IN SEARCH OF SUN, SEA AND LEPROSY: THE ATTRACTIONS OF CRETE

When you’re searching for a new destination to head to, inspiration can come from all directions. Films, books, music and food can all evoke a strong desire to visit a place and experience new culture, making you want to pack a bag and just go!

Readers of Victoria Hislop’s popular novel The Island, will be familiar with the book’s romantic and idyllic portrayal of Greek culture, life and family. If any book is going to attract you the island of Crete, with promises of sun, sea and romance, then Hislop’s narrative is sure to do the trick. What is odd about the book’s power to attract readers to Crete, is what occupies the centre of the book’s plot. It’s unusual, to say the least, that a book about a leper colony could encourage Greek tourism. No, you have not misread the description of the book. It’s about lepers.

Put any images of zombie-like victims covered in scabs with their limbs dropping off firmly out of your mind. The novel presents a more realistic portrayal of the horrors of leprosy, focusing on the trauma of victims who are separated from their loved ones and placed on Greece’s national leprosy colony. Still not sold as your next holiday destination?

The tiny island of Spinalonga, known locally as the ‘Island of Tears’, lies off the North Eastern coast of Crete and to the casual traveller can appear like an unused and uninhabited piece of land. Dominated by the ruins of a fortress, a remnant of the sixteenth century Venetian occupation, the island is both beautiful and peaceful, dotted with numerous pebbled beaches, perfect for the bathing in the warm, turquoise waters.

And yet the island also maintains a ghostly presence of the many lives confined to it. Visitors are free to explore the islands houses, shops and hospital, all of which were abandoned in 1957 when leprosy was cured and the inhabitants of Spinaglonga were free to leave. Walking through the tunnel that forms the entrance to the island from the small dock, referred to as ‘Dante’s Gate’ by leprosy suffers unsure of their future, has an unsettling effect on visitors who put themselves in the place of the many left to die here. Even on busy days during the summer months, the island is eerily quiet as tourists wander the abandoned streets, struggling to comprehend that real people were abandoned here like prisoners.

Though any traveller with be taken aback by the beauty of Crete’s scenery and the rich and colourful culture of the island, there exists few examples like Spinalonga which present a very real and strong sense of human history. Worth a visit, whether you’re a fan of Hislop’s novel or not, a trip to Spingalonga will be a memorable and moving experience. Operators such as Very Cheap Holidays offer Crete Holidays from May – October starting from £194.07 person. Day trips to the island of Spinalonga are frequent, with boats leaving daily from Elounda on the mainland during high season.

I hope this article has, in an albeit unconventional way, made you consider Crete. The peaceful serenity of the place (except for Malia, it’s the bad place) is well worth the visit. If you go, I hope you love it half as much as I do

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