The fascinating island of Spinalonga is in the Gulf of Elounda, off north-eastern Crete. Made famous as the setting of the TV series Who Pays the Ferryman? and the best-selling book The Island by Victoria Hislop, it has a turbulent history as a fortress and, for more than 50 years, as a leper colony.
Today, however, more than a 1,000 visitors sail in on most summer days to see the remains of the imposing Venetian fortifications, making a 30-minute crossing from Elounda Harbour or seven minutes from the pretty village of Plaka.
Regular ferry services run only during the height of the tourist season, but at other times of the year it is usually possible to find a local boatman who will take you to the island.
Perfectly placed to guard the entrance of Elounda Harbour, the fortress was built in 1579, founded on the ruins of an ancient city, and the effectiveness off its double walls, huge towers and 35 cannons ensured that the Venetians were able to defy attacks by the Ottoman Empire for more than 40 years, even when the rest of Crete was over-run.
The island’s grim history took another poignant turn in 1903, when it was chosen to house patients, from Greece and other countries, suffering from the then incurable and dreaded disease of leprosy. As medical treatment became more effective and enlightened the colony closed in 1957.
It is possible to walk around the full coast of the island in about an hour, with the clear blue waters of Mirabello Bay sure to tempt you to break off for a swim.
Many visitors are inspired to visit Spinalonga after reading Victoria Hislop’s award-winning novel, the story of a woman discovering her family’s secret past, which was adapted as a TV series.