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June 03, 2007

Road Trip Day #4: Elounda, Plaka and Spinalonga Island

We started the day with a drive to Elounda, about 11km down the road from where we were staying in Ag. Nikolaos.

We stopped for coffee in Elounda at a place called Babel. We joked that if we had been staying in Elounda for a week we would have hardly left the place, since it had internet access, a pool table, a table football game, boasted of showing football on their big screen with English commentary, and served cocktails. I mean, what else could we ask?

From Elounda we headed further north to the small village of Plaka. The drive was pleasant enough, but as we neared our destination amazing views began to unfold of the Kolokytha peninsula, and Spinalonga Island.


In Plaka we found the Spinaloga Taverna, where you could get boat trips across to the island of the same name. The man there offered us some coffee (which came exactly the opposite of how we asked for it!) whilst we waited for the boat.


It turned out the coffee was on the house and we sat with a great view out across the harbour waiting for the 11 o'clock sailing. The boat trip cost €7, and to our shame, we only had €50 notes. It meant the captain had to go back on shore to get change, and so we held everybody up for 5 minutes. But hey, it is Greece, so we were just adding to the σιγα-σιγα ambience.


When we got to Spinalonga, it was absolutely hectic. The island has a long and mostly unhappy history, and seeing as there were only six of us on our boat, we had thought we would be pretty much alone to contemplate the loneliness of some of the lives lived on the island.

A couple of massive tour parties had other ideas!

We fought our way though, and got ahead of the groups bugging us. Much of the island is in ruins, and only bits and pieces of the various eras of inhabitation survive.

The Venetian walls are mostly intact though. At the main entrance you can still just about make out the lion of St Mark etched into the walls, and at the far end, from sea, you can see the name of the architect etched into a structure which still stands some 500 years after he designed it.


Unusually for monuments on Crete, there were some really good and informative information panels about the island's history, with some great photographs of how it had appeared at the turn of the 20th century when under Turkish control, and aerial photos of how it appeared after the Second World War.


When the Turks invaded Crete in the 1600s, the fortress on Spinalonga held out for an astonishing 40-odd further years, only capitulating in 1715. Given the timescale, the isolation and the average life expectancy of the age, there must have been people who were born, died and lived their entire lives on the tiny island, surround by hostile forces and never ever leaving it.

After the fall of Spinalonga fortress, the island was settled by the Ottomans, and we saw the remains of Ottoman era houses and the Turkish market. The church, inevitably, was converted into a mosque.

However, when Crete was stripped from the Ottoman Empire and placed under the protection of "The Great Powers" of the 19th century, the Muslims on the island mostly left and moved to North Africa. Spinalonga then became a garrison for French troops, before the use of the island changed again following the union of Crete with Greece.


From 1903 until the late 1950s, the island was a leper colony. People suffering from the disease were exiled onto the island - and once they had passed the gates of Spinalonga there was no return. They lived as best they could, cultivating the land and trading with the few people who would venture back and forth between Spinalonga and the Crete mainland.

In true, impressive, Greek fashion, unhappy with their lot, the sufferers on the island formed a union and began mass protests in order to gain improved living conditions. Eventually, with better medication and understanding, by the end of the 1950s the colony was closed, and the island has remained uninhabited ever since.

We went round the island in a clockwise fashion, which meant that the last spot we stood at was the leper's graveyard. With an amazing view back across the bay it made a stunning last resting place for people who had led blighted and isolated lives in this impressive and beautiful yet lonely, corner of our new home.


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Just back from Elounda myself and everything you say about Babel is spot on. Not only do they show live sport they have about five different screens and last saturday they were showing two live football games, and two rugby internationals at the same time and preparing to show a third live game.
what you don't mention is the excellence of the service, the warmth and genuine welcome that they show everyone. Babel soon becomes an important point of reference for any stay in Elounda, and everytime you walk passed, or call in you are treated like a friend.

Hi, I'm in Crete as we speak, and just to add to what you say about Spinalonga island, after reading the book The Island, it has a harrowing past and formidable aura about the place. Enriched in history and suffering, it can wake up your senses to what their lives might have been like.
And also, Greek hospitality is incredible, I've never seen Greeks be so happy to see English people before, we were treated like super stars. Amazing country. L x

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