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Exploring Spinalonga: A Journey Through History

Updated: Jun 30

Crete is an island which needs no introduction; It is the largest Greek Island and the southernmost region of all of Greece. Crete and its surrounding islands are popular to visit and it is easily accessible given it has three airports, two of which offer international flights (Heraklion and Chania).

Cretan Water
Photo by Victor Martinez from Pexels

Key surrounding Islands of Crete include Chrysi (aka Gaidouronisi), Gavdos, Gramvousa, Elafonisi and Spinalonga, with Gavdos being the southernmost point of Europe.

The enigmatic island of Spinalonga, nestled just off the coast opposite the town of Plaka, is known for its tumultuous past and breathtaking scenery, offering a unique blend of history, culture, and natural beauty. This tiny island, which today is uninhabited and a popular destination to visit in Crete, has played various roles throughout the centuries and continues to captivate the imagination of all who visit.

Lets take a deeper look into the island of Spinalonga...

A Historical Tapestry

Ancient Beginnings and Venetian Stronghold

Evidence suggests Spinalonga was once part of the mainland peninsula of Crete until the Venetians cut through to create a moat and separate it from the mainland. This strategic move was not just for defensive purposes but also to control the important sea routes. The Venetians, who ruled Crete from 1204 to 1669, recognised Spinalonga's strategic significance and in 1579, built a formidable fortress to protect their interests which today is an UNESCO heritage. Despite the fall of Crete to the Ottomans in 1669, Spinalonga remained under Venetian control until 1715, serving as a last bastion of Western influence in the region.

Ottoman Era

The island fell to the Ottomans in 1715, marking the beginning of a new chapter. Under Ottoman rule, Spinalonga became a hub of commerce and trade, with its population comprising a mix of Christians and Muslims. The island's architecture from this period reflects a blend of Venetian and Ottoman influences, adding to its unique cultural heritage. Towards the end of the Ottoman occupation of Crete, Spinalonga was a refuge to many ottoman families until approximately 1903.

A Leper Colony

Perhaps the most poignant chapter in Spinalonga’s history began in 1903 when the island was converted into a leper colony. Leprosy, or Hansen's Disease, a misunderstood and feared disease, led to the isolation of those afflicted. Spinalonga once again became a refuge, but this time for those diagnosed with Leprosy, and became a place where they could live relatively normal lives away from the stigma of society. It is estimated that about 1000 Greeks were transferred to the island and the living conditions there were very bad. Yet, despite the harsh conditions, the lepers of Spinalonga established a vibrant community. They built houses, schools, and even shops, striving to maintain a sense of normality.

Spinalonga Crete
Photo by Mike Kw from Pexels

A prominent name from that time is Epaminondas Remoundakis, who was taken to the island in1936, at the age of 21. He became the leader of the island and fought with great passion for better medical care and infrastructure. Although a cure was found for leprosy in 1948, the leper colony of Spinalonga remained active until 1957, and its legacy is a testament to the resilience and spirit of its inhabitants. Today, visitors can explore the remnants of this period, offering a glimpse into the lives of those who lived there.

Modern-Day Spinalonga

Despite Spinalonga's leper colony history being the source of inspiration for a few, namely the documentary L'Ordre (1973) by the French film director and screenwriter Jean-Daniel Pollet which tells the story of the life of Epaminondas Remoundakis on the island, the BBC series Who pays the ferryman (1977) based on the novel by Michael J. Bird and the short film Last words by Weber Herzog (1968) which tells the story of the last man to leave Spinalonga, little was known about the island. This changed with the publication of the book The Island by Victoria Hislop in 2005, her first novel which very quickly became a best seller and has been translated into over 20 languages to date. The book which has later adapted to a Greek produced TV series called "To nisi" (i.e. the island), put the island of Spinalonga on the map for visitors from all over the world, and to this day remains one of the popular attractions in of Crete.

A Window to the Past

Today, Spinalonga stands as a reminder of its multifaceted history. The island is uninhabited, but welcomes thousands of visitors each year who come to explore its ruins and soak in its rich past. The Venetian fortress, Ottoman-era buildings, and the remnants of the leper colony offer a unique window into the island’s diverse history.

Touring Spinalonga

A visit to Spinalonga typically begins with a short boat ride from the nearby towns of Elounda or Plaka, or from Agios Nikolaos. As you approach the island, the imposing Venetian walls come into view, setting the stage for an unforgettable adventure. Guided tours are available, providing insightful narratives that bring the island's history to life. Walking through the narrow streets, visitors can explore the well-preserved buildings, including the settlement, the church of Saint George, the cemetery and the leper hospital.

Natural Beauty

Beyond its historical significance, Spinalonga is also a place of stunning natural beauty. The island is surrounded by crystal-clear waters, making it a perfect spot for swimming and snorkelling. The views from the island are breathtaking, with the rugged coastline of Crete and the azure expanse of the Aegean Sea stretching out before you.

Tip: Go as early as possible during the peak season as Spinalonga is a very popular attraction. Remember to take what you need with you as the island is uninhabited, but also remember to leave nothing but your footprints.

Spinalonga is more than just an island; it’s a journey through time. From its Venetian fortifications and Ottoman legacy to its poignant years as a leper colony, Spinalonga offers a unique blend of history, culture, and natural beauty. Whether you’re a history buff, a nature lover, or simply seeking a unique travel experience, Spinalonga promises to leave a lasting impression. So, set sail for Spinalonga and immerse yourself in the rich tapestry of its past – a journey you won’t soon forget.

Do you plan to visit Crete? Check out my the My Greek Island e-book accompanied by an interactive map, featuring a 7 day itinerary to cover the region of Chania.

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