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.