Spinalonga is an island at the mouth of an inlet of water that forms a natural harbour for Elounda in the east of Crete. Since ancient times it has been of strategic importance for coastal defences. By the time the Venetians held Crete, piracy in the Mediterranean posed a huge threat so they built substantial fortifications on the island. Their works started in 1570 and much of structure used existing Minoan remains for the foundations.
By 1630 Spinalonga was a substantial fortress with 35 cannons. This firepower kept the island under Venetian control even after the fall of Heraklion to the Turks in 1669, a position they sustained until 1715. The safety provided by the defences of the island proved attractive to Ottoman families who settled here. When Crete became an independent state in 1898 the government forced the remaining Muslim inhabitants to move, leaving the island abandoned.
Despite its long and varied history, most people know Spinalonga as the leper island. People suffering with this cruel disease first moved to the island in 1903 and the facility didn’t close until 1957.
Now the island is a popular tourist attraction with boatloads of visitors from Agios Nikolaos, Elounda or Plaka. Over thirty years ago, author Beryl Darby wrote the first guidebook to the island. An updated version of the book is available from Eklektos Bookstore in Elounda and via Amazon – Click here.
With luck, the next development for Spinalonga will be to gain UNESCO World Heritage status in June 2020.
Let me introduce you to Callumn Anderson – someone with a vivid memory of his first visit to Spinalonga.
Callumn has an amazing knowledge of Crete and he runs a successful Facebook group called The Magical Island of Crete. This group has the feel of a club with high levels of participation, excellent photos, information, recipes and theme weekends.
I am delighted that Callumn has joined us for a virtual chat reminiscing about his first visit to Spinalonga.
Thank you for taking the time to join me today, Callumn. When you are in Crete do you always choose the same resort?
No, the joy of Crete is to base ourselves in different places. When we first visited Spinalonga, we were staying in Sissi.
Ah, Sissi (also spelt Sisi) is one of my favourite places. I know from the fabulous dawn photos that you post on Facebook you are an early riser. I bet you set off early for Spinalonga.
Indeed! We set off from Sissi heading east and drove towards Agios Nikolaos before taking the turn to Elounda at the lights/junction just before Agios Nikolaos. Some views on the way to Elounda made the drive worthwhile in themselves.
Did you take a Spinalonga boat from Elounda or Plaka?
We chose Plaka. Once in Elounda I followed the one-way road through the car park and turned right for Plaka. As soon as we reached Plaka (before 9 a.m. which included photo stops on the way) I parked up and bought ferry tickets at a desk outside a taverna next to the car park. We had read that the first boat left at 09.00 but on the day we went it was at 09.30. This gave us plenty of time to top up the sun cream and have a quick walk along the shoreline. The sight of the old taverna at the start of the street and the ruined houses on the right immediately made me think of the characters in books set on Spinalonga, The Island and Yannis.
You did well to get an early start: you must have missed the crowds.
Apart from a lady who worked at the small church on Spinalonga we were the only ones on the ferry (more a fishing boat) and the crossing took less than ten minutes. No sooner had we stepped ashore than the boat reversed back out. This put shivers up my spine as I thought of how lepers would have felt being abandoned there with their belongings thrown on the shore.
I bet everyone who knows something of the sad history of Spinalonga tries to imagine what the first few moments on the island must have been like for a newcomer.
You are right. I don’t have the words to describe the eeriness and atmosphere as we walked through the entrance tunnel and out on to the empty streets of Spinalonga. The size and scale of the streets utterly moved and mesmerized us. It was easy to imagine the hustle and bustle of the town as the leper community went about their daily lives only a short distance from Plaka. On we walked, passing the bakery, the church, the disinfection building with the locked gates out to the shore and then on up to the two dormitories built to house lepers. After this we doubled back to climb the hill to the hospital. We entered the hospital with trepidation, not quite sure of what emotions we would feel or sights we would see. The experience was truly humbling and thought provoking as we looked out of the ward windows down to the streets, with the sea, Plaka, and families beyond. All the time I tried to imagine what was going through the patients’ minds. There were tally marks on a wall, a pile of empty medicine bottles in a corner and what was left of the kitchen and oven in another room. It was an experience and emotion I will never forget.
From the hospital we made our way back down the hill to the main street by which time there were hordes of people streaming up the street as the large boats from Agios Nikolaos and Elounda had arrived. We were so glad that we reached the island on the first boat to experience walking those streets on our own. We quickly skipped ahead of the groups as we had already been to the end of the street before we had doubled back to the hospital. Now we slowed down to walk the circumference of the Island via the various fortress walls and turrets. We then reached the smaller church at the other side of the island before we encountered our next spine-tingling moment when we first gazed at the cemetery. We just stood, contemplated and in our minds paid our respects to those they buried here, and those who died before they created a cemetery.
I remember the views above there are spectacular.
Yes, we climbed up to the top of the island. The climb is so worth it as the views from the fortress and the very top are unbelievable. As I stood on the top looking back down to the main street, my mind couldn’t help but drift to that of Yannis when he first climbed to the top to survey the derelict houses-I know he is a fictional character but I am sure most of the events will have really happened. We then made our way back to the main street via a maze of derelict streets and houses. Just back off to the left and towards the cemetery is a house which I am sure would have been the governor of Spinalonga’s house-yes, I know my imagination was off and running again.
How long did you spend on Spinalonga?
We left Plaka at 093.0 and got back at about 12.20 after spending an incredible time exploring Spinalonga.
I bet you took some great photos.
Yes, I did. Now I’ve used them to make a YouTube video. I’d love you to take a look.
Thank you so much for sharing your first memories of Spinalonga and that fabulous clip. How can people see more of your photos?
As well as posting many in my Facebook group, The Magical Island Of Crete (new members always welcome) I use flickr to store and organise my photos. If you’d like to see them, click here.
While I follow Callumn’s links to see more photos, I’d love to know of your memories and emotions from visiting Spinalonga. If you’ve Spinalonga photo’s that you’d like to share then pop over to The Magical Island Of Crete.