Freya Stark: Classic Travel Book

Destination: Greece

Book: Ionia: A Quest,  by Freya Stark, new edition of a travel classic

Read a terrific interview with Freya Stark in her eighties.

(This is the third of a series of posts about women travel writers, in conjunction with the release of the movie Eat, Pray, Love)

A road in Ephesus

This book, Ionia: A Quest, tells of a journey that the famous travel writer Freya Stark make in the mid 1950s down the west coast of Turkey. At the time, Greece had only recently withdrawn from the coast of Turkey, lands that have been disputed as long as anyone has been keeping records.

Unlike the current crop of travel writers, who start with themselves and radiate outward, Stark does not  share her personal motivations and she does not travel to heal something in her soul. She ponders larger questions such as the rise and fall of cities. She follows Herodotus,and other classical writers. Herodotus said that he wrote of smaller cities as well as greater, because the great cities were once small and the small ones might some day become great, and she visited the twelve cities (today some would have been minor towns) of classical Ionia.  Stark thinks that there may be some secret to life that these ancients living on the edge of the Aegean had, that we are missing.

…Yet words may reconstruct the landscapes and the thoughts they gave; and the right words have a magic to call up what is not there–the foot as light as thistledown and gone, the robe that is only a silken rustle disappearing, the beam flashing quicker than sight–these things may appear, evoked from their reality as fragments of words or pottery or bronze or marble evoke them, through twenty-five centuries of time.

This passage shows what I think is her strength, combining a poetic presentation with philosophical musings against a factual historical background.  Despite the devotion to historical detail, Stark succumbs to the romanticism that seemed to veil every description of that part of the world from Byron to rather recently. She calls this a “land with history for all its dusty silence.”

I only set foot in Turkey once, but it was a wonderful day that I would like to repeat and extend.  Ken and I arrived by ferry from Athens to Samos, and although the restrictions may have changed, we had to spend the night on the island before making the very short sail to Kusadasi in Turkey. A few days ago, Travellogged wrote this great description of Ephesus, our destination, and one of Freya Stark’s Ionian cities. The site is simply spectacular, but when Stark was there in the mid-1950’s the ruins had not been excavated and reconstructed and the tourist office  told her not to bother.

She actually preferred areas where the ruins still lay scattered on the ground and she was left to conjure the life that once filled the hillsides around them. Today many of those sites have been excavated, at least partially, but there was no tourism industry when Stark was there. Or rather, the only tourists stuck to the shore and heavy drinking, rather than following in the steps of Herodotus, Alexander and Anthony and Cleopatra.

Our trip to Turkey was streamlined and painless compared to the adventures of Freya Stark just forty years before. She explored and wrote about places where women rarely went alone, particularly about the Arab countries. One of the few personal incidents related  in Ionia relates how she had to pay for two beds in a three-bed room in order to assure that she would have privacy in a provincial town in Turkey. She explains that men would have to wash at a basin in the hall, but she brought two basins–one to wash and one to rinse–along with her to ensure her privacy.

As I read, I think that she is writing a book about a forgotten time –not just the time of the Myceneans and the Greeks, but of the post-war period when Turkey was just beginning to become a modern nation, and archaeological tourism had not flooded the coast. But then I remind myself that every travel writer writes for a time in the future that will only dimly understand our present. The quality of travel writing might improve if today’s writers kept that in mind.

Although Stark modestly proclaims her inexperience of Ancient History and provides footnotes for a reader who wishes to learn where she got her opinions, modern readers who know as much as she did or will even be tempted to follow the footnotes are probably rare. If you take on this book, and are tempted to give up because of the piling on of ancient history, just skim the history and read this classic for her personal descriptions of the landscape and people of her own day.

If you are building a shelf of travel classics in your travel library, be sure to include Freya Stark. Her quotes from ancient writers alone brought me much joy, let alone her eloquent writing.

This is another in that great series of re-issued classics from Palgrave-McMillan, who supplied a review copy. I have previously talked about their reissues of Norman Douglas’ Old Calabria and the great guide Strolling Through Istanbul. The photo of Ephesus is from Flickr with a Creative Commons license. Click on the photo for more information on the photographer.

Have you shared your favorite travel classic here? Would you read Freya Stark before touring the west coast of Turkey?

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About Vera Marie Badertscher

A freelance writer who loves to travel. When she is not traveling she is reading about travel. When she is not reading or traveling, she is sharing with the readers of A Traveler's Library, or recreating her family's past at Ancestors In Aprons . She has written for Reel Life With Jane, Life is a Trip and other websites. Also co-author of a biography, Quincy Tahoma, The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist. Contact Vera Marie by e-mail.

7 thoughts on “Freya Stark: Classic Travel Book

  1. OMG! What a fascinating lady. Never heard of her before, until your article. I’ll have to look for her work. And yes, I’d definitely read her books before going to Turkey. Great post. Thanks!


  2. Oh, Jackie, I’m sorry that you’ve only seen it on a cruise ship tour. They seem to be rushed and crowded. We felt like we had all the time in the world to wander (could have hired an individual guide to walk with us to enhance our knowledge, but didn’t). When we hit a place where the umbrella-people were gathered, we just went to the next little ruin and then went back when the crowd cleared out.
    And Alexandra, I know Sven loves history, but keeping up with all the knowledge in Freya’s book might challenge him.
    This was my first Freya Stark and I’m eager to read some of her Arabian adventures.

  3. My husband longs to visit Turkey. I think I would suggest he read this book, but he would probably skim it. He already knows so much history. It was interesting to know many of the sites have already been excavated.

  4. I had been considering one of Stark’s books after having re-read Frances Mayes, “A Year in the World” . . .in which she repeatedly made references to Freya’s travel writings. This just may be the book I am looking for!

    I am currently reading H.V. Morton’s “In the Steps of St. Paul” first published in 1938 and in which he described his visit to Ephesus as ‘having no sign of life but a goat-herd leaning on a broken sarcophagus. . .”

    Our visit to Ephesus two years ago as part of a cruise land-tour package was in stark contrast to Morton’s experience; tourism has caught on, I guess. We were caught in a crush of hundreds of visitors, all in small groups following the traditional tour-leader-with-umbrella, each calling out to ‘keep moving, keep moving’. The magnificent amphitheatre prompted many tourists to stand on the stage and try their hand at singing. There may be a way to still see Ephesus and capture the magic of the place; I am not sure a cruise ship tour is the way to do it though.

  5. I have heard of this author, but I am intrigued now. Time to download another book onto the nook! Thank you for sharing. Loved the interview you linked to…”They still have the old fashioned ways. You can’t buy bread, you know: the Headman came with the flat bread they make to offer it to us as strangers – always given, never sold. Such a nice man.” -r

  6. “But then I remind myself that every travel writer writes for a time in the future that will only dimly understand our present. The quality of travel writing might improve if today’s writers kept that in mind.” excellent point.

    my major professor in undergraduate school– an art historian — spent the summer exlporing Turkey one year, and came back with many stories and photographs, and much enthusiasm for the country and its people, to share with us. still remember that.

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