Monday, 17 June 2013

Visit the island of Spinalonga... with your dog

I'm a bit wary of recommending this as a dog-friendly day out for two reasons:
Firstly, being an island, you can only reach Spinalonga by means of a small fishing boat. Even if your dog has sea legs, during the height of the summer there are really huge numbers of visitors to the island, and I'm not sure how everyone would react to a dog on board.
Secondly, the island of Spinalonga is a protected heritage site. I have tried to search for legislation on dogs and heritage in Greece, I haven't found anything so far, and will continue to search.

We did go, however...
Waiting at the harbour in Plaka
I took my Mum, Dad and Sage down to the village of Plaka, just round the coast from Agios Nikolaos, sometime in October last year. It was a bit of a wild, windy day, with ominous grey skies and seas. We asked in the local tavernas, and they said there was only one boat operating at that time of year, but that he would take us across.

Everyone was very sweet and helpful - from the people in the taverna who were trying to contact the boatman for us, to the staff over on the island. The boatman was very patient, and seemed to think it was perfectly normal to go sightseeing with your dog.

Spinalonga now receives thousands of visitors a year, partly thanks to the best-selling novel (and Greek tv series) The Island by Victoria Hislop.

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During the 16th century, the Venetians constructed fortifications around the island, walls and blockhouses to protect the trade route from the harbour on the mainland. Salt panning carried out in the area also contributed to the Venetian economy, and thereby increased the need for protection.

Spinalonga was one of the last 3 fortresses in Crete to be taken by the Ottomans. In fact, the capture of Spinalonga by the Turks in 1715 marked the end of Venetian military presence in Crete.

In more recent history, the island functioned as a leper colony from 1903-1957. This is the period of history on which Hislop's novel is based, and for which the island is most well known. Eery abandoned buildings line the narrow streets in the central part of the island, including former shops, school, kafeneio, hospital, and contribute to the sense that Spinalonga is almost a replica of 'normal' Cretan villages of this period.
Abandoned houses in the centre of the former leper colony
You can nose around inside some of the more ruined buildings, and see how the different phases of occupation of the island were built into and around one another, later phases re-using earlier architecture in their construction. The houses and shops of the main street, however, are very well preserved, and give the impression that they were left very recently.

In this central part of the island, I kept Sage on a very short lead, and made sure she stayed outside of the buildings. As you leave the centre, and follow the fortifications around by the edge of the island, there is a lot more space. From there you can see the Cretan coastline, dramatic cliffs descending into deep seas on the northern side of the island, and thick, high Venetian walls.
At the Venetian fortifications of Spinalonga

Back at Plaka, we returned to the Spinalonga Fish Tavern that had been so helpful organising the boat, for a fish lunch. It was good, and reasonably priced. The taverna was a bit dimly lit and without atmosphere (empty and no music or anything), but then if you turn up on a cold, autumn day you probably shouldn't expect anything different. They were fine about Sage sitting inside the taverna too.

I would definitely recommend this as a great off-season day out, but possibly not for July-August period.

The website of the Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Tourism provides information on opening times, ticket prices etc:


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