A visit to Lawrence Durrell’s home in Cyprus
“Rising at four […] and cooking my breakfast by rosy candlelight and writing a letter or two, to far-away Marie or my daughter, before clambering down the dark street with Frangos and his cattle, to watch the dawn breaking behind the gaunt spars of the abbey.”
It is customary for me to spend most of September in Northern Cyprus with friends at their apartment in Lapta – a pleasant coastal town just a few miles west of the city of Kyrenia. I have done this for at least the last ten years but, due to a combination of ignorance and inertia, had never until yesterday visited the nearby village of Bellapais.
Famous for its ruined 13th century monastery, it was here the author Lawrence Durrell lived from 1953 to 1956, and where he wrote his remarkable memoir Bitter Lemons of Cyprus, which won the Duff Cooper Memorial Prize in 1957.
“…its shadow incapacitates one for serious work.”
At first an impressionistic account of his idyllic life among the amiable inhabitants of Bellapais, he reflects on drinking coffee under the Tree of Idleness, which now stands imposingly next to the Huzur Ağaç Restaurant. In its shade I enjoyed freshly squeezed pomegranate juice, purchased from an elderly gentleman who announced his arrival with the ringing of goat bells.
To reach Durrell’s mountainside home one must walk up a steeply sloping street from the square outside Bellapais Abbey. His sizeable, whitewashed house has brown window shutters, a wooden-fenced roof terrace and a great carved wooden door, above which is affixed a pale-yellow plaque bearing the inscription, ‘Bitter Lemons: Lawrence Durrell Lived Here 1953-56’.
Durrell (1912-90) was an expatriate British novelist, dramatist, poet and travel writer – also the oldest brother of naturalist Gerald Durrell. His most famous work was The Alexandria Quartet, a tetralogy published between 1957 and 1960. However, his first book, Pied Piper of Lovers, was published in 1935 when he was living with his family in Corfu.
In 1952 Durrell’s wife Eve Cohen had a nervous breakdown and was admitted to a hospital in England. He moved to Cyprus with their daughter Sappho, purchased a house in Bellapais for £300 and began teaching English literature at the Pancyprian Gymnasium to support his writing.
He was fluent in Greek and adapted well to life in the village: consequently, he was welcomed with warmth by the local people. Later, however, he accepted a position with the government at a time when Greek-Cypriot communities were agitating for a union with Greece. In 1955 fighting broke out between the British and EOKA, a nationalist guerrilla organisation campaigning for the end of British rule, and the Greeks rapidly turned their backs on him. He became a target for assassination attempts and fled the island, never to return.
Bitter Lemons is probably the most famous literary work ever written about Cyprus, which documents the author’s personal experiences with both humour and seriousness. Sadly, it is all but forgotten in this Eastern Mediterranean region because it does not accord with the present-day politics of either Greek or Turkish Cypriots. Nobody in Bellapais today recalls Lawrence Durrell living there, but in the wider world his accomplished travelogue cum treatise is considered a classic autobiographical work.
Durrell’s House is now a private residence and is open only occasionally to the public.
What an amazing post. Such a poetic writer too- I wish I’d read Bitter Lemons (that looks to be a beautiful copy). The Alexandria Quartet might have dodgy politics, but I found it to be a great read. I think Julian Barnes -or someone similar- is still a fan. Durrell was a wonderful stylist and it’s a pleasure to learn a bit more about the man.
Thank you, John. I haven’t read any of his novels, so must find time for The Alexandria Quartet!
Love the TV show based on the Durrells’ time there. He is one of those writers I always intend to get to, but somehow keep letting slip.
I adored Gerald Durrell’s books when I was younger. I haven’t read so much of his big brother’s stuff, though.
What an interesting and informative post, Paula! I will have to read Bitter Lemons. Now I want some pomegranate juice! I think I last had it fresh when we traveled to Turkey 8 years ago! 🦋
Thank you, Jennifer. The pomegranate juice was so refreshing in the heat. I can see Turkey faintly in the distance from the balcony when it’s a clear day. 🐈💙🌱
Fascinating to read about Durrell again. And funnily enough, I’ve never read anything by him.
Bitter Lemons is excellent and probably a good place to start with his books.
I’ll add it to my list. ☺️
Ah… thank you so much for posting this. L.D is my favorite writer. This beautifully written post warmed my heart!
Thank you so much. So glad you found the post enjoyable!
This is so interesting to me, and I love the pictures! I’ve not read anything by Lawrence, although our book club read the first book in the series about their life in Corfu by the youngest brother. I see that a new season of their escapades is starting on PBS this week, and I’ve loved the other seasons. I now need to read something by Lawrence!
Thank you, Becky. The Corfu trilogy by Gerald is a great favourite of mine 😄
Eventually, I plan to read the others, as well!
Wow, this is amazing. I’ve never read the book but it sounds fascinating and unique, and how wonderful to see this place! I really don’t know much about Cyprus so would be interested in picking up his book to learn something about it. I love a good blend of humor and seriousness 🙂 Thanks for such a fantastic introduction to the book + place!
Thank you, Rennie. Bitter Lemons is well worth reading if you get the opportunity.
I’m going to be on the lookout for a copy, thanks for putting it on my radar!
Fascinating post, Paula. I’ve not read Bitter Lemons and had no idea Durrell was such a controversial figure. Enjoy the rest of your break. That sky alone makes me want to get on the next plane to Cyprus.
Thank you, Susan. I have a feeling you might enjoy Bitter Lemons. I haven’t seen too many clouds in Cyprus – it’s going to be a shock returning to Blighty! 😆
Lovely post Paula. I have loads of Durrell on the TBR, and I have read one of his island books. Very atmospheric, and I’m jealous of your visit! 😀
Thank you, Karen. I definitely want to tackle some LD novels. Northern Cyprus is less commercialised than the south – mainly because it’s so difficult to get a direct flight. I usually land in Larnaca and get a taxi across the border, but sometimes go to Ursian (sp?) in the north – though that involves first landing in Turkey for an hour or so. Anyhow, it’s a lovely part of the world. The people here are friendly, there’s little crime and I always feel safe. 😎
Great post and
Thank you, Priyasha!
Enjoyed the post. I haven’t never tried Lawrence Durrell’s books though I do love Gerald Durrell. Must try him sometime. Any recommendations to get me started?
Thank you. Unlike Gerald, Lawrence was a novelist, but Bitter Lemons is a memoir and probably a good place to start. 😃
That I knew and one of his books did come up in one of my goodreads groups (Justine?) but I never found a copy on time so never picked it up. Will look for this-Thanks 🙂
I’ve not read Durrell but Emily had read his Alexandria books, so it was fascinating a few years ago that we saw an exhibition of paintings by, I think, an Egyptian artist, based on the Quartet. We happened to catch it at some London embassy or other, though I can’t recall which one — probably Egyptian or possibly Greek.
Coincidentally, our son is with a TV crew filming the latest series of ‘The Durrells’ on … Corfu. As a grip he’s integral to most shots—it’s a wonderful experience of course, the main downside being that he’s missing his young family.
You have such an interesting family, Chris. Is your son an actor?
Not an actor, a ‘grip’ on the camera crew—grips are those who set up the cranes and dolly tracks for those ‘tracking’ shots. He’s just finished working with Stephen Poliakoff, before that he’s done a couple of seasons with Doc Martin: https://m.imdb.com/name/nm2949446/filmotype/camera_department?ref_=m_nmfm_1
Ahh, I see. Please forgive my ignorance. 🙃
What a fascinating job – Cameron (what an apt name) is obviously talented in his field – but as you say, I’m sure he misses his family when he’s away for prolonged periods. Thank you for the link, Chris. Very impressive!
Lovely review, I haven’t read any of Lawrence Durrell work, despite being aware of the Alexandria quartet I have never fancied it. I hadn’t even heard of this memoir. One for the list.
I know what you mean, Ali, I have never really been drawn to the Alexandria Quartet, but thoroughly enjoyed this memoir. Hope you do, too.
Really interesting post Paula. I’ve never read the quartet and didn’t know anything about this memoir. Thank you for sharing!
Many thanks, Madame B. I haven’t read a great deal by LD but very much enjoyed Bitter Lemons. 😊
I saw this a few weeks ago in a charity shop, but decided against buying it. Must see if it’s still there. I spent a year in Cyprus as a child, and my brother now lives there – we’ve visited him, and I enjoyed seeing the island again.
I hope it’s still there, Simon. I bet Cyprus is a wonderful place for children. Does your brother live on the north or south side of the island?
In the SE (Greek) side, a short drive from Larnaka airport. I remember Aphrodite’s cove from my childhood days in Cyprus, and a scary encounter with a large pig. And eating huge slices of watermelon.
Hello Paula. This sounds like a fine book. I read his Alexandria Quartet in the 1970s/80s and thought it was awfully good, especially the first and final volumes.
Enjoy the weekend —
Thank you, Neil. I hope your weekend is going well, too.
I have read Biter Lemons and is my only Lawrence Durrell book to date. I do have the quartet tucked away somewhere. I spent a week in Cyprus in 2000 and his description of the people and some of the places had me recalling that very pleasant week of my life. Bitter Lemons was a very fine read, at times wonderfully descriptive and very interesting. It has also made me realise that I should read some Cypriot history as I had decided to do many years back but never had. My one comment is that there was a fair bit of paternalism towards the locals that could be at times condescending. Maybe that is why he is little recalled in Cyprus. Very much a writer of his times?
That’s true for me, too – Bitter Lemons is the only Lawrence Durrell book I have read to date. Cypriot history is quite bewildering. Bellapais is in the north of the island, which is now the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. In Durrell’s time, the village was mainly inhabited by Greek Cypriots, however, since the invasion of 1974 it has been populated almost entirely Turkish Cypriots, which is why there is no longer anyone there who remembers him. The North and South have been conducting reunification talks for some time, but so far nothing has come of them.
Lovely to see a review of bitter lemons. My mother’s family are from Bellapais and the aforementioned Frangos was in fact my grandfather’s uncle. I love it as a book as it gives me a sense of family social history but also provides some insight into the complex political history of Cyprus particularly the political manoeuvrings for Enosis which ultimately became so catastrophic for the island. Definitely bitter sweet I mostly feel sad that the Cyprus described in the early chapters of Cypriots (Greeks and Turks) living normal daily lives in relative peace will (mostly likely) never again be realised.
How wonderful! Thank you so much for sharing these details, Leila. Bellapais is such a lovely old village, I intend to visit again at some point (hopefully on one of the rare occasions when Durrell’s home is open to the public). I agree, this north/south divide is so sad. Let’s hope they reunite in the future and learn to live happily side-by-side, as once they did.
I have just buried my Ma, called Penelope Tremayne; she worked in Cyprus in the late ’50s, and wrote a book about it. I have found amongst her photos a couple of her sharing a drink with Frangos at his house in Bellapaix. Do let me know if you would like to see them. x
Hello Antonia. Many thanks indeed for posting this message. I’m sorry to hear about the passing of your mother, it must be a very sad time for you. How lovely, though, that she wrote a book about her time in Cyprus, and what marvellous good luck to have come across those photographs. She must have been in the north of the island to have met with Frangos. I wonder if she came across Lawrence Durrell on her travels? She may have just missed him by a year or two. I would definitely like to see your pictures, if it isn’t too much trouble. Thank you once again. 😊