The rocky islet of Spinalonga is located in the Gulf of Elounda, directly opposite the village of Plaka in North-Eastern Crete. Known in the past as ‘the island of the outcasts’, it covers an area of 8,500 square meters and is most famous for housing the leper colony that Victoria Hislop wrote about in her bestselling book ‘The Island’.
The History of Spinalonga Island
Due to its location at the mouth of the natural port of Elounda, the history of Spinalonga goes as far back as antiquity when the islet contained an ancient acropolis and protected the ancient sunken city of Olous.
Spinalonga was fortified by the Venetians between 1579-1586 which, along with the fortification of Crete, made up one of the most important Mediterranean defensive sea fortresses of its time. The island was held by the Venetians until 1715 when it fell to the Turks at which time a couple of hundred Muslims settling on the island, building their homes on top of the foundations of the Venetian homes. By 1881 Spinalonga was home to more than 1,000 people making it the largest Muslim trading centre of Mirabello.
The Fortress that the Venetians built can still be seen today and served as a military stronghold right through Venetian and then Ottoman rule until the Cretans evicted the few hundred remaining Turks from the island of Spinalonga in 1903. By this time leprosy had broken out and the Cretan State needed to establish a leper colony to keep the people who were infected isolated from the healthy population. Spinalonga was deemed the perfect location as it was close enough to shore that patients could easily be transported by boat, supplies could be sent across, plus Spinalonga had the advantage of already having housing due to the previous Muslim inhabitants.
251 Cretans were deported to Spinalonga over the next year with the colony peaking at 400 people when Crete became part of Greece in 1913 meaning lepers from all across Greece and later other parts of the world, were deported to Spinalonga making it an International Leper Hospital.
Conditions were squalid at best until the 1930’s when more houses were built, the building work carried out by the lepers themselves, and a community atmosphere was at last allowed and enjoyed with a cafe opening up, music in the street, and marriage between patients being allowed.
A cure for leprosy was discovered in 1948 which saw a gradual decrease in patients, many able to return home to their families on Crete and the mainland, with the remaining 20 patients moved to Athens in 1957 at which point Spinalonga’s use as a leper colony ceased. The island was abandoned and became desolate, a place not to be spoken about as it was synonymous with suffering, although that didn’t stop people from looting it – Pieces of original Venetian and Ottoman architecture finding their way across to the luxury hotels in Elounda.
In 1976 Spinalonga was designated an archaeological site and started to see tourists but it wasn’t until Victoria Hislop wrote her book (resulting in a hit Greek TV series) that Spinalonga became truly popular with thousands of people now visiting each day during the peak Summer season.
How to get to Spinalonga, island
Boats to Spinalonga depart from Agios Nikolaos, Elounda, and Plaka daily during the Summer tourist season. Due to the distance from Agios Nikolaos, boats depart in the morning and make a day trip to Spinalonga stopping at beaches on the way and providing a barbeque lunch onboard, returning back to the town in the afternoon.
Therefore, if short on time or if you don’t require the ‘extras’ (you need only spend 1-2 hours on the island to see the history and admire the views) it’s better to make your way to the seaside town of Elounda or the picturesque village of Plaka where boats depart more regularly. From Elounda boats usually depart every 30 minutes with a journey time of 20 minutes whilst from Plaka the journey time is just under 10 minutes – Perfect for those who don’t have their sea legs!
If visiting off-season you won’t find any tourist boats running but should be able to get a ride over with a fisherman – Just ask at the harbour or one of the tavernas if someone would be willing to take you over in their boat. This can be a lovely time to explore the island (weather permitting) as rather than sightseeing alongside hundreds of other tourists you will likely be able to explore the island on your own with just the archaeological workers for company.
The archaeological site remains closed between November 1st and March 31st, it opens only on request for groups.
Spinalonga Today – What You Can See
Whether you take a guided tour or explore on your own, Spinalonga despite its fantastic views and quaint ruined architecture can still send a shiver up your spine, no less than when you disembark from the boat and make your way though the entrance gate along the gloomy entrance tunnel (known as Dante’s Gate) that marked the loss of freedom for the lepers – Imagine walking through here knowing that this was a one-way passage and that you wouldn’t be allowed to leave.
Walk down the partially restored commercial street from the 1930’s, now a museum, passing the remains of the shops, cafe, and school as you learn the history of the island, seeing the incinerator which was used to burn infected clothing and the recovered artefacts that include games that date back long before the leper colony.
See the Church of St George built by the Venetians and the church of Saint Panteleimon where the priest lived (who wasn’t a leper), visit the hospital area, the disinfection room, see the Venetian cistern, and climb right to the top of the Venetian fort to take in the breathtaking view before circumnavigating the island on the 1.5km path that the lepers made by demolishing parts of the old fortified walls with dynamite – Though the wind can get up the views are sure to dazzle you.
Tips and Practical Info
- Do read the book or watch the TV show (available in Greek with subtitles) before you go so that you understand the recent history of the island better and understand what you’re seeing!
- Toilets and a shop selling over-priced soft drinks and snacks are located outside of the main entrance.
- Boat tickets do not include the entrance fee to Spinalonga unless otherwise specified.
- Trainers are recommended if you want to make the climb up to the tower to enjoy the view, otherwise flip-flops will suffice.
- Spinalonga Adult ticket 8 €, reduced ticket 4 €.
- Opening hours: From April 1st until October 31st, 08:30-20:00 daily
My trip to Spinalonga was part of a press trip to Lasithi region with Incredible Crete, as always opinions are my own.