Spinalonga, known as the island of the living dead, is an island located in the Gulf of Elounda in north-eastern Crete, in Lasithi, next to the town of Plaka. The island has a rich history starting from ancient times. Due to its strategic position, it was fortified and through the times it had different uses.
From the early years, it protected and guarded the port of Ancient Olous (city of ancient Crete - it was situated at the present-day town of Elounda). Olous grew into a major city of northeast Crete, with an organised sanctuary, an important harbour and its own coinage. A large part of it is now underwater. Olous is reported by Homer in his writings among other ancient Cretan cities.
Spinalonga flourished until the 8th century A.C. At that time fear of Arab pirates in the Mediterranean made the citizens move inland for more safety. The decline of the region stopped when Venice occupied Crete (1211-1669).
The Venetians were excellent merchants and they quickly recognised the value of this natural port. They harvested salt from the salt pans they created around the island. They also used it for trading the regional agricultural products. Because of piracy and the expansionist aspirations of the Ottomans they had to improve the existing defence facilities. The new fort was built in 1579. The fortifications incorporated ruins from the walls of the ancient city. It was actually a fortress island with a fortification complex consisting of double rows of high walls and towers. It possessed great firepower with 35 cannons. This was the reason why it was never occupied. Today, the biggest part of it is maintained and it is considered the most important sea fortress in the Mediterranean.
After Heraklion was occupied by the Ottomans (1669), Venetians managed to keep Spinalonga until 1715 alongside Gramvousa and Souda with the hope that someday they would reoccupy Crete. Until it was surrendered to the Ottomans it was used as a refuge for the Christians they wanted to be saved.
During the Ottoman rule, the island was inhabited by purely Turkish families due to the security of the fortifications. Merchants and sailors used this security to control the trading routes of the Eastern Mediterranean. When Crete became autonomous in 1898 the island was largely abandoned. The last Turks left in 1903 in order for the island to become a leprosarium until 1957.
During the Second World War, the Germans supplied the lepers but did not dare to install a guard which gave the sick people the freedom to listen to radio stations from Cairo and London, a thing that every occupied city was not allowed to do. The Hansenians had created a quirky society with their own rules and values. Despite their sickness and social marginalization, they continued to work, get educated and live with dignity until 1957. We can take a glimpse of how the lives of the lepers were from the famous novel The Island by Victoria Hislop, a historical novel that was later made as a tv series.
In 1970 a protected archaeological site was declared. Τhe buildings of the leprosarium were demolished and the excavations and maintenance of the walls began. Under the auspices of the Ministry of Culture, the rescue and maintenance works of the Venetian fortifications and other buildings continue to this day. Efforts are being made to include it in the list of UNESCO’S World Heritage Sites.
In the summer season, Spinalonga is visited by many tourists. You can catch a boat from either Agios Nikolaos, Elounda or Plaka or if you visit it in wintertime you can ask for a boat from the locals in the tavernas in Plaka as many of them own boats for fishing or their own pleasure. Either way you have different options to choose from in order not to miss one of the most important/famous sites in Crete.