The Bitter Lemons of Bellapais

A visit to Lawrence Durrell’s home in Cyprus

LD'S HOUSE

“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.”

TREE OF IDLENESSAt 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.

BLOC COVERIn 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.

BITTER LEMONS SIGN

 



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43 replies

  1. 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.

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  2. 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.

    Liked by 4 people

  3. 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! 🦋

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  4. Fascinating to read about Durrell again. And funnily enough, I’ve never read anything by him.

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  5. Ah… thank you so much for posting this. L.D is my favorite writer. This beautifully written post warmed my heart!

    Liked by 2 people

  6. 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!

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  7. 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!

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  8. 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.

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  9. 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! 😀

    Liked by 2 people

    • 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. 😎

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  10. 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?

    Liked by 2 people

  11. 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.

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  12. 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.

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  13. Really interesting post Paula. I’ve never read the quartet and didn’t know anything about this memoir. Thank you for sharing!

    Liked by 2 people

  14. 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.

    Liked by 2 people

  15. 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 —
    Neil S.

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  16. 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?

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    • 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.

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