Island of the Living Dead – Spinalonga

Written by Ellen Evers
(A highly commended runner-up entry in the Travel and Water Writing Competition.)

Spingalonga - Eerily beautiful island fortress
Eerily beautiful island fortress

Island of the Living Dead. Not what you might call an endearing name for Spinalonga, that eerily beautiful island fortress steeped in history that lies just off the North West coast of Crete.

Greek islands in September are the spiritual destination of all newly retired – the weather losing its fierce heat, the breeze soft and refreshing. I’m preaching to the converted.

But there’s a new(ish) event in town because it is now a must to visit the leper colony which was for so long a blot on the Cretan landscape. It closed in 1957 in living memory for many.

A step too far for an elderly fellow traveller who worried that he had not had the requisite inoculations and did not want to visit the site of something that sounded like a zombie movie. He (and the rest of his party) missed a wonderful ‘Bucket List’

Boats are moored up at the tiny jetty
Boats are moored up at the tiny jetty

Victoria Hislop changed everything ten years ago when she wrote The Island a fictional account of Spinalonga. Now it is the second most popular tourist attraction in Crete – Knossos is still the first – but there are still those who need persuasion to visit.

There is only one way to travel – by water. The longest excursion, which will take up a day, starts from Agios Nikolaos a beautiful city well worth a visit if you have the time. But a shorter and probably more popular trip for tourists is to start the excursion to Spinalonga from Elouda at the deep end of Korfos bay.

Only a few years ago Elouda was a tiny fishing village, but now boasts five star hotels and a thriving harbour, where for 10 euros you can revel in a boat trip that takes you to the island in a too short twenty minutes.

We entered the dark tunnel
We entered the dark tunnel

The trip is everything that makes a Greek island visit a pure delight, from the azure blue of the sea, the balmy breeze and the picturesque coastline. Make sure you leave time to explore the charming town of Elounda where lunch of freshly caught fish enjoyed on a pontoon restaurant is a perfect way to end your visit.

You can also sail from Plaka which only takes seven minutes if you are short of time but you would miss the pleasure of the longer boat ride. More of Plaka later.

Most of the tourist hotels run days out with Spinalonga as the main event, but it is important to get to Elounda early for the first trips over. You then avoid the midday sun heat and arrive before the larger groups. Saying that, it is very well organised with guides who are both passionate in their knowledge of the island and fluent in English.

A vibrant and successful community
A vibrant and successful community

The boats are moored up at the tiny jetty with the skill and good humour of the Cretan sailors. Entry for the independent traveller is a modest 2 euros but a guide is essential and ours called Georgia, resplendent with parasol, led the way.

Our holiday chatter dwindled as we entered the dark tunnel where the only sounds were the shuffle of sandals and trainers. This would have been a one way trip as there was no return for the lepers. The poignancy was not lost on the visitors.

Blinking in the sunlight as we emerged we were struck with the natural way everything had been left; the colours of the doors, the faint writing over the coffee shop , the laundry room all deliberately left in their original condition. There’s time to look, reflect and admire.

Georgia led us, through the gate to the tiny shore line where we could see the close proximity of Plaka, an easy swim away. That was breathtakingly sad.

Georgia emotionally told the story of the lepers who had been banished here, but the message is an uplifting and powerful one; they didn’t just sit around waiting to die. They created a vibrant and successful community in true Cretan spirit and their legacy is there to discover.

Spinalonga - Memorial stone erected in 2013
Memorial stone erected in 2013

The cemetery was particularly significant where we saw the memorial stone erected in 2013 and ended the tour. There is plenty of time to revisit parts of the island and although the terrain is rugged a pair of sturdy trainers will be sufficient. There is little commercialisation; simple souvenirs and a small coffee shop. Save yourself for lunch in Elounda.

Spingalonga has also been dubbed the ‘Isle of Tears’, but for this visitor it truly is the ‘Island of Inspiration.’ Make the visit. No inoculations necessary.

Name of tour operator: Thomson (now TUI) Holidays

POSTED 20th MAY 2016 by STEVE HANSON on behalf of ELLEN EVERS. The first, third and fifth photographs were supplied by the author after the competition had been judged. The second and fourth photographs were supplied by Charles Askew.