Spinalonga is a popular sightseeing choice for the history and stunning views you get from atop the island. Also on many boat trips to the island you get the chance to jump off the boat at a secluded location and have a BBQ and relax on the beach.
The island of Spinalonga used to be a leper colony until the early 1900’s and is a sad remainder of our past, and how we treated people who were different.
Facts and History
According to old documentation and legend Spinalonga is actually a Venetian word, meaning “Long Thorn” or Spina(Thorn) Longa(Long) in Venetian, the original Greek name was “Stin Elounda” but the former seems to have stuck.
Recognising the importance to protecting the ports and harbours the Venetians built a mighty fortress which still stands today, over 400 years old. The Venetians kept control of Spinalonga even after the rest of Crete fell to the Ottomans in 1669 and it remained under their control for almost another half a century until they were overthrown by the Ottoman empire in 1715.
Spinalonga is famous in Greece for being the last active leper colony in Europe, being used from 1903 until 1957. The last inhabitant, a priest, left in 1962. This was to maintain the religious tradition of the Greek Orthodox church, in which a buried person has to be commemorated 40 days, 6 months, 1, 3 and 5 years after their death.
There are two entrances to Spinalonga, one being the lepers’ entrance, a tunnel known as Dante’s Gate. This was so named because the lepers did not know what was going to happen to them once they arrived.
When you get off the boat onto the island, the path from the jetty almost immediately reaches a opening in the old fortress wall, which leads into a long low tunnel, known as Dante’s Gate. The name comes from Dante’s Inferno, and his description of the gate to hell –
And so – as you disembark and almost immediately plunge into this small low stone tunnel, you sense the fear and trepidation of those arriving as lepers to be locked away on the island.
However, once on the island the leper’s received food, water, medical attention and social security payments. Previously, such amenities had been unavailable to Crete’s lepers, as they mostly lived in the area’s caves, away from civilization. eating scraps left over by the wolves who shared their dark homes.
The island is now a ghost town, with many of the buildings falling into disrepair, a lot of work has gone into conserving the islands history and you can get guided tours daily around the island.
A popular tour is conducted by Victor Zorbas who has guided the island walks for the past 25 years. He wrote a book called “The Island of the damned” which although locally published has received worldwide acclaim for his investigative writing.
Walking around Spinalonga Island
The tour of Spinalonga takes approximately 1-
A lot more is known about the disease of leprosy these days and isn’t contagious but passed through blood contact. Looking back on the island through the eyes and words of a guide is very interesting, and helps you picture what life was like. Little museums with photos and memories are scattered through the island also.
Spinalonga Boat Trips
The actual boat trips to Spinalonga go on a daily basis through out the summer months, these can be booked through you rep, in Elounda, Agios Nikoloas or local resort travel shops.
The trips come in many languages also, usually German, Dutch, French and English. The guides that take you round Spinalonga are very experienced and know a lot about the tragic history of the island, so don’t be afraid to ask any question. You can of course explore the island without the guide but you lose the background of what happened on the island and some things don’t have as much meaning without good explanations from the guides.
Depending on the boat operator, you may get a BBQ on the boat after the tour, they will sail around to a small secluded bay with a small beach and while you relax and swim a BBQ will be prepared on the rocks. The food is great and includes salads, chicken and pork as well a fruit for desert.
Drinks are available on each boat, but it is usually recommended you take a few bottles of water to see you round the island, the tour can take just over an hour all the way around.
Novels and Books on Spinalonga
If you want to know more about the island of Spinalonga then its well recommended that you pick up a book or two on the subject. There are a few books written on the island of Spinalonga, each covers the history and occupations of the island before it was a leper colony.
One of the most informative books was written by Victor Zorbas and is called “The Isle of The Damned” which can be bought direct from his website or via Amazon.co.uk Another popular novel is by the English author Victoria Hislop named “The Island”, a fictional love story based around the real island of Spinalonga.