Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Letter from Europe

  • — Issue 2006/15 posted by hidden europe on

In more recent centuries, the island of Comino, off the coast of Malta, served as an isolation hospital. The great archipelago off Finland's southwest coast includes the tiny island of Seili, which for over three centuries was a hospital, initially serving as a leper colony and later for those suffering from mental incapacity.

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Dear fellow travellers

In these days of modern travel, we treat it as axiomatic that, upon arrival in our chosen destination, the authorities there will let us into the country. Of course, there is the question of passports and visas, but if we cough or splutter in the queue for the immigration desk, it is unlikely to lead to our immediate exile - at least not if we are just making a short holiday. It was not always so, and many major ports around Europe had an isolation facility, often called a lazaret or lazaretto, where those whose health was found wanting might be held in quarantine until the risk of contagion has passed. In the Venetian lagoon, the little island of Santa Maria di Nazareth, was established as an isolation area in the early fifteenth century. The Ile de Pomègues, just outside Marseille's Vieux Port, fulfilled a similar function. Split and Dubrovnik both had a lazaret by the late sixteenth century, but in the latter cases the isolation facility was not on an island but in specially constructed buildings outwith the city walls. Modern visitors to Dubrovnik who leave the walled city through the Ploce gate will find the old lazaret close to hand.

Of course, islands were isolation hospitals not just for new arrivals, but equally for locals afflicted by infectious disease. In Sophocles' drama, Philoctetes, the hero, having been bitten by a snake, is abandoned on a Greek island by his shipmates, who fear for their own health as infection begins to afflict Philoctetes' leg.

In more recent centuries, the island of Comino, off the coast of Malta, served as an isolation hospital. The great archipelago off Finland's southwest coast includes the tiny island of Seili, which for over three centuries was a hospital, initially serving as a leper colony and later for those suffering from mental incapacity. Most of us have heard of far flung parts of the world where island isolation was imposed on the physically or mentally afflicted: Robben Island in South Africa, Kalawao on the Hawaiian island of Molokai and Channel Island in Darwin Harbour (Australia) are all former leprosaria. What is much less well known is that Europe, too, had its fair share of lazarets.

hidden europe 9 preview

We have islands aplenty in the upcoming issue of hidden europe. We visit an extraordinary Portuguese outpost in the mid-Atlantic, a place equidistant between Lisbon and Newfoundland. And we follow the old mail route through the Åland Islands in the Baltic; in the nineteenth century the Åland port of Storby marked the western gateway to the Russian empire, and even today the Ålands are dotted with reminders of their erstwhile connections with Russia.

Elsewhere in our July issue, we explore some Adriatic oddities: the onetime Italian island outposts of Lagosta and Saseno, the latter just a mile or two from the coast of Albania. And modern Palagruza, a Croatian island off the coast of Italy.

We visit the Russian-Georgian border in the Caucasus, and encounter feral horses running wild in unlit road tunnels. This is wild country, a place where, in the words of guest author Laurence Mitchell "lammergeiers swoop along looking for bones to shatter, their long wedge tails twisting effortlessly like rudders".

As always we have a diversion or two into questions of language, reporting from Istria on the Istro-Romanian language, which now has a dwindling number of native speakers in isolated communities in the Cicarija mountains. And we visit the home town of the man who, under the nom de plume of Doktoro Esperanto, in 1887 published a manifesto for a new language.

hidden europe 9 is published on 4 July, and can already be pre-ordered in our online shop.

This article was published in Letter from Europe.

About The Authors

hidden europe

and Susanne Kries manage hidden europe, a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine. Nicky and Susanne are dedicated slow travellers. They delight in discovering the exotic in the everyday.