Monday, October 3, 2016

The Leper Colony of Spinalonga

So close to the shore and civilization, and yet so far from it! A rocky, desolate, uninhabited islet surrounded by beautiful, clear, blue waters . Upon it, a strategic, circular venetian  sea fortress and remains of Europe's last leper colony (1903-1957ׁׁ).

Spinalonga, now tourist attraction

To get there I took the bus from Heraklion  to the town of Agios Nikolaos (over an hour drive, nice scenery though), and then another bus to Elounda village(30-40 minutes) where boats were waiting to take visitors to notorious Spinalonga. The sailing takes 25 minutes from Elounda, and only ten minutes from nearby Plaka village. 

sailing from Elounda to Spinalonga

arriving at the pier

A sense of great sadness fell upon me as I walked on the islet. 

There were two gates to the place and several lookouts. One of the gates -  a small dark tunnel was used for bringing in the lepers deported  from Crete and from other parts of Greece.
The lepers were unaware of what was going to happen to them; they were tricked into entering the tunnel. Once inside they were captured and isolated forever.

the tunnel of  'no return' 

venetian lookout; there are several of them

The fortress is not easily accessible; big rocks, hard climbing, 

venetian fortress; rough terrain

so I focused on the colony buildings (partly restored, mostly ruins) : houses, two churches, hospital, shops/workshops, cemetery.

In spite of it all - the ilness, the difficulties, and the stigma - there was life going on there. The leprosy patients got a small allowance from the government, accomodation, medical attention, food, water, and other supplies. People fell in love, married and had children. They organized their houses  and engaged in small cultivation of the land. Some of them had money sent by their family and lived a somewhat better life than the others. 

archway access
 to little dock where food and supplies were brought in

St. Pantelimon church
(the priest, healthy man,volunteered to live with the lepers)

St. George church- little cross on the roof,  bell on the wall


The gap between the poor and those with some money, stands out at the small cemetery where there's a cruel hierarchy.There are three kinds of graves:  a mass grave for the very poor, graves covered with tiles, and separate graves for those with money. 

graves covered with tiles

graves for people with money

one single headstone, dated 2013

Spinalonga is  a must see. It's moving and interesting, and a visit there is a way to pay tribute to those who suffered and struggled to survive. It is called by some  "a monument to human pain" .


  1. I don't think I could visit this place as I think I would become overwhelmed by the atmosphere of the place!

  2. Vera,

    Indeed, it's a place of atmosphere. There's sadness in the air and it penetrates the soul. There are thoughts about the solitude, pain, injustice felt by those who lived and died here, and it falls heavy on the visitor. However, it's a fascinating place and well worth a visit. Read the award-winning novel "the Island" by the english writer Victoria Hyslop , and you'll want nothing but visit Spinalonga.

  3. Very interesting post and photos. Do many people go on the tours? How long were you there? After reading your reply to Vera, I added "The Island" to my kindle wish list.

  4. Wilma,

    Thank you. Spinalonga is a very popular tourist attraction - number 1 in Crete. I was about three hours there. If you go on an organized tour, it is usually limited to one hour or so- and that's hardly enough.

  5. Duta, you go to the most interesting places! What a tour.

  6. Jenn Jilks,

    What a tour, indeed. Spinalonga is one of those places one never forgets. Once you've been there it stays in your thoughts. Just imagine an HIV colony with people cut off from their family, confined to a single spot, with nothing to hope for.

  7. This is such a moving post. It is heart wrenching, but something we should all be aware of. Thanks for posting pics of your fascinating visits.

  8. Linda O'Connell,

    "..something we should all be aware of" - well said.
    As for pictures, you know, of course, that a picture, even not a very good one, is "worth a thousand words", especially in a place like Spinalonga.

  9. Duta, so very interesting. Hansen’s Disease, is curable I think.
    How sad to have to live like that. Amazing photo's love your post's
    wish I were younger I'd like to do the things you do.
    When you are young do all you can, for old age really puts
    a dampener on life. Live life while you are young.

  10. La Petite Gallery,

    Yes, the disease is curable since the late fifties. Survivors at the colony were sent home in 1957, only the priest stayed there five more years until 1962.
    (Well. for your information, I'm not young. I'm at the beginning of old age, but I try , with God's help, to do my best).

  11. It gave me chills to read your post and imagining where these poor souls thought they were going. Did some of them know? Did they have a chance to say their last goodbyes to loved ones? It's amazing the endurance and resiliency of the human spirit, that even though displaced they managed to continuing building a life.

    Several years ago I took a trip to one of the Hawaiian Islands called Molokai. Molokai also had an active leper colony on it until around 1969. The people that were exiled to this colony were actually declared dead in the "real world" they were leaving.

    I remember taking an aerial tour of the island and the guide pointing it out. It was such a beautiful, lush, green place and I thought to myself that if they had to be away from their family at least they were somewhere beautiful.

    Maybe it's human guilt that exiled lepers to such beautiful locations as Molokai and Spinalonga? An amazing post as always DUTA. I always learn so much from your posts.

  12. Alicia,

    Thanks for your wonderful comment. I don't think guilt has something to do with the beauty of the location.It seems,the beauty was more like a means of trying to mislead, to divert the thoughts of those unfortunate people.

    Those who were transported to nazi concentration camps were also unaware of what was going to happen to them as the camps were located on the outskirts of nice, civilized towns like Dachau (Germany), Warsaw (Poland) etc..

  13. Oh Duta, I didn't know that such a place had even existed. How sad to think someone had to be separated from society like that. Your last comment to Alicia is so right - deception to get people to go and do what you want - in the holocaust and in this leper society.

  14. Nikki (Sarah),

    Despite the differences between a nazi camp and the Spinalonga colony, I couldn't help thinking of the first category. When I visited Dachau camp (near Munchen) and Terezinstadt camp (near Prague) I was surprised by the serene and civilized surroundings. Who could have known what atrocities went on there. There were of course rumours, but the inhabitants of the surrounding area ignored them.

  15. I can only imagine that there is a lingering sad energy there. I heard about these colonies in church my whole life. And always wondered about the unfairness of things.

  16. Sharon Wagner,

    Well, one thing is to hear or even read about these colonies, another is to see the place with your eyes and give way to imagination.
    I believe you're right; there is a lingering sad energy there.

  17. Very interesting and I can't imagine the trials and tribulations of the people there. I just re-read "Hawaii" recently and was alarmed again with the lepers treatment. I've been to Dachau and the leper colonies are probably just as horrendous. The blue water is gorgeous in your pics though! Thanks for your informative post!

  18. Pam,

    The blue of the water in this area is incredible, but who could have enjoyed it?
    Anyway the whole region is very beautiful and the nearby village of Elounda is now a popular, tourist vacation resort.

  19. That tunnel of no return is so depressing.

  20. Wow, what an interesting place. So sad that people were forced to live that way. When I went to Italy we visited the coliseum and I imagine it was the same feeling. Such an overwhelming feeling of sadness for the people of those times.
    Cindy Bee

  21. Bee Lady,

    There are many sad places in the world. It's in our own interest to look back sometimes and learn about the past It could help us with our future.

  22. Haddock,

    Precisely. After all those years...the tunnel is a depressing sight.

  23. I can see why there is sadness in the air! I think of the isolation they must have felt,,,,glad some got married etc. the human spirit is pretty tough I guess

  24. Kim,

    They say the human spirit is harder than steel. It seems to be true in the case of the leprosy patients. They tried to live a normal life under unnormal conditions, to defy reality.

  25. Duta, your photos are beautiful, and it is so sad about the lepers. Thank you so much for sharing.

  26. Hi Linda,

    I'm glad you like the pictures. As for the sad part - whoever visits the place or reads about it gets sad. There's no escape from sadness. After all, we're human beings and suffering of other human beings deeply affects us.

  27. Duta, this was an interesting post to read. It made me sad for the lepers that were isolated and living here. I once read where there was a Priest who lived among them and spent much time with them. He ended up getting the illness himself. What great compassion this man had. I bet this was such a emotional place for you to visit.


  28. Red Rose Alley,

    I couldn't be in Crete without visiting Spinalonga.
    The priest was/is a kind of hero in this story. He was the last to leave the place after a vaccine was found and the remaining lepers were allowed to leave the colony. In fact he lived alone for some five years. He left in 1962.

  29. So interesting, and moving, to see this. My breaks from blogging, and reading my favorite blogs, have become too long. I have always loved where you take us, DUTA...areas of the world that I will never get to see. How heartbreaking it is, to know how isolated these people lived their lives, when their disease was curable...if only that had been known. Thanks for this tour and introspective, DUTA.

  30. Bica,

    Welcome back to Bloggieland! The story and place of Spinalonga is a tough one.However, in life we have to face both the good and the bad, the soft and the tough, and learn our lesson from both.

  31. Hi Duta, Such a sadness, and in the midst of such a beautiful setting. Your heart of compassion for the people and all they must have experienced comes through. Thank you for sharing.

    1. Thanks, Sheindel, for reading the post and leaving a comment.
      Despite the beauty of the setting and the trip iself - there's great sadness felt there.

  32. It was a horror place! The people lived here lost their rights beside suffered with their disease.
    Thank you for the information, Duta.