The Cretans don’t quite seem to have a grasp of the ‘dark tourism’ concept. A tour around the former leper colony on Spinalonga, Crete,“Island of the Damned” is an excursion with a positive story to tell.
Located just off the coast of Crete, it takes less than an hour to reach from the chic resort of Agios Nikolaos by small cruise ship. The full guided tour starts as soon as on board, highlighting in several languages all the main points of interest during the voyage. This includes several swanky hotels further up the coast which most passengers can’t afford to stay in; maybe this is envy tourism?
There is also a stop off close to the island itself to enable those that haven’t over indulged in the bar or restaurant facilities to take swim. I remained on-board on this occasion, read into that what you will.
The ship takes a circular route around Spinalonga to allow passengers the opportunity to take plenty of photographs. It is a rocky outcrop with a number of fortifications and churches which are plainly visible. There were already several boats docked and circling the small harbour and it is clear we won’t have the island to ourselves.
There is an extra charge of 2 euros to enter, which is a small fee but it’s slightly irksome that entrance is not included in the excursion.
It is necessary to pass through a mirrored passage which distorts and repeats the images of those entering. Quite surreal and was certainly not anticipated but slightly preferable to the original name of “Dante’s Gate”. Our guide explained that there are several more mirrored areas and a series of black flags which are part of an artistic exhibition. Explaining that she is not an artist, therefore does not understand their significance either and we should interpret them for ourselves.
This was a pleasing characteristic of her easy-going guiding style; she had a sense of humour and enjoyed putting a little mischievous slant on her narrative. Our English language group was quite large and she led us around like Bo Peep, her loyal flock following obediently in her footsteps.
The fortifications are Venetian, the occupiers of Crete and neighbouring islands for several centuries. They even carved the island out of a peninsula for strategic purposes.
It has also been part of the Ottoman Empire during the Turkish occupation, the last of the Turks left in 1903. The main street, which was their central trading point is restored and several of the shops are viewable.
It is however probably more renowned as the last remaining leper colony, and served as a natural quarantine site until 1957.
As our guide ably and enthusiastically explained however it was far from a place of despair. The population which at its height numbered nearly 250 were self-contained and quite wealthy. All members of the colony received a monthly income which was almost equivalent to a general practitioner on mainland Greece.
The colony found a natural leader in a gentleman named Epameinondas Remoundakis. A law student, he actively campaigned for colony rights and helped introduce electricity, visitation rights, home visits and other necessities which provided colonists with an improved standard of living
Initially the islanders purchased supplies from the local merchants of Crete but realising that they were overcharged started producing their own fruit and vegetables. Their farming was so successful that soon they were not merely just feeding their families but trading within the colony itself.
All visitors to the island had to pass through a disinfecting building, which housed a huge vat of sterilising fluid, which they bathed in. This included doctors and nurses that visited daily even when a purpose-built hospital was later constructed.
The only person not inflicted with the disease allowed to remain on the island was a single priest.
It was a fascinating insight into the lives of those that suffered with a terrible, debilitating disease. They detained lepers throughout the world, ostracised by society and even family. They were often forced to wear bells warning others of their ‘unclean’ condition. The island of Spinalonga was a sanctuary, a beacon of light in an otherwise dark part of mankind’s story.
There were births, deaths and marriages within the colony, healthy children were removed soon after infancy. The islanders lived as ‘normal’ and happy a life as possible under the circumstances. Their story as told by our guide was one of hope beyond mere survival. Despite the many opportunities for macabre embellishment she chose instead to emphasise the positive nature of the colony.
When the colony was eventually closed, many of the former residents returned in tears unable to reintegrate back into society. Their families, homes and belongings either no longer existed or wanted them. They returned to the only place they knew as home but were eventually forcibly removed by police a year later.
Leprosy still exists in the modern era, there are several hospitals dealing with the disease, especially in Europe. Those afflicted understandably prefer the term Hansen’s Disease after the Norwegian scientist that proved its cause was bacterial.
Spinalonga is a small island, it is easily explored in a couple of hours. There are fortifications, small chapels, an exhibition and eccentric art scattered around the rocky outcrop which is only a few hundred metres long. Apart from the main street there are several rough paths and stairways branching off to areas of interest.
Twisted trees, rickety doorways and walls or buildings hewn from the rock give the island its character. The artistic exhibition is an odd addition; it seems an out-of-place distraction and this philistine is still in need of some interpretation.
It is a popular excursion, even in October there were scores of visitors, at the height of the season, probably teeming with tourists.
My only gripe about the excursion is that after completing the entertaining and informative guided tour there was only 45 minutes left before the ship departed. Despite the small size there was not enough time to see the island. I skipped some highlights and along with a few others still ended up having to run to prevent an overnight stay on the Island of the Damned. A prospect that even now doesn’t sound appealing!