Saturday, February 9, 2008

The island of Spinalonga

The island of Spinalonga (official name Kalidon) is located in the eastern part of Crete, near the town of Elounda. Harking back to the Venetian occupation, the name Spinalonga is Italian, meaning "long thorn". The location is also the setting for Victoria Hislop's bestselling novel The Island and Werner Herzog's experimental short film Last Words.

In 1579, the Venetians built a fortress on Spinalonga over the ruins of an acropolis. They kept control of the island until the Ottoman Empire took possession of it in 1715.

The island is notable for being one of the last active leper colonies in Europe, being used in this manner from 1903 until 1957. The last inhabitant, a priest, left in 1962. This was to maintain the religious tradition of the Greek Orthodox church, in which a buried person has to be commemorated 40 days, 6 months, 1, 3 and 5 years after their death. (Leper colonies that have survived Spinalonga include Tichilesti in Eastern Romania, Fontilles in Spain and Talsi in Latvia. As of 2002, one of the few remaining lazarettos in Europe is the one in Dubrovnik.)

There are two entrances to Spinalonga, one being the lepers' entrance, a tunnel known as Dante's Gate. This was so named because the patients did not know what was going to happen to them once they arrived. However, once on the island they received food, water, medical attention and social security payments. Previously, such amenities had been unavailable to Crete's leprosy patients, as they mostly lived in the area's caves, away from civilization.

Today, the unoccupied island is one of the main tourist attractions in Crete. In addition to the abandoned leper colony and the fortress, Spinalonga is known for its small pebble beaches. The island can easily be accessed from Elounda and Agios Nikolaos. Tourist boats depart from both towns on a daily basis. There is no accommodation on Spinalonga, meaning all tours last only a few hours. Boat trips from Elounda take approximately fifteen minutes while trips departing Agios Nikolaos can take upwards of one hour.

The book "Island of the Damned" by Victor Zorba - a local expert on the island - is still in print. It relates the true story of the leper colony and, as the author met with the last governor of the colony, contains many exclusive photos and stories of the German occupation.
The book "The Island" by Victoria Hislop is set on Spinalonga and shares the fictional story of a family's ties to the leper colony.

Elounda Village

This is a world renowned tourism resort located to the north of Aghios Nikolaos, having an indented coastline, shaded beaches, crystal clear seas, and a tranquil and heavenly environment.
It is 10km distance from Aghios Nikolaos, and the cutting along the side of the road affords you the opportunity to admire the spectacular view of Mirambello Gulf and Korfos. The village is built on the southern coast of the Gulf of Elounda, 1km east of the ancient settlement of Olounda, from which it has taken its name. This used to be the favored place of legendary figures from Minoan Crete and of historical figures of our times.
The four villages of Elounda are spread out along the lower slopes of the approach to the Massif.
Pano and Kato Elounda, Mavrikiano and the new settlement of Skisma, the port of Elounda, bask in the glorious sea as it opens up before them offering its beauty and charm.
This sea, as described by Mr. Anestis Makridakis, glows like a sapphire under the azure light of the sky, rose-hued in summer afternoons, silvered on moonlit nights. It is a sea whose light infuses you gently but swiftly, having the power to touch you emotionally. To float in this sea, or to observe it from further away is like dreaming with open eyes.
This peaceful sea was used as a stop-over and refueling point during the period between both world wars by the UK’s Imperial Hydroplane Service The divine creator, in joyous and happy time of inspiration and joviality, did not skimp here with the colors, the lines or the boldness of combinations, giving a magical impression to the landscape. Here, lovers of the art of cinema, of the graphic arts, of music and poetry find an exceptional sight.
Elounda is a place-name that is easy to pronounce, but difficult to describe. It is a place that can only be experienced personally, to live forever thereafter in your dreams.

Rethymnon Historical Information

Rethymnon has a rich and varied history that spans thousands of years. Findings from caves in the region provide evidence of human habitation that dates back to Neolithic times. Findings from within the town indicate that Rethymnon itself has been inhabited since the late Minoan Era. During the 3rd and 4th Centuries BC the autonomous state of Rithymna was of sufficient importance to issue its own coinage.

The Venetian rule saw Rethymnon flourishing as a commercial, artistic and administrative centre. The Venetians created a harbour, built extensive fortifications - including the impressive Fortezza which still dominates the town today - and constructed distinctive monuments such as the Rimondi Fountain and the Loggia.

During the Turkish occupation Rethymnon fell somewhat into decline. However the town did become an important centre for local resistance in Crete's battle for independence. The Turks also left their mark architecturally, most notably in the modifications they made to Venetian buildings and in the construction of minarets and mosques.

In 1913, Rethymnon, along with the rest of Crete became unified with Greece. During the Second World War local inhabitants played an extremely active role in resisting the Nazi occupation; townspeople and villagers frequently risking their own lives in the process.

In recent decades Rethymnon has continued to grow and prosper - as a centre for local industry, tourism and a seat of learning.