Spinalonga is a small island across from Elounda in Agios Nikolaos. It’s known to many as The island of the lepers. Spinalonga however, has a long and eventful history, despite its small size. Its strategic position was utilized by the locals of antiquity. They fortified the island and from there, protected and controlled the cove of Elounda, where the ancient city of Olous was located. After the conquest of Cyprus by the Turks in 1574, the Venetian conquerors of Crete, fortified Spinalonga perfectly, since it was apparent that Crete would be the Turks’ next target. The Venetians paid great heed to Elounda, since that would be the place where their fleet would drop anchor, and that’s where their one and only salt flat was located at. The fortification was both successful and elegant. The island’s beautiful architecture still impresses people who visit Spinalonga.
The Turks eventually conquered Crete, in 1649. Spinalonga however, remained under Venetian control for another 65 years, as a result of its outstanding fortification. Throughout this timespan, the Chainides (Cretan revolutionaries who fought the Turks) used Spinalonga as their base. They later moved to the mountains. In 1898, the last Turks left Megalonisos and Crete was finally free. Spinalonga however, still played a vital part in the history of the area. It was used as a leper detention facility from 1905 to 1957. Hansen’s disease, also known as leprosy, was a contagious skin disease that disfigured almost all of the people it infected. Those with leprosy were considered to be highly contagious and were being shunned.
In 1905, the first lepers were transported to the island. Even during the Italian-German occupation, the conquerors were afraid to release them, and provided them with food and whatever else they needed, by boat. The lepers’ life on the island was at first wretched. Decadence and misery are the only words that can describe their situation. Things changed, however, when Law student Ramoundakis got sick and was transferred to the island. He riled up the rest of the island’s inhabitants and demanded better human conditions.
And they succeeded. Houses were repaired, cleaning crews were created, a movie theater was built, theater etc.The facility was closed down in 1957, after the discovery of the cure for Hansen’s Disease. Over the past years, the island’s buildings have been rebuilt and the facility is constantly being improved, since it attracts a lot of touristic interest. A novel relative to the island has been published (The Island), with a homonymous movie having been released. Spinalonga is a place you must definitely visit.