I visited Spinalonga on our recent holiday to Crete. It was a highlight of the trip for me, especially as I was in the midst of reading a fantastic novel by Victoria Hislop called The Island.
The front cover of The Island proclaims that it is a ‘a beach book with a heart’. I have to agree. I did read it on the beach, and it is an easy read and an enjoyable book. This is not because it is lighthearted, but because the novel takes the reader right back in time and immerses them in a culture and history unlike their own (unless you are Greek, of course).
The Island is the story of four generations of Cretan women – the youngest, Alexis, is the first we are introduced to as she attempts to delve into her family history in a time of uncertainty in her own life. Alexis goes to Plaka and meets her mother’s old friend Fotini, who helps her to understand the pain and tragedy in her family’s past. Alexis and the present are left behind as Hislop tells us of Alexis’ great grandmother Eleni, sent to Spinalonga after being diagnosed with leprosy.
I was unaware of Hislop’s novel before I began reading reviews of our hotel in Elounda. It was mentioned several times as visitors recounted their trips and I made sure to pick up a copy before going on holiday.
Spinalonga is a small island off the coast of Crete, within sight of the town of Plaka. A former Venetian fortress, the island was inhabited by lepers from 1903-1957. Driven to spend a desolate life on Spinalonga by the fear and ignorance of their relatives and neighbours, the lepers set up their own society. They had a school, church, hospital, shops, a kafeneon (pub/bar), and a market, as well as homes they could call their own – something some did not have on the mainland due to sharing with family members. The island had government representatives who fought to ensure life on Spinalonga was as comfortable as possible for society’s outcasts.
From the pain of Eleni’s departure from her life in Plaka to the sadness of a young woman forced to move to the island instead of marrying her fiancé, Hislop’s characters and their plights bring authentic depth to a fictional story based on a tragic part of Greek history. Whether you’ve ever heard of Spinalonga or not, The Island is an involving book charged with desolation, loss, and hope.
It is a wonderful, if often melancholic, read.
The bricked up room on the left was the decontamination room – everything that entered or left Spinalonga was sanitized. A disease from the mainland could wipe out the lepers, who had weak immune systems, and the rest of the Greek population was worried about catching leprosy.
The people of Crete are very open about their gratitude to Hislop for shedding light on a grim part of their past. The book has attracted throngs of tourists to Spinalonga as well as nearby Plaka, Elounda, and Agios Nikolaos. Spinalonga itself is now uninhabited and the buildings are preserved as they were left when the last resident left the island.
The only way to reach Spinalonga is by boat, however guided tours run daily and many companies offer trips to the island from Elounda and Agios Nikolaos.
Spinalonga, despite being an island less than a kilometre in width, has a turbulent history. As one of the most important fortresses in the Mediterranean, Spinalonga remained under the control of the Venetians despite Ottoman occupation of the rest of Crete between 1645 and 1669. In 1715 it was finally captured by the Turkish forces. During the Cretan revolt of 1878, Spinalonga was one of the few places in Crete spared by the Christian insurgents. When the last of the Turkish occupants finally left the island in 1903, it became a place for society to send its lepers because they were afraid of contacting the disease.
Hislop’s novel takes place entirely during Spinalonga’s time as an active leper colony. It has just the right amount of facts laced with fiction, and it is almost easy to forget that Spinalonga and it’s history are real.
The place that inspired Hislop is a worthwhile but heartbreaking visit. Right across the bay from their families, the lepers resigned themselves to limited contact with loved ones and the improbability of ever returning to their previous lives. Hislop captures the suffering of their society as a whole but is not afraid to show that some good came out of their segregation – those that were able to work found purpose in life by teaching, trading, healing, or providing other services to their neighbours – and they fought to make the most of what remained of their lives.
There were different strains of leprosy, some more damaging than others. Many of the occupants of Spinalonga did not appear to be affected by the disease except for discoloured patches on their skin and they did not let it ruin their day-to-day activities. Homes in Spinalonga had electricity before many on mainland Crete, and it was the occupant’s unwillingness to resign themselves to death without living that made things like that possible.
The tunnel between the dock and the main street is referenced often in the novel. It was recently filled with mirrors.
Hislop’s research and dedication to accurately portraying Spinalonga and it’s people is one of the best things about this novel. Our tour guide, Maria, told us of the lepers Hislop interviewed and the authentic details they provided to the depiction of daily life on the island.
I would highly recommend The Island, whether or not you have any intention of visiting Crete or Spinalonga. I thoroughly enjoyed Hislop’s writing style and learning a bit more about the history of Crete.
Seeing Spinalonga in the flesh made the experience of reading The Island even better. I stood on Spinalonga, with the old buildings surrounding me, and imagined what it would be like to never leave. It was an awful thought, even though the island itself is a lovely place to visit. The shroud of finality is embedded in the air of Spinalonga, and walking through the remains of the stores and houses made the novel – and the history – very fresh and chillingly real.