Nestled off the northeastern coast of Crete, Greece, lies a captivating island with a rich and rather dark-storied past, Spinalonga. This small, rocky islet has witnessed the rise and fall of civilisations, served as a Venetian fortress, and most notably, functioned as a leper colony for nearly five decades. Today, Spinalonga stands as a testament to human resilience and an intriguing destination that seamlessly blends history, natural beauty, and cultural heritage and has made it on the Traveller‘s list of ‘The World’s Most Astonishing Abandoned Towns’.
The picturesque views of Crete’s coastline from the island’s elevated points are nothing short of breathtaking, making Spinalonga an ideal spot for photography enthusiasts. Surrounded by crystal-clear turquoise waters, the island boasts stunning vistas and striking landscapes.
Spinalonga’s history dates back centuries, and its strategic location played a vital role in shaping the region’s destiny. Originally a Venetian fortress constructed in the early 16th century, the island served as a protective barrier against Ottoman invasions, maintaining control over the eastern part of Crete for several centuries. The fortifications, including the towering walls and robust architecture, still stand as an enduring testament to this era.
The Turks took over the island in 1705 and had to leave in 1903.
That year, Spinalonga took on a new purpose when it became a leper colony, housing individuals afflicted with leprosy—a condition that carried significant social stigma at the time. The isolated nature of the island provided a refuge for those affected by the disease until 1957, enabling them to live and form a community free from the discrimination they faced on the mainland. The inhabitants built houses, churches, and even a school, creating a self-sustaining community that developed its unique culture.
The island’s history is preserved and showcased in the Spinalonga Museum, located near the island’s entrance. The museum provides a comprehensive overview of the island’s past, including exhibits that shed light on the experiences of the leper colony’s residents. One can access the islet from Elounda, Aghios Nikolaos and Plaka. Additionally, the nearby town of Elounda offers a chance to delve deeper into local culture and traditions. With its charming waterfront promenade, quaint streets, and traditional tavernas, Elounda complements a visit to Spinalonga, providing a well-rounded experience of the region.
Visiting Spinalonga today offers a poignant and thought-provoking experience. Exploring the island’s narrow streets and ruins, visitors can gain insight into the lives of the leper colony’s residents. The buildings, with their faded paint and remnants of everyday life, serve as a stark reminder of the hardships endured by those who called Spinalonga home.
Today one can visit the roofless leper shop, school and café – plus the incinerator used to burn their clothes, and the cemetery where they’re buried. The remains of a Venetian fortress and Ottoman-era houses against a blue sea are bizarrely picturesque. It is an opportunity to reflect upon the resilience and strength of the human spirit, as well as the progress made in understanding and treating leprosy.
Visitors can take leisurely walks along the rocky shoreline, breathing in the refreshing sea breeze while soaking up the Mediterranean sun.
Spinalonga is set to undergo significant infrastructure development, including power and water supply enhancements, as well as the establishment of a biological waste treatment system. These improvements, scheduled to be completed by the end of 2024, aim to better serve the ever-increasing number of tourists who visit the island each year. According to Antonis Zervos, the Mayor of Aghios Nikolaos, the town on Crete, these developments will provide new opportunities for guided tours and ensure the preservation of this historic site.
Surpassing all others except Knossos, the island, that became famous after the MEGA Channel series ‘To Nisi’ (The Island), attracted a staggering 500,000 visitors in 2022, with 3,500 people exploring the island in August alone.
Speaking to AMNA, Mayor Zervos emphasised the need for improved infrastructure “to safeguard the integrity of the monument and enhance the quality of services offered to the island’s numerous visitors.”
Importantly, he added, the forthcoming infrastructure upgrades are designed “to harmonise with the island’s character while supporting its conservation efforts and providing a more welcoming experience for tourists. This strategic approach ensures that Spinalonga retains its historical charm and allows visitors to engage with its remarkable past while enjoying improved amenities and services.”
As the transformation of Spinalonga unfolds, it is anticipated that the island’s unique heritage, combined with enhanced facilities, will continue to captivate and inspire travelers from around the world. “By striking a delicate balance between preservation and progress, Spinalonga is poised to offer an even more enriching and sustainable experience for future generations of visitors.”
*The other abandoned locations that made it into the list are Villa Epecuen in Argentina, Belchite in Spain, Plymouth in Montserrat, Craco in Italy, Kolmanskop in Namibia, Centralia in the US and Humberstone, Chile.