Viewed from just inland, with the village of Plaka in the middle distance, we can see how very close Spinalonga is to the mainland – less than 500 metres.
From this higher vantage point, it becomes clear how very small the island is and how barren looking.
The present day jetty at Plaka with the island in the background. Until a cure was found, the journey from Plaka to Spinalonga was strictly one way……
… but nowadays boats ferry tourists to and fro across the narrow strip of water several times a day.
The remains of the buildings, abandoned in 1957, are clearly visible as you approach the island – as is the terracing which was necessary for the cultivation of the land.
The massive Venetian fortifications are a reminder of the island’s role in defending the coast from Turkish raids; for the stricken lepers being conveyed to the island, their looming and forbidding presence must have added to their sense of foreboding.
Between May and October, there are always plenty of boats, large and small, bringing curious visitors to Spinalonga.
A trip around the perimeter by boat reveals that almost all the buildings are on the west (landward-facing) side of the island. Some of these buildings have been restored while many remain in poor condition.
Visitors disembark at the modern landing stage.
The modern landing stage is indicated here on this map of the island which is displayed in the main street of the village . It helps the visitor orientate himself as well as giving an idea of the layout of the island.
Alongside the map there is a key which identifies the various buildings and the period to which they belong.
The lepers entered the island fortress through the western gate, but today a tour of the island starts from the southern entrance just by the modern landing stage…
… . with access through the walls by means of the long forbidding darkness of the tunnel known as Dante’s Gate.
… . emerging finally into the sunshine of the main street of the village.
Off to the right, a narrow path leads to the far side of the island…
… and finally arrives here, at one of the few trees which graces Spinalonga.
And if at this point you turn to face the opposite direction, you can see back across to Plaka on the mainland.
Many of the houses are tumbledown – although in typical Greek fashion there are few warning signs and no prohibitions forbidding entry to these crumbling buildings!
In the main street, however, the shops have been restored and house a number of interesting displays and items relating to the island’s past.
A bit of history. As we see from this table, Spinalonga had a long history even before it became a leper colony.
This photograph of Spinalonga was taken in 1901, just before it became a leper colony and while it was home to a largely Turkish population… Organisation of the Ottoman Settlement The buildings, most of which were houses, were built in terraces along the west and south sides of the islet. The Muslim graveyard was established on the east side, and a mosque built halfway along the west side, where the Catholic church of Santa Barbara had previously stood. Water was supplied from the earlier fortress cisterns, with the addition of two new public tanks.
This fact sheet details the island’s military architecture…
… . and this collection of medicine vials dates from the time of the leper colony.
Plates and bowls which have been found on the island
A version of Spinalonga during its time as a leper colony was created by the Greek TV channel ‘ Mega’ in Pano Elounda. The following pictures are part of the set for the TV series and illustrate how Spinalonga would have looked in the 1940s and 50s. The TV producers went to great lengths to achieve authenticity….
For example, the owner of the taverna in Pano Elounda – named Bambi, and shown here – told Mike that the TV people replaced the front doors of her taverna with ones brought from Spinalonga!
Recreated here is Spinalonga’s kafeneio, set on the winding main street.
Although some of the walls were created from artificial material – which tempted the visitor to go around tapping the stonework to check what was real and what was fake – the overall impression was one of authenticity; as shown by these angles on a very real looking main street.
A walk around the part of Pano Elounda where filming took place
Shops replicated included Spinalonga’s bakery, which no Greek village of the time could do without …
… and the barber’s shop, which like the kafeneio, was a place for male chat and camaraderie – and reminds us that the lepers strove to live as normal a life as possible within the confines of the island and the restrictions imposed by their disease.
This modern main street in Pano Elounda neatly juxtaposes ….
… the mean and rickety housing of the reproduced Spinalonga…
… with this work in progress – a modern village house in the process of being built.
Returning, however to Spinalonga itself, not everything is tumble down. Some fine work has been done restoring houses dating from the Venetian period, such as this one…
The reconstructions have even taken account of details like this outside oven. Even after electricity was provided on Spinalonga, cooking would continue to be done on open fires or in such ovens.
Pomegranate trees such as these still thrive on Spinalonga, bearing witness to the islanders’ determination to cultivate as best they could the barren soil in order to eke out their meagre existence.
Continuing our virtual tour of the island again from here…
… . the village centre, with its restored shops on the main street. These, as we have seen, serve as a small museum recording the island’s history. Continuing along the thoroughfare, we reach the completely rebuilt and refurbished church …
If you look carefully at this internal picture of the church, you can see that, above the icons, people have hung representations of various body parts. The idea is that they are supplicating divine intervention in the healing of the diseased part.
Continuing along beyond the church, the visitor passes the large open air sinks which served as a communal laundry.
Water was always an issue as there are no springs on Spinalonga. A system for the collection and storage of rain water was in place from early times – this cistern dates from the Venetian period but was still in use at the time of the leper colony.
Just beyond the church, on a slightly elevated site on the right hand side is the Hospital. It is reasonably well preserved, although the houses around it are in poor condition,
such as this one which is situated just below the hospital
One house at least, however, retains window fixtures which gives an idea of how dark and enclosed these houses must have felt.
Again there is evidence that outside ovens were ubiquitous and important – here as before we can see one which has been restored.
Just beyond the hospital, the massive walls are pierced by the west gate.
It was through this gate, via the disinfection room built on to the wall here, that lepers were brought to the island.
These houses face the west gate. Note how the topography of the island dictates the elevated terraces on which they are built.
Looking landward from this part of the island again shows how very near it lies to Plaka and the mainland – less than 500 metres.
Beautiful as it is, the sea here provided a double temptation – to escape from the island by swimming (but then where, disfigured as they were, could they go?), or to provide the ultimate escape from the misery of the conditions in which their disease forced them to live.
Approaching now the north end of the island there are large blocks of barrack-like accommodation.
These large blocks, seen here on the left were built to accommodate the growing numbers of lepers who were sent to Spinalonga from all over Greece after the end of the Second World war.
The perimeter path now curves around the north side of the island…
… to reveal the massive Venetian defences, facing northwards to the open sea.
Following the path now along the east side of the island, we can look back at the fortifications. The terrain here is very rocky and exposed and there are no houses on this side.
This is the view from the east side, with some of tourist boats visible. These boats, as well as carrying visitors to and from the island, generally take their passengers on a complete sea-borne circuit of the island.
The path continues along, past the tiny double chapel (Orthodox on one side, Catholic on the other) – the only building on this side of the island.
Clambering upwards from the path to the crest of the island, this is the view over the top of the restored shops on the main street.
At this elevated point there are one or two restored buildings, which lie close in the shadow of the great south bastion…
… which seems to frown down on tourists arriving at the island.
Sadly and significantly, the last place the perimeter path passes before it sweeps round and down to our starting point is the leper cemetery – isolated as far as possible from the island’s dwellings.
Which brings the visitor to the final slope leading downwards to the waiting boats.
Tourists have this final backward glance at the island as they leave – a journey which tragically few of the lepers ever were allowed to make.
<ul><li>All photographs and videos taken </li></ul><ul><li>between 2008 & 2010 </li></ul><ul><li>by </li></ul><ul><li>Mike Leys, Katerina Bamlett </li></ul><ul><li>& Margaret Graham. </li></ul>All music from the original soundtrack of the series ‘ Το Νησί ’ on megatv.com