Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Letter from Europe

  • — Issue 2012/36 posted by hidden europe on

On the hills around Vrouhas, giant wind turbines are ambassadors of modernity. Their blades lazily crest the Mediterranean breeze, each languid loop mocking the ancient stone windmills that cluster on the slopes below. The turbines provoke, so visitors and locals are all more inclined to gaze out to sea, where the fortified island of Spinalonga dominates the view to the south. Here was one of Europe's last leper communities, a colony of outcasts who were exiled to a barren island just off the coast of Crete. It was fifty years ago this autumn that the last inhabitant of Spinalonga left the island. He was no leper, but a Greek Orthodox priest who had for many years ministered to the ailing residents who had lived on the island.

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Dear fellow travellers

On the hills around Vrouhas, giant wind turbines are ambassadors of modernity. Their blades lazily crest the Mediterranean breeze, each languid loop mocking the ancient stone windmills that cluster on the slopes below. The turbines provoke, so visitors and locals are all more inclined to gaze out to sea, where the fortified island of Spinalonga dominates the view to the south. Here was one of Europe's last leper communities, a colony of outcasts who were exiled to a barren island just off the coast of Crete.

It was fifty years ago this autumn that the last inhabitant of Spinalonga left the island. He was no leper, but a Greek Orthodox priest who had for many years ministered to the ailing residents who had lived on the island. The last lepers were relocated in 1957, but that did not entirely quash the fragile flame of faith and ritual on Spinalonga. That single priest remained for a further five years, each day praying for those who had breathed their last on the island. That ascetic vocation no doubt gave ample opportunity to reflect on life, illness and death. Those who were exiled to Spinalonga suffered from a terrible disease of the body - but not one that demanded their removal from mainstream society.

Many of the unfortunates sent to Spinalonga arrived on the island with a double affliction. They had leprosy but they suffered from a terrible disease of the soul - despair. But it is a tribute to this extraordinary community of lepers that many gained new hope upon arrival in Spinalonga. They were not abandoned on their rocky island. There were priests and medics, carers and other volunteers. Though it was a life of desperate exile, the rituals that give meaning to the everyday were not suspended. Inmates worked together and they quarrelled, they fell in love and fell out of love. Some even gave birth and their offspring were perfectly healthy. Over the more than half a century that Spinalonga operated as a leper colony, many thousands of relatives and friends of the residents visited the island. No visitor ever contracted leprosy.

The symbolism of Spinalonga as a place apart is well-rooted in Cretan history. When the Venetians were ousted from Crete in the seventeenth century, the triumphant Turks did not immediately claim control of the entire island. Heraklion held out, only eventually succumbing to Ottoman control after a gruelling siege that lasted 21 years. Yet even then Spinalonga remained an outpost of Venetian power - although by that stage the Mediterranean influence of La Serenissima was waning.

Today the island of Spinalonga, often also known as Kalydon, has become a popular day excursion from the various small ports on the nearby Cretan coast. The lives of the afflicted for whom this island refuge was once home have been celebrated in novels and in film.

The departure of the priest from Spinalonga in 1962 formally marked the end of Crete's island leprosarium. A half-century later, there is still a functioning retreat for lepers in Romania. No longer quite a place of total exile, but still a place apart.

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)

Posted in Places
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.