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Spinalonga - a island with a sad history
Spinalonga Island (Greece)
Member Name: catsholiday
Spinalonga Island (Greece)
Date: 20/09/10, updated on 27/10/11 (382 review reads)
Advantages: A fascinating island museum
Disadvantages: A lot of the modern history has been destroyed
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.
Summary: An island museum