Spinalonga – The Island off Crete.

The island of Spinalonga (actual name Kalidon) lies just off the coast of the village of Plaka, near Elounda, Agios Nicholaos, in Crete. The name Spinalonga is Venetian meaning ‘Long Thorn’.


It came to note in the year of 1579 when the occupying Venetians created a fortress on the island. Some years later when the Ottoman forces invaded Crete, Spinalonga was one of the places that they could not or would not take from the Venetians. So for 50 years after the invasion the island was still held from the Turks and came to be a centre for resistance against them. All supplies to the island came from the sea, one of the last outposts of the Venetian empire.

In 1903 the Greek government turned the entire island into a leper colony. Cretans with leprosy left the caves where they had to live and came to the island of Spinalonga where at least they received medical facilities and a supply of food and social security. This was maintained until 1957 when once again the island became uninhabited.

When I worked in Crete in the late sixties early seventies we used to take tourists to the island from the Italian Cruise ships docking in Iraklion. We used the theme of being ‘stranded on a desert island’ where we laid out tables of food and running barbecues for the tourists. My boss always told me never to mention that it had been a leper colony. It went very well until I had a break on holiday for a week when I came to Rethymnon and stayed in the government hotel there. Of course in those days under the Junta government the police knew where I had gone and could be located.

The way that this trip worked was that we employed people with big speedboats to take the tourists out after they had alighted from their coach from Iraklion. We also employed people to set up the food and the barbecues as well as bringing them back to get on their bus to the cruise ship in Iraklion.

This time that I was away, my boss had set up the trip. He employed the speedboats to take them out as well as the food and the barbecues. Unfortunately by lunchtime, what with all the friends he had in Agious Nicholas, he was pretty drunk and had forgotten all about the tourists.

As evening drew in, I had a phonecall at my hotel in Rethymnon from the chief of police in Agios Nicholas. He asked if I knew that there were tourists on Spinalonga today and did I know that they were still there lighting fires on the pebbly beach to attract attention?

I asked where my boss was and he said he had no idea. I asked him to tell the owners of the speedboats to get them off of the island back to their bus in Agios Nicholas. He said that it wasn’t his job to do that, so I pleaded and promised him a good night out. He agreed. It would take at least two to three hours depending on what happened to get them off and on the bus. I told him I would drive there as fast as I could. Next I phoned the port in Iraklion and told the purser of the cruise ship that they may be a little late but it wasn’t a problem. Then I drove like hell for Agious Nicholas. The national roads weren’t as they are today and I got there in around two hours and a half. That was a miracle. Truly a miracle.

As I arrived at the Agious Nicholas port, the tourists were just arriving from the island of Spinalonga. Not on the super speedboats but on the coastguard ship. Whatever. I put them on the bus and asked the driver to get back to Iraklion port as fast as he could. If that cruise boat left Iraklion without them we were on penalty. I asked the chief of police why he used the coastguard? What else could I do he asked. We had the bill about a week later. Actually it was less than the speed boats.

I followed the bus to Iraklion and welcomed the tourists as they came off the bus at the port. The general consensus was that they had had an amazing day – ‘the best time of our life’ one American said. ‘You know, we thought we were really stranded – incredible’. So we still had a load of tips from the tipsy tourists. We had certainly sailed close to the wind that day. But there were other days that were worse . . .

Books about Spinalonga:
The Island of the Damned; by Victor Zorba.
The Island; by Victoria Hislop.

18 thoughts on “Spinalonga – The Island off Crete.

  1. The Island; by Victoria Hislop. I Do not recommend this book.It iss a dreadful book. She has no real idea of Cretan village life and has imposed her British ideas of ‘how things ‘spossed to be ‘ onto a mushy pseudo-romantic fairy tale.

    • I dont mean to be rude but that is a very good book and she did a good job. Also if you don’t any thing nice to say don’t say it at all.

      • Hello! If you wish for a really good copy of the complete TV series of ‘The Island’ ( ΤΟ ΝΗΣΙ, based on Victoria Hislop’s novel ‘The Island’) with English subtitles please e-mail joanna.fournari@gmail.com

  2. In response to Marta (above), I just finished “The Island” and after living in a Greek Village for the last 20 years found it to be a thougtful and well researched piece of work. And an extremely moving dramatisation of how life must have been for those unfortunate enough to have been exiled to Spinalonga not so many years ago.
    That’s why I’m here now learning about the history of the island.

    • I also am researching Spinalonga because of the Novel, The Island. It’s the most inspiring novel i’ve ever had the pleasure of reading, and I think you had bad memory and are shaping others views on your memory. I found the book amazing, very well researched and very intricately written. Never have I read a novel…and i’ve read thousands, and been inclined to travel to that very location. Don’t use your negative attitude to persuade others, its misleading!! Those who haven’t read ‘The Island, by Victoria Hislop…you will not regret!!

  3. To each his own Martha. I agree with Rhonda. Victoria Hyslop’s book, “The Island” was well researched and the story sensitive and compelling. It’s fiction, yes; but fiction detailing the horrible plight of victims of Hansen’s Disease and their family and friends.
    If you are interested in reading another novel with very similiar circumstances with a Canadian backdrop look for “To All Appearances a Lady” by Marilyn Bowering.

  4. My answer to Martha re Victoria Hislop ‘The Island.’ This book was so good that a T.V. Series has been shown in which I had the pleasure of taking a small part in ,and is a huge success.

  5. I’m thankful I ran across your blog on msn. Thanks for the sensible critique. My wife and i had been just preparing to study about it. I’m very happy to see this sort of terrific details being shared freely out there.

  6. would choose to appreciation for the work you have made in writing this posting. I hope a similar best work from you later on as well. The fact is your creative writing skills has motivated me to start my website now.

  7. I have been to Spinalonga and have read Victoria Hyslpos book which i found very moving.Our visit to the island is one i will never forget and hope to go again before long.

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