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Bitter Lemons of Cyprus Revisited.

'IT seemed in that warm honey-gold afternoon a delectable island in which to spend some years of one's life', mused the writer Lawrence Durrell, having just bought a house in Bellapais, a village about five miles up in the hills above Kyrenia. He was sitting on the bastions of Kyrenia castle--enjoying celebratory beers and mezes--with his Turkish estate agent, Sabri, calculating the cost of repairs needed to make the property habitable. Sabri recommended a local Greek builder whereupon Durrell commented, 'I was sent to you by a Greek and now the Turk sends me back to a Greek'. Sabri laughed, 'Cyprus is small and we are all friends though different'.

That was in 1953 and Durrell only stayed three years. The story of the house purchase, its renovation and his years on the island are chronicled in his book Bitter Lemons of Cyprus (1957). Half a century later, although changes have taken place, there is still much that Durrell would recognise.

Shortly after his arrival those differences between Greek and Turk flared up and became exceedingly unfriendly. The former wanted reunion with Greece (enosis) and independence from Britain--the island became a Crown Colony in 1925 having been occupied since 1878--but the Turks were content to remain under British rule. Guerilla warfare broke out, in which some of Durrell's students at the Nicosia Gymnasium (where he taught English) were involved. Durrell was appointed Press Advisor to the British government and became increasingly unhappy about the situation. Bitterly disappointed, he left his 'delectable island' never to return.

Relations became even more fraught when Turkish troops moved in to protect the Turks of Cyprus in the mid-1970s and have still not been resolved. Attempts by the United Nations came to nothing more than the establishment of a boundary zone (the Green Line) separating a larger Greek southern section from a small Turkish northern section. Greek families left homes and livelihoods behind as they moved south or emigrated; many could not return as their houses have either been sold to foreign incomers as second or retirement homes or have fallen derelict. In 1983 the northern part of the island declared independence as the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, though in 2004 two-thirds (65 per cent) of its population voted in favour of re-unification; Greek Cypriots, however, rejected this by a massive 85 per cent. Southern (Greek) Cyprus then became a full member of the European Union, leaving Turkish North Cyprus politically isolated, not even recognised as a state.

Although there has now been some relaxation of border controls, people are still affected by the division of this small island. Durrell travelled by boat from Venice; most visitors today arrive by air, but international flights are not permitted to operate directly to a country which, officially, does not exist. So planes touch down on the Turkish mainland; alternatively visitors can fly into Larnaca, hire a car or taxi and drive north via one of three check points. Thus Northern Cyprus receives far fewer tourists than the popular resorts of the south. Only more determined travellers overcome such obstacles and, of these, many find their way to Bellapais.

The village made a profound impression on Durrell, even though his first sight of it was in pelting rain: 'I already knew that the ruined monastery of Bellapais was one of the loveliest Gothic survivals in the Levant, but I was not prepared for the breath-taking congruence of the little village which surrounded and cradled it against the side of the mountain.... The village comes down to the road for the last hundred yards or so with its grey, old-fashioned houses with arched vaults and carved doors set in old-fashioned moulding'. In bright autumn sunshine it is even more breath-taking.

Entering the village via the Kyrenia road, the ruined monastery still dominates. The first monks were Augustinian who fled from Jerusalem when the city fell to Saladin in 1187. Most of the building therefore dates from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. The Genoese pillaged it in the latter part of the fourteenth century and sixteenth-century Ottoman invasions destroyed even more. The monastery was abandoned and villagers plundered the stones to build houses, though Greek services continued to be held there and, until 1974, it was the village place of worship. Occasional services still take place in the church and the former refectory makes a splendid concert venue for international festivals (April, May, June, September to October).

The name is derived from the French: Abbaye de la Paix (Abbey of Peace) and, out-of-season, tranquillity pervades the church and the cloisters surrounding a small garden planted with tall cypress trees. Towards the western edge of the ruins, however, the peace was shattered by the incongruous sound of piped pop music emanating from the Abbey's own cafe.

Beside the Abbey, in the village square, are two more cafes, both claiming to be sited under the Tree of Idleness, the large mulberry tree under whose shade Durrell was warned not to sit if he intended to try to work as, 'It's shadow incapacitates one for serious work. By tradition the inhabitants of Bellapais are regarded as the laziest on the island. They are all landed men, coffee drinkers and card players. That is why they live to such ages. Nobody ever seems to die here. Ask Mr Honey the grave digger. Lack of clients has almost driven him into a decline'. Mr Honey was rescued from this fate by the need for cess pits and, in this capacity, he was one of a team of workmen employed to renovate Durrell's house. Progress on this was slow--blamed on the magnetism of the Tree of Idleness, but consumption of far stronger drinks than coffee was undoubtedly another factor.

Irrespective of the authenticity of the Tree of Idleness, the cafes are still a place to linger over a drink, a snack or even a full-scale meal before browsing in the handful of small souvenir shops nearby. I spent some time enthralled by the skill of an elderly glass blower seated by the roadside creating tiny cats, elephants and other articles from discarded scraps of coloured glass. The square is somewhere to pause and gather strength for the steep climb up to Durrell's house.

As no lorries could negotiate this, donkeys and mules with panniers were mobilised to carry all the building materials needed for the renovations. He describes 'the mule teams ... each bearing its grunting burden of pierced concrete bricks or dusty sacks of cement.... I would watch them ... as they slipped and staggered up the stony incline'. The roads are still only donkey-width and, although cars use them, their narrow twisting steepness makes driving precarious. When Durrell bought a car--a grey-green Morris Minor--he parked it in the village square, not at the house.

The car was a necessity when Durrell obtained a lecturing post at Nicosia Gymnasium, the salary from which was needed to pay for the work on the house. This and the village had such a hold on him that he was prepared to leave home at 4.30 in the morning rather than live in the capital. Although he bought the house for [pounds sterling]300--after much hard bargaining--it was little more than a derelict ruin. The mason's signature on the iron plaque above the door was dated 1897, with some restoration carried out in 1940. On his first visit it took the combined strength of Durrell, Sabri and the husband of the owner to turn the huge key in the rusty lock of the great carved wooden door. They then found a cow tethered to a ring in one of the rooms and another room full of grain--which poured out when the door was opened--though the condition of this and the hard earthen floor at least indicated there was no sign of damp. In the small rear garden were, 'six tangerines, four bitter lemons, two pomegranates, two mulberry trees and a tall leaning walnut'--far too many for so small a space. But the view from the first floor balcony--over the village and the Abbey towards Kyrenia and the sea--rendered both Sabri and Durrell speechless. Regardless of all the potential problems, his mind was made up.

Houses like these are bottomless pits for restoration cash. The present owner spent a vast sum on repairs in 2006 and, within six months, salt was already seeping through the newly plastered walls. Nevertheless the house, called Bitter Lemons, is one of the more prosperous-looking dwellings in the village where its lemon-painted walls stand out. Above the door is a plaque giving the dates of Durrell's occupation. Visitors tackling the climb today who are fortunate enough to arrive while Matthew Shorrock (the present owner's brother) is in residence will find those great carved wooden doors wide open at 11.30 am every day (except Sunday) and a warm welcome waiting. Stepping into the cool, dimly-lit hall, they are offered a refreshing glass of mineral water before being invited into a comfortably furnished sitting room--the room where Durrell found the cow.

Although the house has never been officially open to the public, when Matthew spent an extended holiday there in 2005 he was surprised by the number of Durrell fans who rang the bell asking to see the inside. He realised there was enough potential interest for some rationalisation of these requests and, having just taken early retirement, he and his wife, Pauline, began advertising talks and tours for a small fee. In the space of a few weeks in 2005 and 2006 they welcomed over a thousand people, averaging eight to fifteen per day. At the suggestion of one of the early visitors he brought out twenty-four copies of Bitter Lemons from England in 2006--and sold them all. Matthew's informal introduction covers a brief biography of Durrell, a history of the house from Durrell's ownership to the present day and some personal stories linking the two.

Durrell was born in India in 1912 and had lived on several Greek islands and the mainland before coming to Cyprus. He spoke fluent Greek and probably knew more about Greek life, history and literature than many of the Bellapais villagers. Thus he was accepted despite being British and the demand for enosis. He married four times: first to Nancy, with whom he had a daughter: Penelope, now in her mid-60s, lives in England and also has a house on Rhodes. His second wife, Eve, from Alexandria, is thought to be the inspiration for the book Justine--the first of the four novels known as the Alexandria Quartet--which Durrell wrote at Bellapais. Eve, though, never lived in Cyprus; she was too ill to leave Alexandria, though their toddler daughter, Saffron, lived with her father and Durrell's mother came from England to look after her. Saffron committed suicide aged twenty-nine. Durrell moved to the south of France in 1957, remaining there until his death in 1990, and both his third and fourth wives were French: Claude and Ghislaine, the latter being the only one to survive him. He is buried at Frommiere, near Avignon.

After Durrell left, Bitter Lemons had a rather chequered existence with several absentee or neglectful owners until Colonel David Baxter, an army officer, bought it in 1975. He married Matthew's sister Hilary in the 1980s but, because of army postings, they spent very little time in Cyprus and Colonel Baxter was killed (diving for sunken treasure off the Cape Verde Islands) in 1996. Deciding to sell the house, Hilary appointed none other than estate agent Sabri, with an asking price of [pounds sterling]165,000. But this time the deal fell through, much to the relief of her two teenage daughters who had not wanted her to sell it. Hilary, now remarried, lives on Majorca and rents out Bitter Lemons to holiday-makers (currently at [pounds sterling]400 per week).

While researching for his talk Matthew discovered that Sabri became a major figure in the Turkish Mafia and was murdered--at the second attempt--around 2000. Panos, a Greek teacher, the first Cypriot to befriend Durrell, and with whom he lodged before buying Bitter Lemons, was also murdered though no reason was established. By an amazing coincidence, while in a Kyrenia carpet shop in 2005 Matthew came across one of Durrell's former students from the Nicosia Gymnasium. This gentleman--a Greek--had left Cyprus in 1963 because he refused to be told he must not speak to his Turkish friends and now has a textile importing business in England. He, like so many people who knew him, spoke well of Durrell; he seems to have been a much loved and very popular figure on the island.

Just around the corner from Bitter Lemons is the Gardens of Irini, a bistro owned by Dierdre Guthrie who remembers Durrell as a very kind person, though more serious than his rather better-known brother Gerald (of My Family and Other Animals fame) who was relaxed, with a strong sense of humour. Once, when Gerald was staying, Dierdre recalls joining a family expedition up into the mountains on donkey-back and, when she had been in hospital, Durrell organised a donkey to bring her home. She also recalls Durrell becoming a very cautious driver: after an accident he never drove faster than 25 mph.

Dierdre's parents first came to Kyrenia in 1948 and bought a house--another delapidated Bellapais property--four years later. She was a teenager when she knew Durrell, remembers Saffron as a very beautiful child with large almond eyes and is still in contact with Penelope. Over an excellent light lunch, a drink or a full evening meal (if booked in advance) Dierdre has some amazing stories to tell: of Durrell, his family, her own family--her grandfather was the well-known Glasgow painter Sir James Guthrie (1859-1930)--and her life as a professional flamenco dancer; trained at London's Royal Academy she toured internationally and has a wonderful collection of photographs and paintings.

Besides Durrell's family, Bitter Lemons has hosted many well-known visitors. Some of these are mentioned in the book, e.g. the travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor and the intrepid traveller and writer Dame Freya Stark. Dierdre recalls the latter bringing a lovely doll as a present for Saffron. Others who have stayed at the house include film director Ingmar Bergman and the newscaster Sandy Gall with his family.

After Matthew's talk, present-day visitors are free to explore the house, which is built on three levels. The ground floor has the sitting room, a dining room and kitchen. Below that is the study with the table at which it is thought Durrell wrote, a bedroom and bathroom. Above are more bedrooms, the small, rather oddly-shaped sitting room made for Durrell's mother and a bathroom with what must be the most spectacular view in the world--the same as that from the terrace which had captivated Durrell--and that terrace itself. Although improvements and modernisation have taken place in the last fifty years, as many original features as possible have been retained by the present owner. The fireplaces were kept, the wooden window frames and the marble (imported from Italy) in the dining room and bathroom would all be recognised by Durrell. So, too, would the vine which Panos had sent specially from Paphos as a present. Durrell removed some of the trees from the overgrown garden but the rest--and the vine--still flourish. Here, at small tables under their shade, visitors conclude the tour with coffee, tea and homemade cake or biscuits.

The determination shown by Durrell in acquiring and making Bitter Lemons habitable has to be almost matched by the effort required by visitors to reach it. But that effort is rewarded with a fascinating insight into a few years in the life of a prolific, if somewhat neglected, author.

Irene Waters is a retired lecturer who enjoys off-the-beaten track travel. All quotations are from Lawrence Durrell, Bitter Lemons of Cyprus (Faber and Faber, 1957).


While Chief of Staff of the UN Force in Cyprus during 1972-1974 we lived in Nicosia but rented, as a week-end refuge from the capital's incessant cocktail-party round, the house in the Greek Cypriot village of Bellapais made famous by Lawrence Durrell (which we christened Bitter Lemons House). It was then owned by a Swedish lady, who had preserved its character as a typical Cypriot village house much as left by Lawrence Durrell. There we were able to relax amid friendly villagers, the sounds of their animals, and the aromas of their cooking. (The small garden included a lemon tree that all the year round produced a prolific supply of excellent fruit.)

The last night that we were able to spend there, Sunday 14th July 1974 (the day before the coup d'etat that unseated Archbishop Makarios) is described in my A Business Of Some Heat:

'That Sunday evening, for what was to be the last time, we watched from a vine-covered verandah in Bellapais the glowing sun sink slowly into the sea and the twinkling lights of Kyrenia far below assert themselves in the gathering summer night. There was still no inkling ... that the old order was about to be shattered in a crisis of international proportions'.

For some weeks subsequently the house was occupied by Greek Cypriot refugees until all were expelled from the village. We found that none of our personal possessions left in the house had been looted.

Meeting Lawrence Durrell in London in 1975 we told him what had become of Bitter Lemons House during the fighting of 1974, whereupon he inscribed and signed for us a copy of his book 'for the Bringers of good news'.

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Title Annotation:author Lawrence Durrell's home
Author:Waters, Irene
Publication:Contemporary Review
Geographic Code:4EXCY
Date:Jun 22, 2007
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