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‘The Island’

January 29, 2012

Like many others, I read Victoria Hyslop’s book ‘The Island’ when it came out in 2006. It is an easy read but a book which informs as well as entertains.  The island in question is Spinalonga, a very small island off the north east coast of Crete. 

It is very close to Plaka, a small village on the mainland.

During Venetian rule Spinalonga was developed as a fortress for military purposes and then, after 1715, it was an Ottoman settlement with a population of over 200.  In 1903 the Cretan government established a leper colony which remained in operation until 1957. 


‘The Island’ is a story about a family from Plaka.  Two members of the family develop leprosy and are sent to live on Spinalonga (at different times). We learn about life on Spinalonga and the traumas caused by the physical aspects of the illness and by their separation forever from most of the rest of the world. It also focuses on the positive aspects of what can be achieved in a small community which has good leadership and additionally we find out how a cure for leprosy was found. 

Both John and I were keen to visit Spinalonga.  In the summer there are regular boats to take you there but in the winter there appears only to be a boat at the weekend and it goes from Plaka.  We arrived before 10 am on a rainy Saturday.  There was a boat there but no other passengers except us. We had to wait a little while before the Captain arrived and then we set off on the short journey, accompanied also by a Guide who would unlock the gates on Spinalonga. She, as you can see below, is well wrapped up as it was chilly!

I asked the guide about how the book ‘The Island’ was regarded here.  She was non-commital, saying that some liked it and some didn’t.  But she was very positive about Victoria Hyslop herself who, she said, was a very nice person, had a house locally and always visited Spinalonga. A TV series (26 episodes) of the book was shown on Greek TV last year.  Apparently the author had been approached by Hollywood but in fact worked with a Greek production company to produce it.  I expect the BBC don’t want to show something in Greek with English subtitles but given the success of the book it might be popular. You can see a few excerpts on YouTube but I think we will have to wait a bit for the DVD.

The guide told us that on some summer days 3000 people visited Spinalonga.  That sounded scary!  On the other hand this may be positive for the local economy.  But we felt very lucky that it was just us who could wander at will, listen to the silence and think about what it was like to live on Spinalonga.

We set off from the jetty.  I had read that newcomers, diagnosed with leprosy, would go through a tunnel after arriving on the island.  They would experience the darkness of the tunnel and then the lightness of a narrow street where there was lots of people walking around doing ordinary things like shopping.  For people with no prospect of ever leaving the island this might have given only small comfort! John and I walked though the tunnel and into the street and while there was none of the activity it was as had been described. 

We walked on and found some of the dormitories, the houses and the hospital. These, as well as the church and the shops etc were all on the side of the island that overlooked Plaka.  It must have been tough for people to look out on the mainland which was so close and to which they would never return.

On the other side of the island was the graveyard.  It was in a beautiful setting but very poignant as so many people had died extremely painful deaths, some so far from their homes.

Because I thought of Spinalonga as a leper colony I had not grasped the Venetian and the Ottoman influence and there is a lot of fortification and housing which is from an earlier era.  There was information about this in the leaflet we were given and we walked right round the island, looking at the impressive fortification, massive stone walls and the many churches and other buildings.

But my mind and emotions would always return to the leper colony.  I found it difficult to look at Spinolonga without thinking about ‘The Island’ which is fiction, although based clearly on some facts.  So there were many questions unanswered.  Why was the leper colony in Crete?  Was there a higher incidence of the disease here?  Were there public health reasons for such a policy of isolation or was it an ignorant response to public prejudice?  How did the cure come about?   Did the improvements in conditions happen and were there real people amongst the fictional characters.  And more?  So I think I need to look for some of the research that Victoria Hyslop must have used to find some of the answers. 

What a place though Spinalonga is!  Good to go in the winter though.



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One Comment
  1. Pat permalink

    Looks like you are having a great time – it is minus one here – very cold indeed. Love – Pat x

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