Off the island of Crete in Greece, the crumbling remains of Spinalonga hold the secrets of a castaway colony from long ago. Spinalonga was initially constructed as a fortress to protect the Port of Olous in the early 1700s. With its steep walls and impenetrable defenses, it remained under Venetian control long after the Ottomans conquered the rest of Crete.
In the 1900s, Spinalonga took on an entirely new population: nearly 1,000 sufferers from the infectious disease known as leprosy. Patients were sequestered from the rest of the community, as leprosy was once considered incurable, and an automatic “death sentence.” Most governments at the height of the disease isolated leprosy patients from the rest of the population to protect the healthy. For over fifty years, Spinalonga served as Europe’s last active leper colony.
When the cure for leprosy was discovered in 1948, the residents of Spinalonga were gradually treated, returned to good health, and sent back to the mainland to rejoin the rest of society. The colony was permanently closed in 1957.
Because of the absence of official records, the history of Spinalonga is preserved through the stories of its former residents. One of those residents, Epaminondas Remoundakis, founded the “Brotherhood of the Sick of Spinalonga.” The group worked to improve living conditions for inhabitants of the island and formed its own fully functioning society, including restaurants, a church, and a school.
Today, Spinalonga is a popular tourist destination, accessible by ferry from the towns of Agios Nikolaos, Plaka and Elounda. British author Victoria Hislop helped renew public interest in Spinalonga with her book “The Island.” She describes the atmosphere of Spinalonga best, saying in her book, “This… might be a place where history was still warm, not stone cold, where the inhabitants were really not mythical.” A walk around the island and its ghostly remnants of a once-forgotten society make it easy to agree.