In Search of Pirate Islands

I’m half way through writing my pirate adventure at the moment, which still hasn’t got a title yet.  I’ve worked out most of the plot, which means I know how the story is going to end and what is going to happen to all the main characters.  Not sure how I am going to get there but I’m relishing writing without having a proper nuts-and-bolts synopsis at my elbow for once.

The climax takes place in a pirate castle.   It’s meant to be in Corfu but the building I describe is actually in Crete.  It’s more of a fort than a castle, and it’s a ruin now, on the island of Spinalonga off the Elounda coast, but it must have been a truly amazing edifice in its time.

Spinalonga is a place that fascinates and horrifies me at the same time.  It’s everything you would imagine a Mediterranean paradise to be. The air is scented with jasmine and geranium.  The houses have tubs of herbs outside the front door.  The sea sparkles in a dazzling, heap-of-diamonds way it only seems to do in the Med.  Carobs, fig trees, prickly pear and oleander line every street and alley. Caper plants sprout out of every crack in the stonework. In the summer heat, the butterflies are manic.

And yet this tiny island has seen more than its fair share of suffering and cruelty. In ancient times it was heavily fortified to protect the nearby port of Olous, now a sunken city.  During the seventh century AD, the area was ransacked by North African corsairs so many times, it was deserted in favour of more secure towns inland. The Venetians took it over and, in the mid-1500s, built fortifications to protect it from the Ottomans.  My pirate castle was built around this time, and I like to imagine it being the hub of military and commercial activity, its rooms bustling with noblemen practicing sword fights, learning poetry and partaking of sumptuous Italian meals.  The Ottomans followed the Venetians and stayed till 1903, when the island was declared a leper colony.

Lepers were forcibly moved here from all over Greece and formed a stable community that was far more advanced than any other like it in Europe.  They had shops, a cinema, a state of the art hospital, the first electricity lines in the region – and social security payment, secured for all by lepers moved in from Athens.  There must have been pain, and fear among the citizens, but also a sense of community, a sense of belonging in a world that feared and rejected them.   The community disbanded when leprosy became treatable. The last person to leave Spinalonga was a priest, who stayed to honour the funerary rites of the patients buried on the island. He left in 1957.

The ruins of the lepers’ houses still stand, as does the hospital and, of course, the Venetian fortifications.  None is habitable, which means that visitors to the island can’t stay overnight. Not that you’d want to, of course. It would be terribly spooky sitting there in the dark with the twinkling lights of Elounda so near across the water.  The journey on a fishing boat must take all of ten to fifteen minutes. Even the sound from the bars and cafes on the waterfront must carry.  God only knows how the lepers must have felt, so near to and yet so cut off from the rest of society.  As for that last priest, he must have been the bravest man on Earth.

I visited Spinalonga last year, on a sunny day that still glows with heat and the smell of thyme in my memory.  I made a little film on a hand-held camera to take away with me, which I posted above.    The circular fort our boat skirts round is the one that is going to be in my adventure story, transported to Corfu.  Its walls will echoe with the boom of cannons once again….

[If you enjoy this short video, please subscribe to my youtube channel.]

Related posts.


Sitting with Griffins – the mystery of the throne room at Knossos


Yo ho ho and a Bottle of Rum – what Pirates drank.

Death in the Drink – Welcome to Davy Jones’ Locker

Breaking Bread with Pirates – find out what pirates ate and drank.




Filed under Pirate Posts, Travel and inspiration

2 responses to “In Search of Pirate Islands

  1. I didn’t realise leprosy was a problem that recently. Somehow I thought it had died out in the Middle Ages. It must be a very spooky place.

  2. It’s one of those places that really throws you, Mary. It’s beautiful but you are so aware that everyone who lived there had their life torn apart by this dreadful disease. I came away shaken.

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