When holidaying in Plaka Elounda, it is definitely worth taking a day trip to Spinalonga. This famous island, which is visible from the Cretan village’s coast, hides a wealth of history and human tragedy.
Though Spinalonga is now mainly inhabited by archaeologists exploring its ruins, it still has a great story to tell. You can explore its turbulent past as both a strategic defence mechanism for Elounda harbour and as a former leper colony.
A Fortress with a History
Though it is only a small island, Spinalonga hides many interesting secrets. Located near the Elounda harbour, many civilisations saw this dry and barren island’s potential as a natural defensive position to guard the mainland. From 3000 to 900 BC, the Ancient Greeks used it as citadel to protect the shore from pirate raids and Turkish threats. The Venetians then built a fortress over these ruins in the sixteenth century. The edifice enabled the Venetians to keep control of the island until the early 1700s, despite Crete falling to the Ottomans half a century earlier. You can still see the powerful and impenetrable walls today.
A Leper Colony
Despite all its beauty and grandeur, Spinalonga has a tragic history. After gaining its independence from Turkey, the Greek government turned the island into a quarantine for lepers in an effort to chase the remaining Turks out of the country. Between 1903 and 1957, more than 400 lepers from across Greece were sent to live in Spinalonga. As the disease was thought to be incurable and highly contagious, they were isolated here. It’s not all gloom and doom, though. The lepers eventually formed their own community, building houses and a steady trade.
An Archaeological Site
Boasting ruins from as early as 3000 BC, Spinalonga is one of the most popular archaeological sites in Crete. Its impressive fortress and ruined buildings attract archaeologists from across the globe. As the edifices and monuments are crumbling, though, these historians are having to work hard to maintain the island’s structures. The clock is ticking, so make sure that you visit the island soon!
Many Stories to Tell
Though famous in its own right, the island has become increasingly popular over the past decade thanks to the success of Victoria Hislop’s novel, The Island. Set in Spinalonga, the narrative combines fiction with facts to depict the everyday life and trials of a family secluded in the leper colony.
Insider tip: If you haven’t read the novel, take it with you on your trip. You’ll be able to see how beautifully Hislop captures the authenticity of the island within her descriptions.
Though it’s been more than 50 years, the island is still dotted with reminders of its tragic history as a leper colony. When you visit, you get a genuine feel of what it must have been like to be quarantined here. When you reach the island, you first need to pass through Dante’s Gate, a tunnel so named because those brought here didn’t know they’d never leave again. You then reach a road which realistically depicts what the streets were like during those long years.
If you visit the graveyard, you can read the many tombstones recollecting the hundreds of diseased individuals who died of their infections. You can then climb the hill and spot the hospital where the lepers were treated. From this height, you’ll also get a great clear view of the mainland (which I like to think once gave hope to the sufferers).
Top Tip: Throughout the summer, there are several tour boats that will take you from Plaka to the island in just seven minutes.
How to Get to Plaka Elounda
The easiest way of getting to historical Plaka is by flying to Heraklion Airport (HER). EasyJet and British Airways both offer a direct four-hour flight from London, starting from €250 per person.
To make your journey a smooth one, you can also pre-book a private airport transfer with Shuttle Direct. A friendly driver will meet you outside the terminal building and take you to your hotel in just 50 minutes. Don’t you just love it when all your travel is done and dusted well in advance?
Where to Stay
Leste Luxury Homes: Located just 12 minutes from the beach, these luxury homes are the epitome of comfort. They are elegantly decorated, with warm colours and beautiful modern furnishings, and have fully equipped kitchens, living rooms and dining areas. Their best feature? The veranda, where you can sit back at the end of a long day and enjoy a beautiful view of Souda Bay.
Trinity Villas: These modern villas also have great views of the sea, while boasting a private pool with a sun terrace and sunbeds. The interior design is homely, with a fully equipped kitchen and a cosy dining table. Personally, I was sold by the spa baths in the bathroom.
Ekatarini VIP Villa: Located just 600m away from Plaka, this villa is ideally located next to taverns, cafes and tasty restaurants. With a classic and simple design, the property boasts a charming wooden balcony which overlooks the seafront. There is a hot tub, as well as a bathroom, kitchen and dining area.
About Shuttle Direct
Shuttle Direct provides efficient and comfortable airport transfers throughout Europe and North Africa. Visit their user-friendly website to book a transfer in advance, so you can get everything organised for your trip before you depart.