The Leper’s Island: Spinalonga in Crete, Greece

An ancient civilization, pirates raiding, Venetian fortresses, Ottoman rule and a leper’s colony, where you enter through Dante’s Gate. It’s just a (long) stone’s throw away from the small fishing village of Plaka, but the island Spinalonga is full of movie material.

Spinalonga or Kalydon is a small island on Crete and one of the major sights after the Minoan city of Knossos. And the main sight on the eastern part of this small slice of heaven, that is Crete.

You only need an hour to see the island, but it’s well worth visiting Spinalonga between beaches and Greek salads.

LEPERS ONLY

From 1903 to 1957, Spinalonga was a leper colony and one of the last active colonies in Europe. It closed a few years after a cure was found(!)

So you got the terrible and feared disease leprosy? Well, sorry, but off to the isolated island until you die.

When you get off the boat you enter through Dante’s Gate! Is it the gate to hell? Well, I went trough the gate, and today the only hell is the tourists like myself.

Imagine, being taken away from your home and told to leave everything behind, because you would not return. You are an outcast, your name erased from the official papers of your home town. Like you never existed! According to the Bible, you have brought this upon yourself due to sin, so no one wants anything to do with you. It sounds like something from a horror movie or the dark ages (I know they weren’t dark, but it suits my agenda here). And when you die you are placed in a nameless grave, because no family member will ever come to mourn.

Funeral stones

This sound like a nightmare, but it wasn’t all bad. The living conditions on the isolated island was in some ways better for the sick than they had at home. A church, doctors and a hospital, bakery, school and small shops were available. Some of the sick even survived until the colony was closed. At home they would have been isolated anyway due to the social stigma as you might have seen in movies. If I thought I could infect my family, I would go, but otherwise not all the bread in the world would make me leave my family.

It might feel more sombre, if it’s less crowded and the weather less sunny. So you should probably visit on a cold, damp day in January if you want the creepy hooded feeling.

Apparently leprosy is still a thing (more than 200.0000 cases in 2017 according to WHO), and after the one at Spinalonga closed a few more kept going in Europe. To this day some colonies still exist even though it’s not really contagious and now curable according to WHO. The word leprosy is of course Greek – like most of the words in the Western world.

An award winning book have in fact been written about this part of Spinalonga’s history: “The Island” by Victoria Heslop, and the success of the book gave the island a tourism boost. She declined an offer from Hollywood, and instead gave the rights to a Greek TV-station.

The most impressive buildings on the island though was not build for the lepers. But for the pirates. They were built by the Venetians (like all other impressive fortresses along the Adriatic coast) as protection.

SALTY WATERS

Part of the old salt pan

Spinalonga island used to be part of the Spinalonga peninsula. Confused? So is everyone else. That’s because these two parts of Crete are called the same, and the reason is that they actually used to be connected. The island only became an island, when the Venetians removed the ground and isolating it for military purposes in the late 1500s. It’s real location name is Kalydon, but everyone still uses the name the Venetians gave it: Spinalonga.

The Venetians were on Crete for the olive oil and the salt.
You can still see the rest of the salt pans near the peninsula above and under water built in the 15th century and functioned until 1972. The water was trapped in the cisterns and when the water evaporated, the salt was left. We did the same in Denmark once. The salt was sent to Europe. In order to protect the trade, the island was made into a fort with thick solid walls.

But why was that necessary? Well, let’s go even further back in time.

PIRATES RULE

Pirates? Is this just an article where you make up stories? No. The reason for the Venetians to use so much energy and resources in fortifying the the island is to protect their trade routes. And not just any pirate…From Barbarossa himself!

The thrilling and dramatic story of the (in)famous pirate and Ottoman admiral, who now has a splendid tomb in Istanbul is too long for this article, but look him up here. He is already a movie and a LEGO toy. Being a pirate or being attacked by pirates is of course no joke, but I can’t help be all “Black Sails” excited.

Pirates marauded here for several hundred years from 900’s and onwards. Eventually, 300 years later, the Venetians took over and built the fortresses to protect from the pirates and the Ottoman fleet (which I find frequently is named as the same thing in text on this subject) and extended them in the 1500s.

Around a 100 years later, Crete became occupied by the Saracens and many Christians fled to Spinalonga, which kept its independency. But in 1715, Turkish families were forced to move here to assert their rule and part of that Settlement is restored and visible. When Cretan independence came in 1898 around a 1000 Muslim people lived here, but 15 years later, the island was made into a leper colony. Inhabitants now: 0

A SUNKEN CITY

Building forts and Mediterranean trading wasn’t invented by the Venetians. Spinalonga Peninsula – when it was whole – was a part of an ancient settlement in Crete.

On Spinalonga island itself, you cant’ see traces of the earliest settlement, but remember it was connected to the Peninsula, and on the small stretch of land near the salt pans of the Venetians was Olous. The city is now sunken. Yes sunken! Seriously, movies should be made about this place.

Several hundreds years before our time, fortifications were made to protect the ancient Cretan city of Olous – the most powerful trade center on Crete. Elounda comes from Olounda or Olous and Olous was mentioned by Homer as one of the cities in Crete (Homer: this is epic!). It was a great city, and it even had its own coinage. The city flourished in Byzantine times as well, but pirates forced the inhabitants inwards. Later wars would do the same. At some point, it sank due to an earthquake, but on a clear day without wind, you can see the traces below the surface.

An early Christian basilica on the Peninsula

Allegedly, flamingoes now roam the salty waters, but we haven’t seen them. You find nice small pebble beach on the stretch linking the Peninsula to Crete. Behind the restaurants are the remains of an old Christian basilica Poros Elounda, from which there’s still a very beautiful mosaic tiles floor showing dolphins making look more like a Roman villa than a church. It’s clearly not a high-profile antiquity, since no one is there…

HOW TO GET TO SPINALONGA

The crammed boat to Agios Nikolaos

Since Spinalonga is no longer landfast with Spinalonga, you can only go by boat. And while you should not expect to be the only visitor, it’s not like Dubrovnik. You can also get whole cruises with dining an everything , but you’ll never hear me recommending sailing for longer than 5 min. 

  • From Plaka it's only around 7 min. (my kind of boat ride) and costs 10. The office is just on main street. I didn't book in advance. The boat leaves every half hour until 18.00.
  • From Elounda, the boat runs every 30 min. and takes around 20 min.
  • From Agios Nikolaos, they only leave in the morning and return in the afternoon with lunch and swimming on the way.
I was alone on the trip and forgot my selfiestick...

This is my 4th visit to Crete and both my sister and my husband have lived here. Crete is pretty spectacular, and in a way, Spinalonga contains most of Crete’s complex history into one island. So many foreign rulers coming and going, and we haven’t even included all of them.

Get my tips on living like a local on Crete! or if you are more enthusiastic to the monuments of the once large civilization of the Venetians, head to Kotor, Montenegro!

Are you a fan of Greece?