The tiny island of Spinalonga has a dark past, but the community that lived on the confined isle was close-knit and resilient. Its story is a lesson in survival and human spirit.
The old Venetian fortress and leper colony is easy to explore on a day trip from the town of Plaka. Its eerie silence and crumbling buildings evoke history and wonder.
Spinalonga is best known for its role as a leper colony, which it served from 1903 to 1957. It was one of the last active such communities in Europe, and its harrowing history has made it the subject of a popular novel by Victoria Hislop, which helped to break the stigma surrounding the disease.
But a visit to the fortress shows that it has an incredibly rich history that extends far beyond this dark chapter in its history. The impressive fortifications of the island date back five centuries, and they are remarkably well-preserved today. They are a testament to the ingenuity of human design, and they form a fascinating architectural palimpsest that evokes a whole range of different phases in history.
The name of the island itself reflects its past: Spinalonga means “long thorn” or “thorny”, and refers to the prickly cacti that are found there. The slender peninsula is also known as Hemeri Gramvousa, and it was an important part of the Venetian powerbase on Crete for the next four hundred years.
The fortifications were designed to protect the entrance to the natural harbor at Elounda, and they were built according to a plan drawn up by the engineer Genese Bressani. Later on, the engineer Latino Orsini made some important modifications to them. These alterations ensured that the fortifications would be able to withstand any attack by an enemy fleet.
The Leper Colony
In 1903, the government collected those with leprosy on mainland Crete and relocated them to Spinalonga. The small island became a place of sickness, despair and desire for healing.
The houses on the island were two-story structures built around a courtyard, with each containing a kitchen and latrine. A roof covered the courtyard and a cistern held rainwater for washing and drinking. The villagers were not allowed to grow their own food, so they depended on what was brought to them by people from the mainland. This meant the villagers were poor and isolated.
It was a harsh life, but some villagers tried to make the best of it. They looked after one another, and some even managed to start a family. Those who couldn’t fend for themselves volunteered to help others.
Remoundakis was an articulate and compelling leader who lobbied the government for better conditions. As a result, the lives of those on the island improved. They had a kafeneion, barber shop and even a school.
This is a story that deserves to be told. It is a tale of bravery and determination, and one that must never be forgotten.
The Ruins of the Church of St. George
After the 4th Crusade Crete came under the control of the Venetians, who also ruled over Spinalonga. As a result, the culture of Crete grew. In fact, it was under their rule that painters like El Greco started to develop and become famous. It was also during this time that music developed as well.
When Crete became semi-independent, the fortress at Spinalonga lost its importance and it was turned into a leper colony that would operate until 1957. The first inhabitant was a man named Epaminondas Remountakis, who dedicated his life to improving the living conditions of his fellow patients. He was a man of great vision and determination.
Remountakis founded a community for the sick and he made sure that there was always someone to help them with any problems they might have. In addition, he also helped to improve the quality of life on the island. For example, houses were whitewashed, a ring road was built, public cleaning services were introduced and classical music began to play on the radio.
There were a few other things that the residents of the island could do to make their lives a little bit better, as well. For instance, they could purchase meat and eggs from the village of Plaka that was located not far away from the island. They could also get a pass to leave the island if they needed to go out for a day or two. In addition, the residents were allowed to grow their own vegetables and fruits, which gave them a sense of independence.
During the Venetian (and later Ottoman) rule, Spinalonga was used as a military stronghold. The rocky islet sheltered a medieval citadel. When Crete became an independent state in 1903 the islet was turned into a leper colony, to which anyone who contracted leprosy was sent. Leprosy was not only a serious medical condition but it was also a social stigma, which meant that sufferers had to wear bells to warn others of their presence.
The story of Spinalonga as a leper colony is the most tragic chapter in the history of this unique place. The inhabitants were isolated from society, living in cramped conditions on a barren islet. They were not allowed to marry or have children, and it is thought that many died of malnutrition as a result of the inhumane treatment.
After the war, with the help of a British nurse who was visiting the islet to help the lepers, conditions began to improve. She organised the Brotherhood of the Sick of Spinalonga, which lobbied to get better conditions for the residents.
If you visit Spinalonga, the ruins of the fortress and the leper colony are well worth seeing. It is not only a rare example of fortress architecture, but also provides a glimpse into the sad and tragic story of an island that straddles two different eras of European history.