Traveling Classroom Foundation
Thursday June 8th 2023

The Last Fortress

The longest surviving Venetian fortress on Crete is on a rocky island not far from the Lisithi provincial capital of Ayios Nikolaos. We departed in the morning, traveling east on the new national road, which parallels the northern coast of the island from one end to the other. Although the road is very good, it was a nerve-wracking trip because Cretan drivers tend towards excessive speed and wild passing habits. Consequently, rational motorists drive on the shoulder of the road – leaving the double line in the middle as a virtual speedway.

We turned at Ayios Nikolaos and followed the coastal cliffs along the Gulf of Mirabello, which in ancient times was called Selinis Limin (Moon Bay). Arriving at Elounda, we found the town just starting to wake up. Some merchants were putting their wares on display along the sidewalks and only a few cafes were open for business. We parked in the big central square at the harbor, where fishermen were working on their boats and ferrymen were preparing for people wanting to visit the Venetian citadel on Spinalonga.

The crowded harbor at Elounda

We decided to explore the town, and began to walk in and around the waterfront lanes. Following the harbor quay, we found it became a stone-paved promenade along the local beach. The water was crystal clear and very inviting, but we had other plans for the day. Returning to the harbor, we stopped for coffee at a cafe and inventoried our gear.

Small trehandiri (fishing boat) ferries departed regularly for the short trip to the rocky island of Spinalonga, so there was no problem with transportation. The trip was very short. Approaching the island, it was startling to see that the fortress is the island. It covers the entire surface of the rock and presents such a formidable edifice you might think any enemy would be foolish to attack it. In fact, this proved to be the case.

The Venetian fortress covers the entire island of Spinalonga
Venetians built the fortress in 1579 to defend the gulf and the anchorages behind the peninsula of Spinalonga, which extends nearly to the island. It was impregnable and was only given up to the Ottoman Turks by treaty in 1715, fifty years after Venice had surrendered the rest of Crete. Looking at the design of its battlements, towers and thick walls, we can see why the fortress held out.”]
Gun ports in one of the fortress battlements

There are only two sealed and secure entrances into the citadel; one is at the jetty where passengers are debarked. A long tunnel leads from the jetty up into the fortress. The other entrance is a formidable gate on the seaward side with its emblematic winged lion of St. Mark, the patron saint of Venice. No enemy ever breached these gates.

Lion of St. Mark above the main entrance of the fort

However, in 1715, the last remaining Venetian fortress was surrendered to the invading forces of the Ottoman Empire. Ottoman troops controlled Spinalonga until the revolution of 1866, when Greek and British troops drove them off the island. Ottoman families that remained, and feared Cretan reprisals, moved to Spinalonga and formed a separate community that survived nearly 40 years.

A shaded community street inside the fortress

As the story goes, to get the Turks out of the fortress, the Cretans decided to turn the island into a leper colony in 1903. The horrified Turks immediately vacated the fortress and returned to Turkey. The sad part of the tale is that the lepers who moved to Spinalonga were quarantined long after science developed medicines to control the disease. The detention camp, which local villagers called “the place of the living dead,” continued to operate until 1957. It was the last leper colony in Europe.

A residential neighborhood in the leper colony

However, walking through the fortress, we can see how a real town grew during that time. The lepers adapted Turkish buildings, using whatever materials they could find, and tried to create normal lives within their prison. Everything is wasting away now, but you can still find the town hall, stores, cafes and nice homes with paved lanes and shade trees. It is a tribute to the fortitude of people cut off from the rest of humanity.

For an intriguing account of life on Spinalonga we recommend “The Island,” a bestselling novel by Victoria Hislop.

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