A Rope of Vines
A Rope of Vines by Brenda
Chamberlain is an evocative memoir of the author’s time living on the Greek
island of Hydra in the early 1960s.
A Rope of Vines begins with the kind of opening sentence that compels you to read on:
I have returned to the good mothers of Efpraxia while my friend Leonidas serves sentence for manslaughter of an English tourist in the port of Ydra.
Ydra is an alternative spelling for Hydra, of course, and Efpraxia is a convent on the island, where the author stays for a part of the time during the six years that she lives on Hydra. She returns to the story of Leonidas later in the memoir, naturally, and we learn what exactly happened down in the port.
A Rope of Vines: The
Brenda Chamberlain (1912-71) was a Welsh writer and artist who moved to Hydra in the Saronic Gulf Islands, not far from Athens, in 1961, having previously lived on the Welsh island of Bardsey for 15 years, an experience she also wrote about.
She returned to Wales in 1967 and died in Bangor, where she had been born, only four years later. She wrote fiction, prose and poetry, and her paintings are on display in several collections in Wales, and in London.
A Rope of Vines: The
A Rope of Vines
was first published in 1965, when the author was still living on Hydra, and
republished in 2009 by the Library of Wales, which holds her papers. It’s a
fairly short book of less than 150 pages, which also include many of the author’s
line drawings of Hydra, mostly of buildings but a few including people too.
It may be a short book but it is also very intense. There are vibrant scenes of people, incidents, wildlife, scenery, and especially the weather, and its intense heat. Hydra is a bare and rocky island, where cacti grow, and it’s ironic that its name is the Greek word for ‘water’, yet it has to bring in most of its water by boat.
Life on Hydra
A Rope of Vines
gives you very much a behind-the-scenes look at life on Hydra. The author lives
in a house high up above and away from the port, which even then bustles with
life and visitors. She dislikes the port and all its transient activity, and
the Hydra described in these pages is the Hydra of ordinary people. They’re the
people who live simple lives, with hand-to-mouth existences, some with
emotional and physical problems. It’s a day-to-day existence which is captured,
warts and all, in the pages of A Rope of
The title, incidentally, comes from the way fishermen used to tie their boats up with a rope made from twisted vines, before proper ropes and metal ties became widely available. It’s the way she sees herself tied to the island.
Leonard Cohen on
Don’t turn to this book, as I did, if you expect to read at
least a little something about one of Hydra’s most famous residents in the
early 1960s, Leonard Cohen. His life on the island overlaps with that of Brenda
Chamberlain, though the bohemian art scene of which he was a part gets no
mention in the book. It’s not that his life there was secretive. While living
there he published his poetry collection Flowers
for Hitler (1964), as well as his novels The Favourite Game (1963)
and Beautiful Losers (1966).
Indeed, TripAdvisor has a long thread about how
to find Leonard Cohen’s house on Hydra. As both were writers and artists,
and foreigners on Hydra, it’s unlikely they wouldn’t at least have known of
each other’s existence. But Chamberlain’s writing is more inward-looking. As
artist Shani Rhys-James points out in her introduction to the Library of Wales
edition, she makes a hike and camps out overnight on a pilgrimage with an
English family, yet we learn nothing at all about the family, though the
descriptions of the hike, the landscape, the wildlife and the experience are
brought vividly to life.
It has to be said that this won’t be a book for everyone. The
style can be florid and very intensely personal, and sometimes the stories can
be vague and mysterious. We never do find out, for example, the nature of her
relationship with Leonidas. Were they friends or lovers? The reader will never
Buying A Rope of Vines
The book is well worth buying, for anyone who wants to learn
a little more about Greek family life, and what goes on away from the tourist
zones. If you have any interest in Hydra, you’ll want to read it as the author
does visit a lot of the island, going on hikes and describing the flora and
fauna beautifully. Her artist’s eye and her poet’s use of language make this an
exceptional and unusual book about Greece.
Where to Stay on Hydra
Other pages about books
The very thorough A-Z Guide to Santorini by Tony Oswin is now in its 15th edition, a sure sign that the guidebook is both popular and kept up-to-date.
Heaven on Earth is a collection of 19 travel pieces about Greece by Mike Gerrard.
If planning a trip to Greece, what are the best books about Greece to read before you go, or to take with you, to give you a sense of place?
A Thing of Beauty by Peter Fiennes describes ‘Travels in Mythical and Modern Greece’ and places the Greek Gods in the context of modern-day Greece.
Greece Book Reviews on the Greece Travel Secrets website with reviews of the best guidebooks to Greece, the Greek Islands, Athens, Crete and elsewhere.
Taverna by the Sea is an account by Jennifer Barclay of her summer spent working in a taverna on Karpathos and a welcome new book of Greek travel writing.
Wild Abandon by Jennifer Barclay and published by Bradt Guides is A Journey to Deserted Places of the Dodecanese islands in Greece, including Rhodes and Kos.
The Summer of My Greek Taverna by Tom Stone is a memoir of his time on the Greek island of Patmos in the Dodecanese, running a restaurant.
The Bradt Guide to Northern Greece is a detailed guide to Thessaloniki, Halkidiki, Macedonia, Thrace, The Pelion, The Sporades and the rest of Northern Greece.
Greece Travel Secrets reviews the photography book Monemvasia with extracts from works by Yiannis Ritsos and Nikos Kazantzakis.
Mermaid Singing by Charmian Clift is a fine example of 1950s travel writing about the Greek island of Kalymnos in the Dodecanese.
Margarita’s Olive Press is a modern gem of a book of Greek travel writing, in which the author falls in love with and renovates a property on Zakynthos.
The Lonely Planet guide to the Greek Islands is a thorough and helpful guide to all the Greek island groups, with Athens included.
The latest edition of the Lonely Planet travel guide to Greece is a comprehensive 750-page guidebook to the whole country.
Lonely Planet Crete is an excellent and thorough guide of almost 300 pages to the largest of the Greek islands.
Ikaria by Meni Valle, brings together the best and healthiest Greek recipes with an evocative travelogue about Ikaria, one of the world’s Blue Zone places.
Peel Me a Lotus by Charmian Clift is a Hydra travel writing classic, describing her family’s life on this tiny Greek island near Athens in the 1950s.
There are many great Greek poets, with two authors winning the Nobel Prize for Literature and names include Sappho, Cavafy, George Seferis and Odysseus Elytis.
Fire on the Island is a romantic thriller novel by Timothy Jay Smith set on a fictionalised version of the town of Molyvos on the island of Lesbos.
Eurydice Street, A Place in Athens by Sofka Zinovieff is an honest account of what it’s like to move to Athens and live as a foreigner, learning Greek customs.
Greece Travel Secrets reviews the book Culture Trails by Lonely Planet, which has a section on Artistic Athens and 51 other perfect weekends for culture lovers.
The Bradt Guide to the Peloponnese is the best book on the Greek region which includes attractions like Mycenae, Epidavros, Olympia, Monemvasia and Nafplion.
The 2022 edition of the A-Z Travel Guide to Kos is the 15th edition of the best and most comprehensive guidebook to Kos in the Dodecanese islands of Greece.
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