A tour of Spinalonga, Greece’s former leper colony, off Crete

A boat trip to Spinalonga island, in Elounda’s Mirabello Bay, lets you explore not just a 16th-century Venetian fortress but the remains of Greece’s one-time leper colony in yet another example of Crete’s astonishingly diverse history

A tour of Spinalonga island in Crete

The tiny, teardrop-shaped island of Spinalonga, just off the southern coast of Crete’s Lassithi region, wasn’t always on the tourist map. Today, taking a boat trip there is a must for any visitor to Elounda.

What you see from the coast are the remains of a 16th-century Venetian fortress, but what makes Spinalonga unique are the ruined houses and buildings of the settlement that was from 1903-1957 Greece’s official leper colony.

Tourists began to discover Spinalonga when boats started making the short crossing there in the 1980s and it went on to gain international recognition as the setting for Victoria Hislop’s best-selling novel, The Island, in 2005, which went on to become a popular local TV dramatisation.

As you arrive in Spinalonga, you’ll immediately be taken aback by the size of the medieval fortification, built to protect the strategically important Bay of Mirabella. The walls appear as impenetrable now as they once were to countless invaders.

You follow a 1.5km path around the island’s perimeter – once, that is, you’ve passed through Dante’s Gate, the tunnel that was the entrance to the notorious leper colony.

The settlement

Walking clockwise, you reach the main settlement of the leper colony. A few of the otherwise ruined houses have been renovated and turned into a museum with photographs, historical information and everyday objects. From the cramped living conditions, you can imagine the hardship of the time – although a community of around 400 people did create a school, shops and tavernas, which you can still see. 

The hospital

A little further on, you reach the hospital, a basic building that didn’t offer anything in the way of treatment for leprosy. One doctor visited from Crete, as long as he was treating something else. But patients were allowed visitors, who had to go to a disinfection room where they were washed down with an acid before leaving the island.

Church of St George and cemetery 

Completing your walk, you reach the small, Venetian-built church of St George and the cemetery, with a plaque commemorating those buried here. The last resident of Spinalonga was a priest who left in 1962. 

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