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West bank of Spinalonga
Island Spinalonga (Kalidon)- top view panorama.

The island of Spinalonga (official name: Kalidon) is located at the eastern section of Crete, near the town of Elounda. The name of the island, Spinalonga, is Venetian, meaning "long thorn", and has roots in the period of Venetian occupation. This location is also the setting for Victoria Hislop's bestselling novel The Island and Werner Herzog's experimental short film Last Words.


Origin of the name

Island of Spinalonga

According to Venetian documents, the name of the island originated in the Greek expression "STIN ELOUNDA" (meaning "to Elounda"). The Venetians could not understand the expression so they familiarized it using their own language, and called it SPINA (thorn) LONGA (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.


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.

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 middle of the 15th century when the Venetians begun to construct salt-pans in the shallow and salty waters of the gulf. Consequently, the region acquired commercial value and systematically became inhabited. This fact, in combination with the Turkish threat to use gunpowder for warlike purposes, particularly after the occupation 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 of the island that closed out any hostile disembarkation. In 1579, the General Previsor of Crete Luca Michiel put the foundation stone of the fortifications. 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 vicinal hills, decided to strengthen their defence by constructing new fortifications at the top of the hill. The Venetian fire would thus have bigger throw, rendering Spinalonga an impregnable sea fortress, one of the most important in the Mediterranean basin.

In addition, in 1579 the Venetians built a fortress on Spinalonga over the ruins of an acropolis. They kept control of the island until the Ottoman Empire took possession of it in 1715.

Following the Turkish occupation of Crete in 1669, only the fortresses of Gramvousa ,Souda and Spinalonga remained in Venetian hands; they would remain so for almost half a century. Many Christians found refuge in these fortresses to escape persecution. In 1715, the Turks came to terms with the Venetians and occupied the island. At the end of the Turkish occupation the island was the refuge of many Ottoman families that feared the Christian reprisals. After the revolution of 1866 other Ottoman families came to the island from all the region of Mirabello. In 1881 the 1112 Ottomans formed their own community and later, in 1903, the last Turks left the island.

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. 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 40 days, 6 months, 1, 3 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.[1]

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.

Spinalonga Today

Today, the unoccupied island is one of the main tourist attractions in Crete. In addition to the abandoned leper colony and the fortress, Spinalonga is known for its small pebble beaches. 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 Agios Nikolaos can take nearly one hour.

The book "Spinalonga,the isle of the Damned" by Victor Zorbas - a local expert on the island - is in editing and will be published in a new, more expand version. It relates the true story of the leper colony and compares other leper colonies in the world with the island. Because the author met with the last governor of the colony,it also contains many exclusive photos and stories of the German occupation.

The book "The Island" by Victoria Hislop is set in Spinalonga and shares the fictional story of a family's ties to the leper colony.


  1. ^ "Peel Island". GNT History. Retrieved March 27, 2005.  
  • Hislop, Victoria (2005). The Island.  
  • Hislop, Victoria (2008). La Isla. Spain: Nabla Ediciones. ISBN 978-84-92461-00-4.  
  • Zorbas, Victor. Spinalonga,The Isle Of The Damned.  
  • Spinalonga-Paradise or Purgatory ? (1986) by Beryl Darby. The Star, 46,1,6-16, (The only one reference concerning the Spinalonga leprosy colony.)

External links

Coordinates: 35°16′20″N 25°44′55″E / 35.27222°N 25.74861°E / 35.27222; 25.74861

Travel guide

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikitravel

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Spinalonga is an island fortress on the south western entrance to the Gulf of Elounda. It is 5.6km away from Skisma. On the rocky island of Spinalonga, a fortress was built even from ancient ages to protect the port of the ancient Eloundians. It is reported that many Christians from the surrounding village took refuge in the ruins to save themselves during the time that the Saracens overtook Crete.

In 1579, the Venetian rulers built the powerful fortress that we can admire today, for the safety of the port of Elounda, enclosing the area from hostile ships. In 1630, the fortress seemed to be impregnable but n 1715, the Kapoudan Pasha, the Turkish captain, besieged it at close quarters and took it.

During the 1821 Revolution, it was a safe haven for many Turks, and during the 19th century it was the main port which was importing and exporting goods for the entire region of Mirabello. In 1881, it had 1112 Ottoman inhabitants who were involve in commerce, and they comprised the local council. During the revolution of 1821, 1866 and 1897, it was besieged by Cretan rebels. By edict of the State of Crete, from 1904 Spinalonga was used as a gathering point and place of refuge for Cretans suffering from leprosy. For a half century, this barren rocky outcrop had been host to life’s outcasts who lived out a drama of human pain at the height of their tragedy. Here they found their life’s end as well as the paradise of their dreams.

With the progress of science, a cure was found to put an end to the misery of these lepers, and the hospital was dissolved in 1957. Spinalonga is a recognized archaeological site, and constitutes an identified historical grouping, one of the few examples of the art of Venetian island fortification and fortress-building in the Eastern Mediterranean. Every year over 30000 Greek and foreign tourist visit the island.

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