A boat trip to the island of Spinalonga is not a trip. It’s an experience.
On a fall morning in October I’m in the small village of Plaka to take the boat to Spinalonga island. I am saddened, because the island is so close to the mainland, and you could almost recognize your beloved people from both shores. This must have been a heavy cross on the shoulders of those sick with leprosy. So close, yet unattainable.
“Island of the Forgotten” by Victoria Hislop
I had, as almost everybody in Greece, watched with great excitement the Greek 26-part TV series “To Nisí (The Island)” based on the novel “Island of the Forgotten” by Victoria Hislop. The series aired in 2010-2011 and part of its success was due to the excellent acting of Stelios Mainas and Katerina Lechou, who held the local population in their spell, showing a piece of contemporary history and human tragedy. I recommend the book it to all those who have planned a visit Spinalonga island during their journey in Crete.
A few words about the very rich history of the island
The small island of Spinalonga is located at the northern entrance of Elounda Bay and therefore is in an extremely strategic position for the control of the natural harbor basin of Elounda. The island was, possibly in ancient times in the Hellenistic period, surrounded with a large wall. On the ruins of the ancient fortifications built by the Venetians in the 16th Century, a strong fortress was designed according to the system of bastion fortification of Genesis Bressani and Latino Orsini. During the “Cretan War” (1645-1669) it also offered ideal protection to refugees and rebels.
After Spinalonga island was occupied by the Ottomans in 1715, a purely Ottoman settlement on Spinalonga was gradually built. In the first two centuries of Ottoman rule, the island was used as a place of exile and isolation. This changed, however, at the end of the 19th century, when an export trade permission was granted to the island and therefore a large number of residents focused on Spinalonga, especially artisans and sailors who took advantage of the benefit of a secure fortified settlement.
The life of this settlement due to the political developments in Crete in the last years of the 19th century was soon interrupted abruptly. Most residents of Spinalonga had to emigrate because the revolutionary activity of the Christians caused widespread uncertainty among the Ottoman Crete. In 1897, French troops colonized the island for a year.
The life of an outcast on Spinalonga island
In 1903 the Cretan State issued an order for isolation of lepers and set up a suitable hospital on Spinalonga island. The hard life of patients on Spinalonga shaped the island as a place of martyrdom with heartbreaking memories. These people had to endure not only their disease, but also the separation from their loved ones. Even children were separated from their families and driven to the solitude of the island, but here they lived at least in the community of other people. The living conditions on the island were very poor in the early years, the outcasts living in dilapidated houses in confined spaces. The medical care was makeshift. Slowly and through the years the patients found the strength and courage to accept their new life situation and to function as a community. They began to organize their lives, shops and tavernas were set up, larger Venetian buildings converted in hospitals, and in spite of a relevant prohibition even weddings took place on the island. After new cures for this disease had achieved good results, in 1957 the last 30 lepers were housed in a hospital in Athens and thus dissolved the leper colony. Some residents of the former leper colony are still alive.
Impressions of Spinalonga island
Except for me, no other guests have yet arrived for the crossing, and I use the waiting time for a contemplative walk through the only street of Plaka, with the few old and uninhabited houses on the cliff testifying to the past.
Around 10.00hrs and with about 15 other trippers, we finally leave for the island. The boat takes a tour 1 time around the island before we anchor in about 15 minutes at the boat dock of Spinalonga. An approximately 10m long tunnel leads behind the fortification walls and to stone ruins, some still quite well preserved. At a window I discover dusty curtains, an old wooden chair still stands in the corner of a ruin, wooden niches also bear witness to the former residents. A little further on are the very well-preserved and colorful Ottoman shops that are partially transformed into a small museum. You can walk through the streets on an expedition, or take the tour of the island, which takes about 20-30 minutes along the Wall. From all points of the island one enjoys a magnificent view around of the coast and also on the really crystal clear waters. Finally, I climb up the fort located at the highest point, and near the exit I dwell deep in thought at the cemetery with the commemorative plate.
The splendor of millions of tears
The following poem was written by the leper Epaminontas Remoundakis, who was also the founder of the “Brotherhood of the Sick of Spinalonga”.
σταμάτησε και κράτησε την αναπνοή σου.
Από κάποιο χαμόσπιτο τριγύρω σου θα ακούσεις
τον απόηχο από κάποιο μοιρολόγι μιας μάνας,
μιας αδελφής ή τον αναστεναγμό ενός άνδρα.
Άφησε δύο δάκρυα από τα μάτια σου
και θα δεις να λαμπυρίζουν εκατομμύρια δάκρυα
που πότισαν αυτόν τον ίδιο δρόμο,
που εσύ διαβαίνεις σήμερα “.
“If you’re walking along the path of Spinalonga,
dwell for a moment and consider your breath.
From some of the ruined houses you will hear
the lamented song of a mother,
a sister, or the pain-filled breath of a man.
Let two tears escape from your eyes
and you’ll see the shine of millions of tears
have watered this same way,
on which you stride along today. ”
(Freely translated by me)