Above Kyrenia, Northern Cyprus’s main tourist town, perched in the foothills of the Kyrenia Mountain Range, is the unbelievably beautiful village of Bellapais.
The name means “beautiful place,” and for once this is not a misnomer…
There’s an abbey here, built around 1200, of startling architectural fineness with, appropriately, four cypress trees in its courtyard.
Now, I’m not one for hyperbole, but when a friend’s father came from the U.K. to visit, he said it was the most beautiful (I must get the thesaurus out) place he had ever seen.
He didn’t travel much, but, well, I can see where he was coming from.
Getting To Cyprus
When I arrived in Cyprus in 1991, I headed for Bellapais with my girlfriend. We didn’t gasp or swoon when we arrived, but we did sit down and try to take it in.
Traditional Cypriot houses rise above the abbey until the slope makes building impractical. There is a kind of harmony in the architectural style, and as the slope is quite steep, everyone has a view of the Med and the mountain range running towards the Karpaz Peninsula. High buildings are forbidden, so nobody can spoil the view.
Thus enchanted, I rented a place there in 1998. Opposite the abbey, it was part of the complex with an almost identical architectural style. When the real estate agent showed me around, she didn’t have to practice any dark arts whatsoever.
“Yes,” I said.
It was also a stone’s throw from where Gerald Durrell lived and wrote “Bitter Lemons,” a book I recommend to those who want not just facts about Cyprus but also an understanding of the zeitgeist, colors, tones, and emotions.
He famously described the British community, mostly in those days retired colonial administrators and academics, as living lives of “blameless monotony.” Today the community is more diverse, yet the atmosphere is much the same.
At this time, I asked a very lovely Turkish Cypriot lady to marry me. I got down on one knee in the sea off Green Beach, west of Kyrenia. The ring box was sodden, and the waves knocked me off my knee, but never mind.
To my intense relief, she said yes.
Next, we went to ask for her parents’ permission to get married. The Turkish Cypriot tradition is to ask a respectable lady to press your suit for you. This is not due to the language barrier (I speak Turkish perfectly well), but because that’s just how it is.
She spoke most persuasively while my intended bride made the coffee (as is also the tradition) and spilled it with shaking hands while her parents muttered to each other.
I winced a little when my advocate told them that if they said no, we would marry anyway. After a nail-biting half hour, they said yes.
We had another traditional Cypriot thing—the elaborate engagement ceremony. I handed out cigars I had brought in, and my father-in-law to be beamed as if he had won the lottery.
The wedding took place the next year, and it was equally traditional. Those who do not know Turkish Cypriot customs may find it strange to learn that people stand in line to literally pin money on the bride.
Needless to say, neither of us objected to this. A friend put on a rock gig for the occasion, and some objected to the break with tradition, but bad luck. When a Turkish Cypriot and a Brit get married, it’s compromise and sharing.
I carried my new bride across the threshold of the Bellapais house, and we lived there happily for the next few years.
Living In Bellapais
We often lolled in the garden among its mature fruit trees. Cunningly planted, there was a rolling harvest, with one sort of fruit or another to be had at all times of year. The Cypriot climate is very good in this respect.
I learned about what Turkish Cypriots call yediveren. The literal translation is “gives seven times.” For our purposes it means a lemon tree that produces in all seasons.
One irritant was a male dog that had taken a fancy to our female dog and kept plopping into the garden. The walls were quite high, but love conquers all. More with weariness than anger we pulled him out of the front gate, and back he came. Otherwise, there was not much wrong with life in Bellapais…
Tourists would wander in if we left the huge gate open under the mistaken belief that the house was a historical attraction. We would nod and smile and inform them that it was a private residence. But they were welcome to look around as long as there was nothing embarrassing on the washing line.
In the interest of balance, I should also explore the downsides of life in Bellapais, but I can’t think of a serious one…
In the white heat of summer there are many who find life difficult. Not me.
By December you can sit outside in the wintery sunshine. When the rain falls, it is like a light shower on English gardens.
Being only 10 minutes to Kyrenia, we have a huge array of restaurants and gig venues close by… small village tavernas along the littoral scarcely harder to get to.
In the abbey in Bellapais we had the annual classical music festival with the world renowned Turkish Cypriot Ruya Taner tickling the ivories. Khachaturian’s “Spartacus” was put on in the Venetian castle in Kyrenia.
Our Biggest Mistake
Then we made a big mistake. The house we were renting was up for sale for 40,000 pounds (about US$50,000). This is next to nothing, the price of a luxury car. But in 2000 this was a lot of money around here.
We dithered and dithered until someone else snapped it up… And that was that. Physiologically speaking, you can’t kick yourself in the butt. But I would if I could.
We had to move out, with great regret. Yet, as we ended up in a hillside village called Karmi with traditional colorful houses and stupendous views, it wasn’t all bad.
We decided that we’d had enough of renting, and we bought our own place, characterized by olive trees and vines (symbols of Cyprus). That’s where I’m writing to you from…