Spinalonga(updated August 4, 2007)
Spinalonga is an island situated in the Bay of Elounda. The island is known for the leper colony that was established on the island. The name of the island comes from the Italian Spinalonga. Spina means 'pine' and longa means 'long'. So Spinalonga means 'long pine'. The island was named after a same island in Venice. The original Greek name of the island is Stin Elounda.
The island of Spinalonga
When in the year 824 the Arabs occupied Crete, Spinalonga was a save haven for Christians. From the year 1204, the Venetians controlled Crete. To protect the port of Elounda against the Turks (Ottomans) they'd built a fortress on the island of Spinalonga in the year 1538. Crete was conquered by the Turks, in the year 1669 but Spinalonga remained Venetian until the year 1715. After the island was occupied by the Turks they founded a village on the island which was inhabited by about 1000 Turks till 1898. There was also a prison located on the island, where people who opposed against Turkish occupation where locked up.
In 1903, a French naval base was established on the island. The government of Crete had decided that all Turks had to depart from Crete. Because the French protected the Turks who fled to Spinalonga, many of them sought refuge on the island. Subsequently, the government of Crete exiled all people with leprosy to Spinalonga. Afraid to become infected with the illness the Turks decided to leave the island. Thus a leprosy colony was established on Spinalonga.
In 1946 the first drug (dapsone) against leprosy was successfully contested. Around 1950, this drug became available to the residents of Spinalonga. Many people recovered and returned to Crete. The leper colony on the island existed until 1957. There is little known about life on the island in the period the colony existed. How many people died, for example, is unknown. But we do know that people received compensation from the government. This fee was 3 times as high as the average salary on Crete. However, the people couldn't buy much. Traders came along and sold them, often spoiled, goods for extortionate prices.
People who survived their stay on the island tell that it was terrible. The people could not meet their own needs. The facilities where not as it currently seems like. Most buildings on the island were built in 1950 by the Greek government. This to prevent stories about the misery on the island to leak out.
How to reach the island
Spinalonga is accessible by boat from Agios Nikolaos, Elounda and Plaka. The crossings from Elounda and Plaka are advantageous. Elounda is less easy to reach than Agios Nikolaos. A bus runs from Heraklion to Agios Nikolaos. This bus drives very frequent and stops in the places where most tourists stay, as Chersonissos and Malia. If you want to travel to Spinalonga at your own expense it is therefore advisable to go to Agios Nikolaos and board the boat over there. If you want to take the boat from Elounda or Plaka you can take the bus from Agios Nikolaos to Elounda. This bus stops in Plaka. Plaka is also reachable from Elounda by a "Happy train".
Of course, you can also book several excursions to the island. They are often cheaper than travelling at you own expense. There are field trips where you only visit Spinalonga, but there are also day trips complete with the ability to dive / swim in the Bay of Mirabello and a barbecue. There are also day trips combined with a visit to Agios Nikolaos.
In the summer months it can be very crowded on the island in the very afternoon. Every day thousands of people visit the small island. When you travel at you own expense, you may want to leave early in the morning. In this way you remain ahead of the largest crowds.