leper colony. This was the history period of the island that I was interested in having read the story based on this period. Unfortunately most of the buildings of the leper colony have been destroyed as they were considered unsightly and also I think they were a bit a shamed about this part of the island's history.
There were two entrances to Spinalonga, one being the lepers' entrance, which we walked through on the other side of the island to the one we arrived on. This was a tunnel known as Dante's Gate because the patients did not know what was going to happen to them once they arrived. Once the unfortunate lepers arrived all they were given was a ration of food, water, medical attention every couple of weeks from a visiting doctor and social security payments.
The island developed its own shops and there was a hospital and some people formed a sort of community governing body to negotiate with the main Greek government for things such as their benefits and medical attention. The church has been restored and it is a small rather pleasant building but one I suspect was used as a place of peace and calm by the lepers.
The lepers also destroyed some of the ancient buildings as they used the stones to make their houses. They also destroyed part of the walls because they were unable to get to the sea and catch fish to supplement their diet or even just cool off in the sea in summer.
I was actually more interested in the recent history of the leper colony than the byzantine fortress so I was a bit disappointed not to be able to see how they had lived on the island. You did get the impression that the island would have been very claustrophobic as it was very tiny, very rocky and there was not really anywhere that the lepers could have grown anything.
There were huge tourist boats arriving on the island - one very large one came just as we were leaving - about 400 people. Our little boat only had 6 of us returning to Plaka which I was pleased about as it felt more authentic. We returned on our small boat to Plaka looking back to the wonderful views of this Island and its huge imposing fortress against the lovely bright blue sky. It did make me think how lucky we were to be visiting the island as tourists rather than approaching the island as a leper.
This Island is not suitable for people with mobility problems and it is not at all wheel chair or push chair friendly as the paths around are rough and some are cobbled.
I'm not sure I would take young children to the island as there is little of interest for them and it gets very hot at times. There is also only one small rather uninteresting shop selling drinks. The toilets are also rather undesirable so if you can avoid using them then I would.
I was a little disappointed in the fact that evidence of the leper colony had been almost obliterated as that was far more humanly relevant history or me than Byzantine fortresses. I think it is also a bit of an insult to the people who were incarcerated on the island that their history has been almost erased. There is some reference to this time on display boards in some of the buildings but much has been destroyed.
Despite my slight disappointment I would still recommend a visit to Spinalonga as it has such a long and interesting history and makes a fascinating day trip when staying on Crete. If you go in the summer then be prepared by taking sun screen, hat and plenty of water as there is not a lot of shade and it gets very hot. There are a few trees down by the harbour so at least you can find a little shade while waiting for your return boat.
Thanks for reading and I hope this has been of some interest. This review may be posted on other sites under my same user name.
On a recent trip to Crete I decided to hire a car for the day to get away from the resort and get a real feel of this beautiful Island.
I headed east along the North coast passing through some quaint little villages the road took me right up into the hills.
The one thing that will always stick in my mind when I think of Crete will be the sound of the crickets in the olive groves, as you drive past all you can hear is their chirping noise it reminded me of The Hitchcock film 'The Birds,' but when you did get a bit of road without olive groves which is very rare in Crete, then the silence hits you, it is very exhilarating and an experience that leaves you wondering just how many of these creatures there are in one tree.
I was making my way to Elounda a town that has a fishing port and here I would be able to get a boat trip to take me over to Spinalonga Island a leper colony up until 1957.
I had read about this place some time ago and so thought it would be interesting to go and see for myself just how these people lived on the 'Isle of the Damned' as it was nick named by the Inhabitants.
The Island itself is solid rock and quite small, 850 metres around the perimeter and as far back as the 9th century when the Arabs invaded Crete it was a retreat for Christians for about 138 years.
At the beginning of the 13th century the Venetians occupied Crete up until 1705 when the Turks then came along, they built a small village on Spinalonga and also used part of it as a prison for Cretans that fought against them.
In 1898 Crete gained its independence but the Turks living on Spinalonga refused to move because they were protected by the French who had a navel base on the island at the time.
The Crete government decided to send lepers to the Island hoping that it would scare the Turks and this worked, they rapidly left and headed back to Turkey. The lepers remained there until 1957 and from 1970 it became a tourist attraction.
As you get close to the Island you can see the fortress and the gates leading up to the town itself.
It is quite a magnificent sight and I couldn't help thinking about what must have gone through these peoples minds as they were taken over there on a small boat watching the distant land of freedom getting further and further away and then turning to see the Island that would be their prison coming closer and closer.
It felt quite eerie walking through the cobbled streets, small stone houses with wooden balconies and pots of flowers placed along the path ways.
I walked right around the island looking out to sea and then back to the fortress walls, an island that once held such sadness now feels so peaceful, it was a very strange experience.
There is a lot of restoration work going on to bring the town and buildings back to their original state and some houses have been fully restored and show the history of the Island.
One particular room showed photos of people that had lived there and you could read about their lives and how they survived with the help of locals from a small village on Crete itself called Plaka.
There were three nurses a few boatmen and a desanitiser that lived in this small village and they travelled the short distance across to the Island every day to help the Colony folk but this only came about in 1950 when a clinic was built because a cure had been found.
I was truly mesmerised by what I saw on this Island and also felt quite sad, it must have been horrible for these poor people to be sent here never to see their families again. They were total outcasts from normal society with absolutely no hope in life until of course the cure was found.
The church has been restored and it is a wonderful building but quite small, it must have been the one place that these people could go and feel totally at peace with their world.
I recommend you to take a camera because some of the views on this Island are outstanding especially the Island itself as you sail towards it and the sea from the top of the fortress is something that will stick in your memory for a long time to come, it is very difficult to describe you just have to see it for yourself.
***Location and cost***
The Island lies just off the North coast of Crete and boat trips from Elounda which is a fishing port 65 kilometres from Heraklion are available for 10 Euros return. The boat trip itself takes about twenty minutes each way so quite inexpensive.
There are loads of boat trip births all along the front of the port but from what we could gather they were all about the same rate.
An entrance fee of 4 Euros is charged when you actually land on the Island, children half price from 5 years to 15.
If you want to go across with a guide then the price goes up to 20 Euros and that included the entrance fee, but to be quite honest we arrived and just followed a party in front of us so we were able to listen to the guide any way, and of course we were free to wander about on our own so I think taking the cheaper option was a far better choice.
The boat returns after an hour which is long enough to get around the island and take in the atmosphere but if you wish to stay for longer you can.
A small cafe is just by the harbour selling drinks and snacks but it was very expensive so not a lot of people were using it when we were there, we decided to wait until we returned to Elounda and eat in one of the many restaurants on the port front that would be a perfect way to end the day.
There are toilets but again if you are not desperate then I suggest you wait until you return to the mainland, I was a bit in need and although it was a relief it certainly was not a pleasant experience.
This Island is not suitable for people with mobility problems, not at all wheel chair friendly because there are some rough pathways as you walk around the Island.
Guide books say that it is a great place for a family trip and small children can run around and play, I don't agree entirely, the boat trip would be fun but spending an hour on this rocky Island would not be enough to keep a young child amused.
I recommend that you take a cool drink with you and use a good sun block; it was extremely hot walking around the perimeter and there are very few shaded areas.
By the harbour you will find a few trees so this is an ideal spot to get cool while you wait for your return boat.
Visiting this Island was a very moving experience and made me realise just how lucky I am to be healthy.
It is well worth a visit, the boat trip is enjoyable, the island peaceful and of course it will really open your eyes to just how cruel and barbaric lepers were treated until a cure was found.
Also called Kalidon, the island lies just off the coast of Crete.