If you ever have the good fortune to visit the island of Crete in Greece, an entire world of adventure and fascinating history will open up to you. Even the Greeks think of Crete as being a different country. I know many countries have different dialects in their language, depending on what part of the country you are from, but Crete even has different dialects in various parts of the island.
The history of the island is an incredible mixture of various cultures, conquerors, and ‘wannabes’ over the centuries, all eventually replaced by the stoic, very tough, very resilient Cretan people, who, no matter who comes, or how much they try, cannot conquer or replace their way of life.
Crete is the home of the Minoan civilization . . . in fact anywhere you go, all you have to do is kick over a rock and lo . . . is that another Minoan ruin? Fantastic sites like Knossos, the presumed palace of King Minos; Phaestos, Harriet Boyd’s Gournia, and the incredible Law Codes of Gortyn, a complete set of laws engraved on stone tablets for all to see. These and many more await the explorer who can spend the time to be entertained by people from thousands of years ago.
And of course the food! Cretans pride themselves as having the world’s healthiest food. Almost everything will grow on Crete, so there is always a copious supply of fresh vegetables, fruits and of course, an abundance of herbs to dress them up, most of them growing wild, for all to pick . . . but I digress . . . it’s hard to talk about Crete without getting carried away by the food!
Back to the history . . . more ‘recent’ history, during the sixteenth century, Venetians expanded their empire throughout the Mediterranean. For one reason or another, they decided to build a fortress on the island of Spinalonga, in the Gulf of Elounda near the present day city of Agios Nikolaos. This fortress still stands today, and occupies much of the eighty-five acre island. The Venetians remained on the island even as the Ottomans occupied the rest of Greece, until 1715, the Ottomans replaced them. They remained until 1903, when they were kicked out and Spinalonga became part of Greece.
It was then that the Greeks decided to use the island as a leper colony, to isolate people suffering from the Hansen’s disease, that was eventually cured in the nineteen forties and fifties, with the last patient leaving Spinalonga in 1962. Many people were sentenced to Spinalonga, even when their diagnosis was not leprosy. A third year law student in Athens in 1936, after acquiring the disease at the age of 21, Epaminondas Remoundakis founded the ‘Brotherhood of the Patients of Spinalonga’, to improve the living conditions on the island. His sister had also suffered and eventually died from the disease on Spinalonga. He worked to have their living areas disinfected, whitewashed, and expanded to include a theatre, a cinema, a cafe and barber shop. They developed their own society, with gardens, shops, theatrical performances, and activities to occupy their time and make life bearable.
Some fell in love, got married, had children, which thankfully were free of the disease. The stigma of leprosy has stuck to the island, making it an interesting but ‘spooky’ place to visit, called the ‘grave of the living’. More recently, the Greek government has renamed the island ‘Kalydon’ (Καλυδών), but the place still retains memories of former years.
Spinalonga remains a huge tourist attraction, second only to the Knossos site near Heraklion. Much of this interest was brought on by Victoria Hislops’s popular book “The Island”, which told a very poignant story of the residents of Spinalonga, how they survived, how they lived and even thrived. I feel to really experience Spinalonga, you must read this book beforehand to not only give you an idea of what you are going to see, but to prepare yourself for the experience.
When you visit Spinalonga, there are little ferry boats that carry tourists from the town of Plaka, across the short distance to the island, where you are let off to explore on your own. In days past, when it was a leper colony, someone rowed the unfortunate victim across to the island, letting them off on shore with all their possessions. Once they walked up through the entrance, I cannot even imagine their thoughts as they realized they could never go back . . . this is where they would live . . . and almost surely die.
Walking through the streets today is an awesome experience, in the true sense of the word. As you study the buildings, the streets, look in doorways and windows . . . you can almost hear the moans and cries of those who suffered, punctuated by the rare cries of joy and happiness of those who survived. It is a very sobering experience indeed.
I’d like to repeat the words of Remoundakis, who eventually went blind and lost his hand from the disease. He said “As you walk around Spinalonga, stop and hold your breath. From some hovel nearby you will hear the echo of a mother’s or sister’s lament or a man’s sigh. Shed a couple of tears from your eyes and you will see the sparkle of the millions of tears that have drenched this road.”
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