Walking three Cretan Gorges with the Leica X

Our summer holiday took us to Crete this year as we were intent on having a walking holiday in and around the more mountainous region of Greece’s largest and most southerly island. Usually I would be armed with an SLR and several lenses for a trip of this nature, but after using just the tiny Leica X1 in New York earlier this year I felt confident that I could repeat the exercise with its successor, my recently acquired Typ 113.

The purpose of this holiday was to walk three gorges located in the south of the island, all of which terminated on the shore of the Libyan sea (or very close to it). Of a lesser priority was to explore other parts of the landscape close to where we were staying. Bearing in mind we did this in August when temperatures were at best in the low 30’s it soon became apparent that the challenge was going to be a little more strenuous than originally thought. Crete’s southern coast is pretty barren, with little or no shade on large sections of the E4 coastal route. Fortunately for us, gorges offer some respite from the relentless Mediterranean sun, but we still found ourselves walking many kilometres where shade was in short supply and the suns rays seemed to reflect off the high canyon walls and focus on the floor below, through which we picked our way accompanied by litres of water.

The three gorges we chose were the popular Samaria (Europe’s longest gorge at around 16 kilometres…although the last couple of km’s is not classed as part of the Samaria National Park), Agia Irini and Anidri. Our chosen base was the small seaside town of Paleochora due to its proximity and ferry links with the walks. Getting to Paleochora from Hania airport was a spectacular journey in itself as the road wound its way through the White Mountains before eventually expiring at Paleo where it met azure waters.

Walking three Cretan Gorges with the Leica XWith little time to waste and keen to get started, the morning of day one was spent travelling from our rooms to the the top of Agia Irini gorge. The heat was building by the time our taxi dropped us off at the entrance and the weight of several litres of water in my pack was uncomfortable, making me immediately relieved that my only photographic kit was my Leica X and a very small tripod. Ethan was not so fortunate as he was loaded down with a similar amount of liquid along with his Pentax DSLR and three lenses…but he is younger so it did not work out too onerous for him. Alison, sporting her X1 (once mine, now hers) was not hindered in any way by her camera.

Agia Irini gorge is not as well known as Samaria, neither is it as spectacular and only runs for around 7 kilometres (although there is a ‘gotcha’ at the end due to a further 4 km’s walking to get to the coast and ferry port at Sougia.) For these reasons it sees far less foot traffic and our journey down it was very peaceful, with just a few other walkers seen. What soon became apparent was that the 35mm equivalent focal length permanently attached to the X was nowhere near wide enough to capture the grandeur of the surrounding landscape, so I was (as in New York) forced to be more resourceful with my photographic techniques and select interesting crops and details from what lay around me. Ethan had the benefit of his excellent 20-40 zoom and when this was not wide enough, swapped to his 15mm super wide. At the beginning of the walk I sorely missed my Four Thirds 11-22mm super wide zoom, but the weight of this and camera body would have been far more unwieldily in the heat. As the kilometres ticked by I forgot about the limitations imposed by the X’s fixed focal length, discovering interesting aspects of the ancient landscape that fit well into the way I was forced to see. I do not have the optional electronic finder so composing some of the images under glaring sunlight was a real challenge, but on the whole pretty successful. Agia Irini felt isolated due to the lack of visitors and all of our results reflected this…just us surrounded by heavily scented pines, lofty limestone crags and water smoothed boulders. The soundtrack was one of sighing wind interspersed by cicada song…bliss. Our next gorge walk would not be so idyllic.

Walking three Cretan Gorges with the Leica XTwo days later we were bouncing along mountain roads in a bus destined for Omalos and the top of the Samaria gorge. At a height of around 1250 meters and the peaks of the white mountains soaring high above, we stepped out into cool alpine air, purchased tickets and began the steep descent to the chasm floor via ‘Hell’s Staircase’ hundreds of meters below. I had a personal dread of getting down here - something that just a couple of months before was not an issue for me. Several weeks ago I suffered a disc prolapse in my lower back and had only been back on my feet for a couple of weeks. Standing at the top of Samaria looking at the path disappearing away filled me with awe and trepidation - fear of committing myself to something I may not be able to finish. After taking several images of the breathtaking panorama that lay before us, I unslung two walking poles, secured my fluid laden pack and set off…along with what seemed like hundreds of other people. Samaria begs to be looked at at every twist and turn as new vista’s come into view. I soon found that the only way to do this was to stop and take in the view - walking and gazing about was an accident waiting to happen due to the nature of the ground. I did not feel constrained when using my X this time, as Agia Irini had already moulded my photographic sight into what was needed for this journey. Great images were waiting to be captured of Volakias’ summit framed by pine trees, its marble white slopes in turn framed by deep blue morning. Countless little cairns built by equally countless numbers of visitors littered the path down, each one an opportunity for a crazy limited depth of field shot of the descent.

I was pleased to reach the gorge floor without the calamity of a fall and with minimal back pain. Looking back to our starting point while having a slug of water, a long conga of people were making their way down so we wasted little time in stepping out to consume the kilometers lying ahead. Again, I was relieved to have just my little X with me to capture images. Water is readily available from springs in the gorge but we were loaded down with bottled stuff just in case. To have had the additional weight of a bunch of lenses may not have been kind to my back. And we found that we were soon caught up in a tide of people that swept us along at a speed that did not allow much in the way of taking in the view. The path is narrow in places and does not easily allow people to stand around picture taking. The situation does improve further along the trail but any isolated vistas are spoiled by the snaking line of people. As we walked on, the heat of the day built and thirst quickly drained our water bottles, forcing us to sample the beautiful cool spring water. The river in the bottom of the gorge made its appearance the closer to the sea we got and gave us some excellent photo opportunities of deep rock pools overhung by ancient oak and pine.

Eventually we passed through the Iron Gates - where the sides of the gorge soar hundreds of meters above but are separated by just a few meters. This made spectacular viewing and photography and for once, begged human inclusion to provide scale. Kilometers passed and with each one, the X’s memory card filled. I knew I was taking too many images but the camera made it effortless to do so. Better to have too many than not enough as it would be easy enough to cull them when home. The last section of the gorge provides little in the way of shade and we were now walking in the hottest part of the day. Mid 30’s celsius in the shade must have meant we were walking in temperatures much higher and soon my only thoughts were of ice cold beer. I was pleased to see the crags recede and be replaced by a flat calm sea. After purchasing ferry tickets in Agia Roumeli for the journey back along the coast we retreated to a shady taverna to enjoy much needed food and drink while reviewing our huge collection of images. And beer has never tasted so good!

Walking three Cretan Gorges with the Leica XOur third gorge walk was made possible by a few miles of mountain biking along a dusty coastal road from Paeochora to Galiskari where an unassuming stream bed heads from the road into a small ravine. Temperatures were soaring from the outset as we locked our bikes and began picking our way through the lower reaches of the gorge. The cliffs on either side seemed to have parabolical properties, reflecting sunlight and heat onto every footfall we made. Again our packs were loaded down with water and even my little Leica felt uncomfortable around my neck. I used this journey to try out the video capabilities of the camera, recording several short movies of our steady meanderings. We were now walking up the Anidri Gorge, very small in comparison to the other two…in fact just two kilometers long. But those two kilometers felt like ten due to the overpowering heat and lack of shade. The path was a little more difficult and required quite a bit of clambering over boulders. Caves on either side of the lower section caused me to take the X out of video mode and grab some interesting stills, although the angle of view was woefully inadequate for images I wished to make from inside the caves looking out, using the cave mouth as a frame. Ethan had a much better time of it as he could put his 15mm to work and grab the pictures I couldn’t.

We climbed out of the gorge soaked in sweat and followed a dirt track to the small village of Anidri. An interesting little church lay on our right but we chose to ignore it for now to search out a taverna and much needed shade. This came in the form of an old converted schoolhouse a little further up the hill, offering superb panoramic views down to the coast while enjoying ice cold drinks and excellent home cooking. We sat here for a couple of hours, people watching and photographing our surroundings. My Leica caught the eye of one of the waiters who was keen to take a closer look, leading us into a long conversation about photography. Ethan spent an hour photographing the local cat population through his 100mm lens.

Suitably refreshed we decided to visit the church of Agios Georgeos we passed earlier. I think Greece has some of the most beautiful churches and chapels I have experienced and the little church in Anidri was no exception. After pushing open the door and stepping inside, it took our eyes a few minutes to adjust from the glare of the courtyard to the interiors clammy shadows. And the shadows revealed a site that saw me reach for my camera instantly; the walls were covered with early 14th century frescoes, painted by Ioannis Pagomenos in 1323. Now came a chance for my Typ 113 to shine. Its fast 1.7 lens coupled with its almost noiseless iso 800 setting gave me the chance to produce some wonderful hand held low light images…even iso 1600 gave me usable results. I tried a couple of shots using the built in flash, which gave me well balanced results but destroyed the atmosphere.

Stepping back into the blinding heat of the day, it was time to descend into the gorge again. The journey back to our bikes was much easier, taking us just an hour to complete - and this included the inevitable stops to capture even more images. My Leica had been frustrating and exhilarating to use today - frustrating from not being able to capture the images at the caves. And exhilarating when used in the church and taverna. I guess this illustrated to me the pitfalls of a fixed focal length camera…there are times when one lens falls short.

If I could go back to the start of my stay in Crete, would I pick the Leica X as my photo companion again? Absolutely. Its portability more than made up for those moments I was left wanting for something wider or longer. I found I took the X out every evening with me to capture the ambience of taverna life after the sun has set. If I was using a DSLR, it may have made it out on one evening - maybe not even this. The battery life was not too bad either…far better that the X1. I could get a day and a half’s shoot out of each charge. OK it was laughable when compared with Ethan’s K3; he used just one charge for the entire duration of our stay and it still had plenty of power days after our return.

Processing the images back home, I am amazed at how good the X is. Like the X1 before it, I found myself impressed by the sharpness of its Summilux lens, its ability to control noise in high iso situations and the overall ‘leicaness’ of the results. I gave up a lot of flexibility by not taking an interchangeable lens camera, but I also found I gained a lot by the Leica’s simplicity. I have been travelling to Greece regularly for a little over thirty years. This was the first time I had used a fixed lens camera and can honestly say that I barely missed the SLR.