For some visitors it is a literary pilgrimage to walk in Durrell’s footsteps up the steep slope from the centre of the calm hillside village to see his home. When Durrell first did so, he wrote that the snaky path he negotiated in a rainstorm "resembled the bed of a torrent".

Durrell went there as a 41-year-old with his two-year-old daughter Sappho, to begin a new life and write his planned “Alexandria Quartet”. He had spent several years working for the British Council in Argentina and the Foreign Office in Yugoslavia, and having relinquished government employment, he wanted to plunge again into writing while also returning to the Mediterranean world he had experienced in Corfu and Rhodes.

But within two years, Archbishop Makarios, the primate of the Orthodox Church of Cyprus, and the guerrilla leader General Georgios Grivas had begun their war to replace the British and join with Greece.

“Bitter Lemons” is Durrell’s classic work and literary breakthrough from 1957. The autobiography offers historical flashbacks about his personal experiences on Cyprus, with both humour and seriousness. He wrote about the locals he met and befriended but also on developments surrounding enosis, which threw the island into chaos and violence.

Like many other Britons who subsequently achieved fame, Durrell was actually born overseas in the colonies, in Jalandhar, India in 1912, to British parents (compatriots such as Sir Cliff Richard, Spike Milligan, Nick Drake, Joanna Lumley and Vivien Leigh are examples of other famous British achievers who were born in far-flung parts of the empire before eventually moving to the home country). He was the oldest in a family of four children, and his father was an engineer for the Indian Railways.

Durrell was sent to England at age 11 for his education but lived there for only short periods. He dreamed of becoming a writer and he constantly longed for warmer climes. Throughout his life he managed to stay in several locations around the Mediterranean. Durrell also encouraged his younger brother and naturalist Gerald Durrell to write, resulting in Gerald’s much-loved 1956 book “My Family and Other Animals” and other volumes.

Lawrence Durrell’s life was defined, like so many other writers, by booze and women and he was something of a bohemian. He married for the first time at age 20 in Paris and had a further three marriages. The first two of these each yielded a daughter.

Bellapais is a few kilometres outside the coastal town of Girne, which sits on the northern coast of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus and is noted for its historic harbour and castle. The village epitomises much that has drawn people to the Mediterranean since time immemorial. The air is fresh and fragrant, and in the distance, beyond citrus groves and the majestic ruins of a Gothic abbey, the azure sea glistens. The abbey is the jewel of the village and is known as "The Abbey of Peace” (rom the French, Abbaye de la Belle Paix). Built in the 13th century, it is an imposing ruin of arches and towering stone walls in a wonderful position commanding a long view down to Girne and the Mediterranean.

# Bellapais Abbey

Durrell loved life there: "Rising at four … and cooking my breakfast by rosy candlelight and writing a letter or two, to far-away Marie [a Greek friend in Corfu] 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."

In his time, almost everyone in Bellapais was of Greek descent, which evidently suited him. He spoke Greek, was an unabashed Grecophile and had little contact with the island's Turkish minority.

At the beginning of his time in Cyprus, Durrell supported himself by writing advertising copy for a wine company and teaching English to schoolgirls who, he wrote, fell madly in love with him.

The first half of "Bitter Lemons" is an impressionistic account of life in a wonderful place full of good fellowship and wine. He wrote of passing the time drinking coffee under the Tree of Idleness, in the centre of the village, where legend has it that anyone who sits there becomes so relaxed and lethargic that they will be unwilling to work.

# One of Bellapais two Trees of Idleness

Oddly, today there are two trees in the centre of Bellapais that lay claim to being the spot. One is a mulberry with the incongruous grafting of a fig branch into the main trunk. This is next to the coffee house and adjacent to the ticket office for the abbey. The other is a Japanese pagoda tree, not native, 15 metres away outside a restaurant. Unfortunately, his book did not identify the tree completely, or perhaps fortunately, because both establishments can now profit from the name. Take your choice (but opt for the mulberry).

The 1950s, however, was a period of rising tension and violence on Cyprus, with armed groups emerging in support of Enosis. Anxious to help calm these passions, Durrell accepted a post as press adviser to the British governor. He quickly became disgusted with Greek militants, viewing them not as freedom fighters but as "whiskered lunatics" intoxicated by "the heady rhetoric of local demagogues and priests" and the "envenomed shrillness" of Athens Radio.

"Embedded so deeply in the medieval compost of religious hatreds," he wrote, "the villagers floundered in the muddy stream of undifferentiated hate like drowning men.”

One of the most memorable episodes in "Bitter Lemons" is Durrell's account of how a real estate dealer and "terrestrial rogue" called Sabri the Turk helped him find his house in Bellapais. Sabri spent days waiting for the right moment to approach the owner, shed theatrical tears of laughter when he heard the initial asking price, and finally closed the deal by promising that Durrell would pay in "notes – thick notes, as thick as honeycomb, as thick as salami'.'

# Lawrence Durrell's house in Bellapais

"Durrell loved it here but in the end he became very upset," Tahir once recalled. "When people don't like you in this part of the world, they don't say anything directly but they try to make life hard for you. They started spreading rumours that Durrell had relations with his students and other negative things. They used such nasty words against him that he didn't want to stay in Cyprus."

In his book, however, Durrell makes no mention of personal troubles and says he left because he could not bear to see his beloved island consumed in a "feast of unreason” when "the vagaries of fortune and the demons of ill luck dragged Cyprus into the stock-market of world affairs”. The political agitation and his position with the British government made him a possible target for assassination.

Durrell fled the island without saying goodbye to his friends, approaching the "heavily guarded airport" by taxi in conversation with the driver who told him "Dighenis [Grivas], though he fights the British, really loves them. But he will have to go on killing them – with regret, even with affection”.

His stay on the island began hopefully but ended sadly and bitterly. "He liked both communities," Tahir said, "but in the end many people didn't like him." Today Greeks reject Durrell because he accused them of degenerating into hatred and terror. Turks cannot embrace him because he wrote of "the Greek nature of Cyprus" and found "a certain hollowness" to Turkish claims.

If he were able to return now, he would find that Bellapais’ predominantly Greek Cypriot inhabitants left after the schism of 1974 and have been replaced by Turkish Cypriots. And the village as seen today is very different from that of the 1950s when there was virtually no motorised transport and everything was brought in by donkey, with well-laden panniers, up an old crusader path from Kyrenia via Ozankoy village.

Most of the people earned their living from simply tending their sheep and goats. They made cheese and yoghurt, picked the olives, and harvested carob and citrus during the fruiting season. But the many fascinating narrow streets remain, festooned with multicoloured bougainvillea and heavily scented jasmine.

It is unclear as of July 2018 if Durrell’s house is open to visits. Above the front door is a small yellow plate bearing the inscription, "Bitter Lemons: Lawrence Durrell Lived Here 1953-56", but otherwise there seems little evidence in Bellapais that it once hosted the famous writer.


How Durrell saw it:

First impression of Bellapais and the run-down villa he was to buy and renovate:
"Everywhere grew roses, and the pale clouds of almond and peach bloom; on the balconies grew herbs in window-boxes made from old petrol tins … My reverie was interrupted by a moan. A heifer was the cause of the noise. It stood, plaintively chewing something in the front room, tethered to a ring in the wall."

Settling in with the locals:
"The bottle of cognac was low and I now recognised in it, despite its colourless innocence, a formidable adversary which, if taken too lightly, would unhorse me completely. I seized my host's arms … and suggested a change to wine. 'Wine,' he said and his voice was charged with professional tenderness."

He comes to collect his belongings:
"As I turned the last corner and came to rest under the belfries of the Abbey, I saw that the whole village was there in the little square. But as the [car] engine fell silent I was aware of some altogether novel factor about the scene. It lacked all animation … I walked across to the little café which was crowded but utterly silent. Everybody looked at the ground, awkwardly and with a shy, clumsy disfavour."


Durrell died in 1990 aged 78 at his home in Sommières, southern France.


Loading Conversation

RELATED POSTS
The news that made headlines

The Brief History of the Week

Geschrieben von BT

Presenting in one concise package the week’s most important and fascinating national stories,…

ComiX Coffee in District V

Inmates running the asylum?

Geschrieben von Attila Leitner

Briton Ben Innes became the very definition of cool on Tuesday. In case you missed this, the…

Protests, no apologies as government-teachers dispute widens

Fight of the roundtables

Geschrieben von BT

The civil public education platform representing the teachers’ movement, which calls itself an…