Across a Gilded Bay

Ancient Greece has served as the setting of epic stories that have - and continue to- inspire the world. It was a civilization centered around philosophy, art, science and critical thought, which has been a beacon of light for the human race. However, beyond the legacy of the ancient Hellenic world, lies a nation with a tumultuous history, which is often unfairly overlooked. Today, we will take a closer at look at a sorrowful time and place in the history of modern Greece.

Lets us go back to the turn of the 20th century near the bay of Elounda on the island of Crete. In a little town called Plaka a small crowd is waiting by the harbor. The soothing view of the azure waters is not reflected in their eyes. The bright Mediterranean sun does not reach their skin. Covered in shawls they patiently await the little wooden caique that slowly approaches from the horizon. On this clear day, the majestic beauty of the scenery is lost to them. All they can think is they are about to cross Dante's Gate. As the ferryman steps on the pier the somber ceremony comes to an end. 'Anyone for Spinalonga?', he shouts.

The sad history of Spinalonga is a testament to the perseverance of the human spirit. The small island just off the coast of Elounda bay served as a leper colony from 1903 until 1957 and was one of the last active lazarettos in Europe. The structures of what was once a Venetian fortress housed hundreds of patients for 59 years. The last inhabitant, a priest, left the island on 1962, 5 years after the colony shut down, in order to maintain the Greek Orthodox tradition of commemorating the deceased in regular intervals up until 5 years after their death. The island itself was named "Stin Elounda" meaning towards Elounda but the Venetians' inability to pronounce the name resulted in them calling it Spinalonga, the name which prevails to this day, from the Italian words of Spina and Longa meaning "long thorn". The name Dante's Gate was given to the entrance of the island used by the lepers, because they had no idea what would happen to them once they arrived.

The patients' lives on Spinalonga were hard, as even though they received a small amount in social security payments, these were often not enough for their food and medicine. During the 59 years of the colony's existence, Greece went through several wars; the Macedonian Struggle, two Balkan Wars, two World Wars and the post-WWII civil war that followed. That brought the conditions on the colony to a continuously worsening state, with some accounts describing life in Spinalonga as living in squalor.

The turning point for the inhabitants came in 1936, when third-year law student Epameinondas Remoundakis fell ill and was transferred to the island. As one of the handful of educated people on the colony, Epameinondas became the founder of 'The Fraternity for the Patients of Spinalonga' and demanded improved living conditions for all residents. He took on politicians of the era and spoke to journalists that would occasionally visit the island. His activism brought about great change with houses painted, trees planted and establishments like a theatre, cinema, cafes and a barber shop built. Loudspeakers were placed in the streets playing classical music, a satirical paper was published and even a school was opened. Spinalonga even received an electric generator before the neighboring village of Plaka had one.

Now organized, the residents of Spinalonga began having more normal lives, cultivating the land and having children. Starting in 1948, the cure for leprosy was discovered and patients were gradually transferred to hospitals in the mainland for treatment. Epameinondas remained on the island for more than 20 years and although he lost a limb and his sight due to his illness he never gave up. His autobiography, called 'Eagle Without Wings' provides a haunting account of life on the colony.

Spinalonga remains uninhabited and has become a tourist attraction for visitors. Across the bay in Elounda, a group of luxurious resorts stands today as the area transforms into a high-end destination, but the island's history will not be wiped from memory any time soon.