The island of Spinalonga: the most interesting facts from history
Spinalonga Island is a miniature piece of land located just 200 meters off the east coast of Crete in Greece. The area of the site is 0.085 km². The island is uninhabited. It is opposite the fishing village of Plaka, fringed by the waters of the picturesque Gulf of Mirabello. Today a visit to Spinalonga is very popular among tourists, and first of all the object attracts the attention of its ancient architectural structure – once a majestic fortress, which managed to be well preserved to this day. The island has a pretty interesting history, which will be interesting and useful to get acquainted with before visiting the object.
The first remarkable fact in the history of Spinalonga island is actually its origin. The fact is that originally the site was territorially part of Crete and was a peninsula. Once this place flourished the ancient city of Olus, which was completely destroyed in the 4th century as a result of a powerful earthquake. Even today, travelers can see large, centuries-old cracks in the coastal cliffs. Eventually, the elements separated the peninsula from Crete with a small bay.
Until the 9th century Crete belonged to the Greeks, but in 824 it was taken by the Arabs, who, however, were not destined to rule it for long. Already in 10th century the Byzantines recaptured the island and in honor of their victory over the Arab invaders they built the church of St. Phokas, which can still be seen today in Crete. In the 13th century, power over the island passed to the Crusaders who later sold the territory to the Republic of Venice.
In 1526 the Venetians decided to convert Spinalonga from a peninsula separated from the mainland by a narrow bay into a full island. The Italians erected an impregnable fortress on what was left of Olus, the main aim of which was to protect the port of Elounda from the frequent raids of pirates. History tells us that the Venetians remained in Crete until 1669, when the Ottoman Empire conquered the island. However, the Italians managed to hold Spinalonga thanks to the strong walls of the fort, which finally fell to the Turks only in 1715.
For almost two centuries the Ottoman Empire ruled over Crete and Spinalonga. The island took a sharp turn only in 1898, when the inhabitants of Crete revolted against the Turks in anticipation of the Greek-Turkish War of Independence for Greece. But Spinalonga remained in the hands of the Ottomans, who took refuge within the walls of the fortress. Then the Greeks began collecting leprosy patients from all over the country and directing them to the fort. The Turks, who were afraid of being infected, left the island without thinking twice.
Thus, from the beginning of the 20th century, within the walls of the fortress was starting to happen a completely different, full of tragedy history, which made Spinalonga famous as the island of the damned. We decided to tell more about this period in a separate item.
The Island of the Lepers
Leprach (or leprosy) is a chronic infectious disease that first struck Europe in the Middle Ages. There were no medicines against the disease at that time, and the only way to stop the spread of infection was to isolate the sick. For this purpose, special places, as far away as possible from the cities, were created, called leprosariums. In 1903, the Greeks chose the fortress on the island of Spinalonga as a treatment center for lepers. Ten years later, not only Greek, but also European patients were sent here for treatment.
Spinalonga, having become an island of lepers, did not bode well for the sick. The Greek authorities did not pay enough attention to the development of the hospital, so its inhabitants led a miserable existence waiting to die. But this story has a bright spot, named Remundakis. A young student, infected with leprosy, arrived on the island in 1936 and, thanks to his will and faith in his own strength, radically changed life in the leprosarium. Attracting the attention of various organizations to the hospital, the young man managed to establish and develop the infrastructure of the institution. Electricity appeared on the island, a theater and cinema, a cafe and a hairdresser’s, public events and holidays began to be held. Thus, over time, the patients regained a taste for life and faith in recovery.
In the middle of the 20th century, scientists managed to find a cure for leprosy, and by 1957 Spinalonga had left its last patients. Those who were in an incurable stage of the disease were distributed among different hospitals in the country. This was the end of another phase in the history of Spinalonga Island in Crete. After this small piece of land, nobody needed it for two decades. Only at the end of the 20th century, it gradually began to attract the attention of tourists.
Spinalonga these days
The real boom of visiting Spinalonga in Greece started after the publication of the book The Island (2005), the brainchild of the British writer Victoria Hislop. Five years later, a TV series based on the novel was filmed, which only fueled the interest of travelers in the place. Today Spinalonga is a popular attraction of Crete, which is visited primarily for a walk through the medieval fortress.
You can visit the island on your own or with a tour group. The first place to start visiting the site is the Archaeological Museum, located to the left of the pier. The fortress welcomes visitors with half-destroyed stairs, tunnels and churches. In addition to the ruins of the medieval structure, tourists can appreciate the spectacular views from the top of the structure. It will be interesting to walk around the island in a circle, leisurely observing its natural landscapes. Travelers who know the history of Spinalonga in advance will be able to step back in time and experience the island’s bleak past.
After exploring the island, everyone has the option to linger at a local café near the pier. The restaurant serves traditional Cretan cuisine with salads, meats and various appetizers. There is also a picturesque beach in the southwest of Spinalonga, where you can enjoy the panoramic views of the eastern coast of Crete.
How to get to the island
You can reach Spinalonga in Crete by boat from three different points. The fastest and cheapest way to get to the island is from the nearby village of Plaka. Transport departs to the site every 15 minutes. The cost of the round trip is 10 €. Travel time is no more than 5-7 minutes.
You can also go to the island from the port of Elounda. During the summer boats go every 30 minutes. The round trip ticket costs 20 €. The trip takes about 20 minutes, so you can enjoy plenty of sea views. The parking lot at Elounda pier is free, but it is often crowded, so many people leave their cars in the paid parking lot for 2 €.
You can also take a boat to the site from Agios Nikolaos. During the high season, the ship sails every hour. For the round trip you will pay 24 €. The trip takes up to 25 minutes.
Going to the island of Spinalonga in Greece, be sure to take into account tips from travelers who have already been there. Having studied the reviews of tourists, we noted among them the most sensible ones:
- Wear comfortable athletic shoes to visit the attraction, even in the heat. Inside the fortress, there are a lot of stones under your feet, so flip-flops or sandals are absolutely not suitable for the tour.
- It is worth considering that the weather on the island is always much hotter than on the coast of Crete. At the same time there is almost nowhere to hide from the sun. Therefore, it is important to worry about sunscreen, sunglasses and headgear. You’d better take a cap or headscarf, because Spinalong is very windy and wide-brimmed hats are an inconvenience.
- Be sure to stock up on bottled water.
- The cheapest way to visit the attraction is on your own. The cost of tours in travel agencies ranges from 40 to 60 €. In this case, the quality of the organization of tours often leaves much to be desired. In order for your walking tour to be as interesting as possible, find out about the history of the place beforehand.
- If you plan to explore Spinalonga island thoroughly, see all the corners of the fortress and have a rest at a local cafe, we recommend to give at least 3 hours for the tour.
Author: Ekaterina Unal
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