The island of Spinalonga
Spinalonga (in Greek: Σπιναλόγκα), officially known as Kalydon (Καλυδών), is located in the Gulf of Elounda in north-eastern Crete, in Lasithi prefecture, next to the town of Elounda. It is near the Spinalonga peninsula ("large Spinalonga") - which often causes confusion as the same name is used for both. The official Greek name of the island today is Kalydon
Originally, Spinalonga was not an island, it was part of the island of Crete. During Venetian occupation the island was carved out of the coast for defense purposes and a fort was built there. During Venetian rule, salt was harvested from salt pans around the island. Spinalonga is also known as the Leper Island, as that is where lepers from Crete and the rest of Greece were quarantined until 1957. Spinalonga has appeared in novels, television series, and a short film Read more... Today thousands of tourists visit Spinalonga each summer by boat from Agios Nikolaos, Elounda and Plaka, for a tour of its ruined buildings, which the Archaeological Service is laboriously trying to maintain.
Origin of the name Spinalonga
According to Venetian documents, the name of the island originated in the Greek expression stin Elounda (στην Ελούντα meaning "to Elounda"). The Venetians could not understand the expression so they familiarized it using their own language, and called it spina "thorn" lunga "long", an expression that was also maintained by the locals. The Venetians were inspired for this expression by the name of an island near Venice called by the same name and which is known today as the island of Giudecca.
History of Spinalonga Island
The Venetian cartographer Vincenzo Coronelli reports that Spinalonga was not always an island, but was once linked with the adjacent peninsula of Kolokitha. He mentions that in 1526, the Venetians cut down a portion of the peninsula and thus created the island. Because of its position the island was fortified from its earliest years in order to protect the entranceway of the port of Ancient Olous. The strategic position of the rocky islet for the control and defense of Elounda harbor could not but mark Spinalonga with a turbulent history of fierce battles and much human suffering.
Arab raids to Spinalonga Crete
Olous, and accordingly the wider region, were depopulated at the middle of the 7th century because of the raids of the Arab pirates in the Mediterranean. Olous remained deserted until the mid-15th century when the Venetians began to construct salt-pans in the shallow and salty waters of the gulf. Subsequently, the region acquired commercial value and became inhabited. This fact, in combination with the emergent Turkish threat, particularly after the Fall of Constantinople in 1453, and the continuous pirate raids, forced the Venetians to fortify the island.
In 1578 the Venetians charged the engineer Genese Bressani to plan the island's fortifications. He created blockhouses at the highest points of the northern and southern side of the island, as well as a fortification ring along the coast that closed out any hostile disembarkation. In 1579, the provedditore generale of Crete Luca Michiel put the foundation stone of the fortifications, built over the ruins of an acropolis. There are two inscriptions that cite this event, one on the transom of the main gate of the castle and the other on the base of the rampart at the north side of the castle. In 1584, the Venetians, realising that the coastal fortifications were easy to conquer by the enemies attacking from the nearby hills, decided to strengthen their defence by constructing new fortifications at the top of the hill. The Venetian fire would thus have bigger range, rendering Spinalonga an impregnable sea fortress, one of the most important in the Mediterranean basin.
Spinalonga, along with Gramvousa and Souda, remained in Venetian hands even after the rest of Crete fell to the Ottomans in the Cretan War (1645–1669) and until 1715, when they fell to the Ottomans during the last Ottoman–Venetian War. These three forts defended Venetian trade routes and were also useful bases in the event of a new Venetian-Turkish war for Crete. Many Christians found refuge in these fortresses to escape persecution from the Ottoman Turks.
At the end of the Turkish occupation the island, together with the fort at Ierapetra, was the refuge of many Ottoman families that feared Christian reprisals. After the revolution of 1866 other Ottoman families came to the island from all the region of Mirabello. During the Cretan revolt of 1878, only Spinalonga and the fortress at Ierapetra were not taken by the Christian Cretan insurgents. In 1881 the 1112 Ottomans formed their own community and later, in 1903, the last Turks left the island.
20th century leper colony
The island was subsequently used as a leper colony from 1903 to 1957. It is notable for being one of the last active leper colonies in Europe. Prince George succeeded in getting the Cretan Republic to proclaim a resolution where it was decided to make Spinalonga into a LEPER COLONY. The Turks were told that on Spinalonga all the lepers of Crete (and soon of all Greece) were to be gathered and exiled there for the rest of their lives. That was the end of the Turkish «occupation» of spinalonga.
The disease leprosy, also known as Hansen’s disease, after the name of ARMAUER HANSEN, a Norwegian physician who was studying leprosy for many years, when he discovered the leper bacterium or bacillus in 1873. Through his work, the world got to know that leprosy is contagious through open wounds in direct contact between a sick person and a healthy one. It was one of the most feared diseases of ancient times. It was believed that leprosy was the sign of impurity, and people kept a distance from anyone who had the disease. Too many people were left there to die before finding a cure and a lot of them died during experiments.
There were two entrances to Spinalonga, one being the lepers' entrance, a tunnel known as "Dante's Gate". This was so named because the patients did not know what was going to happen to them once they arrived. However, once on the island they received food, water, medical attention and social security payments. Previously, such amenities had been unavailable to Crete's leprosy patients, as they mostly lived in the area's caves, away from civilization.
Local people usually called Spinalonga «The Quiet Island» thinking both of the peacefulness during the war when Spinalonga was like another world and of the quiet endurance of personal pain.
The last inhabitant, a priest, left the island in 1962. This was to maintain the religious tradition of the Greek Orthodox Church, in which a buried person has to be commemorated at following intervals of 40 days; 6 months; 1 year; 3 years; and 5 years, after their death. Other leper colonies that have survived Spinalonga include Tichilesti in Eastern Romania, Fontilles in Spain and Talsi in Latvia. As of 2002, few lazarettos remain in Europe.
Spinalonga as it is today
Today, the unoccupied island is a popular Top 10 tourist attraction in Crete. In addition to the abandoned leper colony and the fortress, Spinalonga is known for its small pebble beaches and shallow waters. The island can easily be accessed from Elounda and Agios Nikolaos. Tourist boats depart from both towns on a daily basis. There is no accommodation on Spinalonga, meaning all tours last only a few hours. Boat trips from Elounda take approximately fifteen minutes while trips departing Aghios Nikolaos can take almost an hour. According to the data for 2009, Spinalonga has 1200-1500 visitors daily during the summer months and is the most popular archaeological site in Crete after Knossos. To get to Spinalonga you must take a boat from Agios Nikolaos, Elounda or Plaka.
Boats depart from Agios Nikolaos in the morning. Apart from the trip to Spinalonga, they also offer lunch and the opportunity for a swim off the beaches behind the Kolokytha peninsula, before returning to Agios Nikolaos in the afternoon. From Elounda harbor, there is a boat to Spinalonga every hour throughout the summer. It takes about half an hour to reach the island, while the sea voyage often also includes a sail around the Kolokytha peninsula. There are also boats from the little village of Plaka just north of Elounda. The trip from here is shorter, taking about 10 minutes, as Plaka is directly opposite Spinalonga.
|Prices for the boat trip to Spinalonga in 2013:||This price does not include the cost of the entranceticket to Spinalonga archaeological site,which was 2 € in 2013.|
|From Agios Nikolaos to Spinalonga: 18-20 €/person|
|From Elounda to Spinalonga:10 €/person|
|From Plaka to Spinalonga:8 €/person|
There are no scheduled boat trips to Spinalonga in the winter, and you will have to find a boat owner to take you across. This shouldn’t be too difficult - just ask at the seafront taverns in Plaka, as most people have their own boats for pleasure and fishing.
If you visit Spinalonga outside the tourist season, the chances are you won’t meet anyone except the archaeological team working there. In summer, on the other hand, apart from the floods of tourists, there are also tour guides offering their reasonably-priced services to individual tourists.
The tiny island ''Spinalonga'' in popular culture
Spinalonga featured in the British television series Who Pays the Ferryman? and Werner Herzog's experimental short film Last Words. It is the (unnamed) setting of Ali Smith's short story, The Touching of Wood (in Free Love and Other Stories, 1995). It is also the setting for the 2005 novel "The Island" by Victoria Hislop, the story of a family's ties to the leper colony; the book was adapted for television by Mega Channel Greece. "το νησί" the critically acclaimed Greek television adaptation of Victoria's novel "The Island" has been released on DVD in Greece. The series has been released on 26 discs (one per episode) by TV Zapping magazine. There is currently no way to purchase the DVDs online, however those outside Greece can purchase the set by contacting Alexandra Kourlaba, phone number: +30 2106061974.
The short story "Spinalonga" by John Ware, about a tourist group that visits the island, was included in the 13th Pan Book of Horror.
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