Nicknamed the island of the living dead and the island of banned mirrors, Spinalonga lies at the natural harbor of Elounda in the prefecture of Lassithi in Crete. With a rich history and eerie charm, this small barren island has captivated the hearts of Greeks and tourists alike. Once a mighty sea fortress, Spinalonga retains secrets of transforming from a fortified island protecting ancient Olous to a notorious leper colony.
The History of Spinalonga Island
Spinalonga Island, located in the Gulf of Mirabello near the village of Plaka in northeastern Crete, carries a rich and intriguing history. This 8.5-hectare islet has witnessed the rise and fall of various civilizations and a significant transformation into a leprosy colony.
Venetian and Ottoman Rule
Venetian engineer Genese Bressani constructed the initial fortifications of the island in 1578. These fortifications included blockhouses on the highest points of the island’s northern and southern sides. During its prime, Venetian Spinalonga boasted approximately 35 cannons strategically placed around the island. Despite Crete falling to the Ottomans during the Cretan War (1645–1669), the Venetians occupied Spinalonga. They maintained control over the island until the last Ottoman–Venetian War when it was lost to the Ottomans.
Throughout the Cretan War, Spinalonga was a refuge for Cretan refugees and rebels. These insurgents utilized the island as a base to launch attacks against the Ottomans. Once the Turks defeated the Venetians, they took possession of the island, capturing its 600 inhabitants. The Muslims destroyed many of the existing Venetian houses and built new residences on their foundations.
By 1881, Spinalonga had become an important commercial hub within Mirabello Bay. It boasted a population of over 1,100 people, along with 200 homes and 25 shops and workshops.
Today, Market Street, which was formerly under Ottoman rule, lies in ruins. However, a few shops have been restored, featuring colorful window frames and doors. These shops house a permanent exhibition that showcases various artifacts depicting the island’s history. Visitors can observe Venetian, Ottoman, and Greek Orthodox tombstones, photographs, pottery, syringes, morphine vials, and more.
Following the Cretan revolt of 1866–1869, many Ottoman families sought refuge on the island because they feared Cretan insurgents. By 1881, they had established their community on Spinalonga. However, they were forced to flee the island in 1903 when the Cretans took control, shortly after the establishment of the independent Cretan State in 1898.
Transformation into a Leprosy Colony
In 1904, following the expulsion of the Turks, Spinalonga underwent a drastic transformation: the Greek government designated the island as a leper colony. The disease was so feared and stigmatized that those diagnosed had their property seized and their citizenship rights revoked. They were forcibly deported to Spinalonga.
The conditions on the island were harsh, and the inhabitants received minimal medical attention. The sole doctor assigned to the colony rarely visited unless someone fell ill with another condition. Despite the discovery of leprosy treatment in the 1940s, the Greek state continued to operate the colony until 1957.
Only after a British expert conducted a scathing investigation and exposed the government’s inadequate medical treatment and housing was Spinalonga finally closed. The once-thriving leprosy colony ceased to exist, leaving a haunting legacy and stories of resilience.
Spinalonga’s captivating history and transformation into a leprosy colony have been immortalized in various novels, including Victoria Hislop’s bestselling book, “The Island.” Through these narratives, we gain insight into the lives of those exiled to Spinalonga and the challenges they faced on this isolated island.
Even though leprosy treatment was discovered in the 1940s, the colony remained operational until 1957. The legacy of Spinalonga continues to intrigue and captivate visitors, shedding light on a dark chapter in history.
Life in the Spinalonga Leprosy Colony
Spinalonga Island, located off Crete’s coast, has a significant history as a leprosy colony. The lives of individuals in the colony were marked with numerous challenges, including the seizure of property and revoked citizenship, as well as a lack of medical treatment and housing. Let’s explore these aspects in more detail.
- Seizure of Property and Revoked Citizenship: Upon being diagnosed with leprosy, individuals were forcibly removed from their homes and families to live on Spinalonga Island. Tragically, they experienced the confiscation of their personal belongings and properties. As if the physical pain and emotional distress caused by the disease were not enough, this further added to their burden. To make matters worse, their citizenship was revoked, depriving them of their rights and privileges as Greek citizens. This left them feeling isolated and abandoned, as they were cut off from society and unable to participate in the normal activities of everyday life.
- Lack of Medical Treatment: One of the most troubling aspects of life in the Spinalonga Leprosy Colony was the lack of adequate medical treatment for residents. Leprosy, a chronic infectious disease, requires ongoing care and specialized treatment. Unfortunately, the colony suffered from a scarcity of medical resources and personnel. This resulted in limited access to proper healthcare, leaving individuals without the necessary treatment and support to manage their condition effectively. The absence of medical advancements and breakthroughs further exacerbated the challenging conditions faced by those living on Spinalonga Island.
- Challenging Living Conditions: The living conditions on Spinalonga Island were far from ideal. The colony struggled with a shortage of suitable housing, forcing individuals to live in cramped and unsanitary conditions. Basic amenities, such as clean water and proper sanitation, were often lacking, further compromising the well-being of residents. The lack of adequate housing and infrastructure made life even more difficult for those affected by leprosy. It intensified their physical discomfort and diminished their quality of life. These challenging living conditions were a constant reminder of their isolation and the stigma associated with their disease.
Closure of the Spinalonga Leprosy Colony
Spinalonga, once a leper colony in Greece, witnessed the closure of its haunting chapter in history through a combination of a revealing British report and subsequent government action.
At a time when treatment for Hansen’s disease had already been discovered, the Greek state shockingly continued to operate the Spinalonga leprosy colony until 25 August 1957.
The report denounced the island doctor and the state for failing to provide residents with adequate medical treatment and housing. It revealed the appalling conditions in which the leprosy patients lived, highlighting the lack of access to proper healthcare and the absence of necessary support for those affected by the disease.
Government Action and Closure
Driven by the damning findings of the British report, the Greek government finally took action to close down the Spinalonga leprosy colony. The report served as a wake-up call, exposing the injustices and lack of compassionate care inflicted upon the residents for too long.
The colony’s closure marked a significant turning point, ending the suffering and isolation endured by the residents of Spinalonga. It was a step towards acknowledging the rights and well-being of those affected by leprosy, ensuring they no longer faced the dehumanizing treatment that had characterized their previous existence.
Despite the subsequent closure of Spinalonga, its legacy remains etched into the collective memory, serving as a powerful reminder of the dark chapters in the history of medical neglect and the resilience of the human spirit.
The Legacy of Spinalonga Island
Spinalonga Island holds a rich and captivating legacy that enthralls visitors and readers alike. From Victoria Hislop’s bestselling novel “The Island” to the intriguing history of life after the colony’s closure, numerous aspects contribute to the enduring allure of Spinalonga. Let’s delve into these captivating elements that make the legacy of Spinalonga Island so fascinating.
Victoria Hislop’s Novel “The Island”
One of the key contributors to the popularity and awareness of Spinalonga Island is Victoria Hislop’s remarkable novel, “The Island.” This gripping story beautifully weaves together elements of history, romance, and tragedy, capturing the essence of life on Spinalonga during the leper colony’s existence. Through vivid characters and emotional storytelling, Hislop brings the island’s past to life, allowing readers to gain a deeper understanding of the hardships endured by those who lived there.
“The Island” sheds light on the island’s role as a refuge for individuals suffering from leprosy during a time when society’s perception of the disease was shrouded in fear and ignorance. The novel explores the challenges faced by the inhabitants, their resilience, and the complex dynamics that unfolded within the confined community. Hislop’s meticulous research and powerful storytelling make “The Island” an indispensable literary companion for anyone interested in the history of Spinalonga.
Life After the Leprosarium’s Closure
Following the closure of the leper colony on Spinalonga in 1957, the island underwent significant changes that shaped its present-day legacy. The need for a segregated colony diminished with the discovery of effective treatment for leprosy, and the remaining inhabitants were relocated to mainland hospitals. This marked the beginning of a new era for Spinalonga, one that would see it transition from a place of isolation and suffering to a captivating tourist destination.
Today, Spinalonga attracts visitors from around the world who explore its haunting ruins and delve into its intriguing history. The island stands as a testament to the resilience of its former inhabitants while offering a unique glimpse into a chapter of Greek history that is both fascinating and poignant. As visitors wander through the crumbling buildings and traverse the narrow streets, they can’t help but feel a sense of awe and admiration for those who once called this island home.
Spinalonga Island’s legacy extends far beyond its physical structures. It serves as a reminder of the power of the human spirit and the triumph over adversity. The island’s transformation from a place of isolation and suffering to one of intrigue and contemplation showcases the resilience and indomitable nature of the human experience.
Since the 1970s, the ancient site of Spinalonga is a protected area. It is in the final stages of being nominated as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
More than 300,000 individuals go to the small island of Spinalonga each year. This visit elicits a whirlwind of emotions. The history, myths, and legends surrounding Spinalonga Island are captivating and reveal a dark chapter in Greece’s past.
Before Visiting Spinalonga: Important Information to Keep in Mind
The admission fee to access the island is separate from the boat tour price.
Spinalonga is an archaeological site with uneven terrain. While the main ring road is accessible for individuals with physical challenges, it is advisable to wear comfortable shoes. Additionally, remember to apply sunscreen to protect yourself from the sun.
Please be aware that visitors are not permitted to enter the ruined buildings on the island. However, you are welcome to visit the cafe.
Frequently Asked Questions about Spinalonga Island
- What is Spinalonga Island? Spinalonga Island is a small island located off the coast of Crete, Greece. It is renowned for its rich history and is often visited by tourists.
- How do I get to Spinalonga Island? You can reach the island from Crete by shuttle boats departing daily at fixed times from Ayios Nikolaos, Elounda, and Plaka.
- Is there an entrance fee to visit Spinalonga Island? Yes, there is an entrance fee to visit Spinalonga Island. The price may vary depending on the season and age group. It is advisable to check the current rates before planning your visit.
- What are the visiting hours for Spinalonga Island? The visiting hours for Spinalonga Island can vary throughout the year. It is recommended to check the official website or contact the local authorities for the most up-to-date information on opening and closing times.
- Can I explore Spinalonga Island on my own? Yes, visitors are allowed to explore Spinalonga Island on their own. There are guided tours available as well, which provide in-depth information about the island’s history and significance.
- What can I expect to see on Spinalonga Island? Spinalonga Island is best known for its Venetian fortress, built in the 16th century. The island also has a leper colony, active until the mid-20th century. Visitors can explore the ruins of the fort, walk through the streets of the abandoned village, and learn about the history of the leper colony.
- Is there any accommodation available on Spinalonga Island? No, there is no accommodation available on Spinalonga Island. However, there are several hotels and resorts in the nearby towns and cities where visitors can stay and take day trips to the island.
- Can I swim or sunbathe on Spinalonga Island? Swimming and sunbathing are not allowed on Spinalonga Island. The island is primarily a historical site, and visitors are expected to respect the area’s cultural significance.
- Are there any restaurants or cafes on Spinalonga Island? No, there are no restaurants or cafes on Spinalonga Island. However, there are a few small kiosks near the entrance where visitors can buy snacks and drinks.
- Is Spinalonga Island wheelchair accessible? Spinalonga Island is not easily accessible for wheelchair users. The terrain is uneven, and stairs and narrow pathways pose challenges for people with mobility issues.
- Can I take photographs on Spinalonga Island? Yes, photography is allowed on Spinalonga Island. Visitors are welcome to capture the beauty of the island and its historical landmarks. However, tripods or professional photography equipment may require prior permission.
- Are there any restroom facilities on Spinalonga Island? Yes, there are restroom facilities available on Spinalonga Island. Visitors can find public restrooms near the entrance area.
- Can I bring food or drinks to Spinalonga Island? Visitors are allowed to bring small snacks and beverages to Spinalonga Island. Disposing of any waste properly and respecting the island’s cleanliness is essential.
- Is there a gift shop on Spinalonga Island? Yes, there is a gift shop near the entrance of Spinalonga Island. It offers a variety of souvenirs and local crafts for visitors to purchase as a memento of their trip.
Remember to check the official sources or contact the local authorities for the most accurate and up-to-date information regarding your visit to Spinalonga Island.
Spinalonga’s haunting allure lies in its desolate landscape. As you step onto the island, you can feel the weight of its history. Crumbling stone buildings, narrow streets, and an eerie silence create an atmosphere that transports visitors back in time. While uninhabited, the island’s compelling past continues to attract countless visitors. The deserted buildings and quiet streets serve as a testament to the lives that once existed in Spinalonga. For those seeking a unique and thought-provoking experience, a visit to this hauntingly beautiful island is highly recommended.