Almost exactly halfway between St Hilarion and Buffavento is the flower-bedecked village of Bellapais, a tangle of narrow lanes and steep hills, with fine views down to Girne’s modern harbour. The village is synonymous with its medieval abbey, one of the most beautiful in the eastern Mediterranean. Yet, it’s not just the abbey that makes Bellapais so popular – one of its principal cheerleaders was English author Lawrence Durrell, who lived here in the 1950s and included detailed descriptions of the village and its inhabitants in his book Bitter Lemons. Bellapais is one of the principal tour-stops on the island, so it is often packed. Try to avoid high season and late morning/early afternoon.
Bellapais abbey was founded by the second Lusignan ruler Aimery to house Augustinian monks expelled from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre when Jerusalem fell to Saladin in 1187. Known as the “Abbaye de la Paix” or the Abbey of Peace, most of what remains dates from the period 1267–84, with the cloisters and refectory being added in 1324–59. In its early years the monastery adopted strict Premonstratensian beliefs, but as time went on it started to earn a name for a variety of corrupt practices, where monks ate and drank to excess, took wives (sometimes two or three), had children, and would then only accept their own sons into the monastery as novices. Though it built up considerable wealth, its treasure was plundered by the Genoese in 1373. After the Ottoman Conquest in 1571 the abbey became derelict, and was raided for its dressed building stone – only the church escaped, as it continued to be used for worship by the local Greek Orthodox community. Vandalization of the monastery continued under the British, who even used the refectory as a rifle range.
Bellapais Abbey stands on a small square with trees, lawns, flowerbeds and park benches. Having bought tickets, you can walk through the entrance gateway whose ruins indicate that it was once heavily fortified. Nearby is the enviably sited Kybele Restaurant, which occupies the abbey’s kitchen court, and a set of steps to the abbey’s lofty medieval tower, topped by the vivid red and white of the Turkish and TRNC flags; despite signs warning that it’s not safe to climb, the tower is far too seductive a photo opportunity for most visitors. Beyond here a tree-shaded courtyard leads to the church, the most complete part of the monastery. Unlike Western monasteries it is flat roofed, with a rather dark, gloomy interior. To the north of the church are the cloisters, the most atmospheric part of the abbey, three sides of which are in reasonable condition, but the fourth (western) side is ruined. The four rather large poplar trees in the quadrangle, planted in 1940, are home to a loud colony of sparrows. To the north of the cloisters, with access through a superb doorway with dog-tooth edges and three Lusignan coats of arms, is the refectory. Some 30m long, 10m wide and 12m high, it is covered by a single-span stone vaulted roof, an architectural triumph considering that it stands right at the edge of a cliff. At the far end (the end with the small rose window) stood the Abbot’s high table, with, along the length of the north and south walls, the long tables of the ordinary monks. On the north wall is a small pulpit from where scriptures would be read to the diners silently munching below. Outside the refectory is a fountain where the monks would wash their hands before eating. If you look carefully you can make out the Roman sarcophagus into which it has been incorporated
Lawrence Durrell’s House
Lawrence Durrell’s House
Lawrence Durrel lived in Bellapais from 1953–56, detailing his experience in Bitter Lemons. To find his home, walk up from the abbey square along Aci Limon Sokak which climbs past the Tatlisulu market – there is a small hand-painted sign “Bitter Lemons 400m up on left” attached to a telegraph pole and pointing skywards. Another sign further up indicates that you’re nearly there but should really visit the Gardens of Irini guesthouse. Durrell’s house (dated 1893) is large and yellow, with brown doors and window shutters and a wooden-fenced roof terrace. In case you were in any doubt, there’s a ceramic plaque above the door. Across the road is the public water fountain (marked “ER 1953”) which played a prominent part in the tortuous and hilarious process of buying the house – the sale takes up a whole chapter in the book.
Another chapter of the book is devoted to the “Tree of Idleness” that stands opposite the abbey. Durrell was warned never to sit under it because “its shadow incapacitates one for serious work”, a belief that arose from the idle hours spent by many villagers under the tree. It is now the centrepiece of a rather good restaurant.