MOST of my best traveling companions never took a trip with me. Freya Stark, George Bean, David Trump, J.D.S. Pendlebury, the redoubtable Karl Baedecker, and the anonymous wayfarers of the Work Projects Administration made their journeys long before I did.
There is a place for the modern, objective guidebook, but I have a predilection for the writing of the old-fashioned cicerones, like Karl Baedecker (1801-1859). The series of European travel books originated by Baedecker and revised for more than a hundred years, was intended to relieve travelers of the need for a private guide. Yet these texts never lost the flavor of personal contact.
Baedecker was forever slipping into opinion. Like an avuncular tour leader, he urged diners to remain at the table a little longer and prompted tourists to walk all the way around the ch^ateau. The old Baedecker guides cajoled me, and generations of tourists, into seeing more of Europe.
Reading old guidebooks is like having a chat with a fidgety, well-traveled friend. For me, the American Guide Series, compiled by the writers' program of the WPA during the Depression, remains one of the best guides to those few states lucky enough to have been chosen to receive attention.
Written and compiled by unemployed freelance writers, the text in these books is engagingly uneven. Sometimes the writing is overgrown with adjectives, as in this account of the view to Cayuga Lake from the Cornell University campus: ``the blue-green waters of the winding lake ... its waters reflecting the roseate hues of the barred clouds....'' But more frequently one encounters a lean, congenial, faintly homesick picture-making: ``The villages are much alike, each with its Main Street, general store, candy kitchen, and, in the larger ones, a Bijou or Roseland cinema palace.''
As a child whose parents thought James Fenimore Cooper was the perfect guide to central New York State, I learned early that travel books need not be current. They need not even be prose.
Under a punishing August sun, at the reputed site of ancient Troy, near the statue of My Little Pony erected as a replica of the famous hollow horse, as the entrance line moved more slowly than the becalmed ships of Agamemnon, it paid to have a paperback of the ``Iliad'' with which to contemplate the brass-clad Greeks and the Trojan warriors, who rolled the woeful tide of war across this plain, long before it became a parking lot.
Lord Byron's song for ``the Isles of Greece/Where burning Sappho loved and sung,'' has the same cadence as the laboring engines of the boats that take you there, and Robert Browning's dramatic monologues acquire a special savor read in Italy. Still, for recent treks, I have turned to the reflections of amateur and professional archaeologists, whose love of people and sense of place generously augments their academic writing.
I cannot recall which borrowed book sent me to the austere Greek temple of Apollo at Bassae, lodged imperiously overlooking the ravine country that has lent the place its name. But I shall never forget the remarkably preserved temple, sheathed in scaffolding, nor the descent to the sea, which required driving down creek beds and along narrow, rock-strewn, switch-back roads.
I know exactly who and what lured me to Crete. It was a remark made by J.D.S. Pendlebury in his handbook to the palace of the legendary King Minos at Knossos. ``It is not reported that Minos declared, `I'm tired of Middle Minoan III, let Late Minoan I begin,''' Pendlebury wryly observed.
Pendlebury's book on ``The Archeology of Crete'' may be technically out-of-date, but I would have no other primer. He wrote with a cheerful matter-of-factness, animated by a passion for Crete, whose landscape he traversed along an extensive network of footpaths and goat trails during the 1930s.
Years after my trip, I learned that Pendlebury was not only an archaeologist, but also a secret agent, who helped to train the people of Crete for guerrilla warfare against the Nazis. He was killed by a Nazi parachutist and buried in a simple grave on Crete, in a military cemetery where many of those who fought the fierce Nazi invasion of the island now rest.
David Trump's book, ``Malta: An Archaeological Guide,'' purchased for a dime at a library book sale, enticed me to visit that series of little islands. Trump worked as curator of archaeology at the National Museum of Malta for several years, and he spent his spare time investigating the prehistoric remains on the Maltese islands. Trump sent travelers to the islands' megalithic tombs and temples. But unlike other guides, he directed readers to the cart-ruts, unexplained mazes of parallel grooves in the bare rock, which look like channels made by wagon wheels, except that they unexplainably disappear in the middle of a field, or, even more mysteriously, run over sheer cliffs into the sea.
Some day I hope to retrace Freya Stark's travels in the Middle East and the Arabian peninsula. Her books on Turkey, especially the perennial favorite, ``Alexander's Path,'' have seasoned my trips there.
Admittedly, Stark makes some historical errors, but they occur for the very reason that her writing is so compelling. Stark's mind is always churning; she likes to figure things out for herself rather than to look them up. Lawrence Durrell approvingly noted the intensity of her introspective, which allowed her to make an inward journey as she covered ground.
Stark had infectiously high expectations for travel, and for herself. ``On this, the second of my Turkish journeys,'' she scolded herself, ``I still spoke very little of the language.'' Me, too.
Freya Stark knew George Bean, the expatriate Cambridge professor, who taught classics at the University of Istanbul and trekked Anatolia for more than 20 years. Separately, they traveled through much of the same territory, and I like to think of them as friendly rivals for archaeological information.
Like Stark, Bean wrote for curious lay readers. Specialists, he said, would find too much in his books that they already knew. Too bad if specialists took his advice and bypassed reading Bean. He gave ancient history the verve and immediacy of the evening news. His books on the ancient Greek cities of Asia Minor, replete with extremely helpful plans and sketches by Mrs. Bean, are a joy to use.
Travel literature, which makes up a respectable share of the current boom in nonfiction writing, has changed a great deal in the last 20 years. While I appreciate the ruminations of Stark and Bean, I also realize that they traveled like neocolonialists. However sensitive they were to other cultures - and they were keenly sensitive - they still carried with them the silent surmise of superior cultural attainment.
If Freya Stark had discovered that Rambo videos were popular in the Far East, she might not have mentioned it, or she might have reported her own bruised innocence. But when Pico Iyer experienced the current Nepalese fascination with home video rentals in his 1988 book, ``Video Night in Kathmandu,'' he refused to negatively inflect it.
More recently travel writing, like the late Bruce Chatwin's ``What Am I Doing Here?'' or Thurston Clarke's ``Equator,'' observes the present, not the remains of the past in the present.
Much of this prose is gentle and self-effacing; authors are not poised to seek purity, or lost purity, among the locals. Cultural naivet'e has been replaced by an interactive, nonjudgmental attitude toward other cultures. Nevertheless, the effects of western materialism and environmental degradation emerge as major themes.
It is too soon to tell if the change from sightseer to insight-seeker is simply the product of increased travel by independent travelers, or whether it reflects more enduring geopolitical realities. Still, the combination of worldliness and cultural modesty is producing some fine writing for readers who never travel farther than the back-porch swing - and for those who do.
WHAT AM I DOING HERE
by Bruce Chatwin, New York: Viking, 1989
A collection of articles published over the last two decades by the late novelist. A compulsive traveler, Chatwin sought the company of adventurers, like the Shertas in Tibet and French cultural critic, Andr'e Malraux.
EQUATOR: A JOURNEY
by Thurston Clarke, New York: William Morrow 1988
A witty and poignant trek around the world's middle. Clark meets people easily. Among them, King George of Abemama, a Micronesian monarch who wears novelty T-shirts and plastic flip-flops.
VIDEO NIGHT IN KATHMANDU
by Pico Iyer, New York: Alfred A. Knopf 1988
Clever, occasionally exasperating, sound-bites on the influence of Western culture in contemporary Asia. Not for those seeking Shangri-La.
THE ARCHAEOLOGY OF CRETE: AN INTRODUCTION
by J.D.S. Pendlebury, New York: The Norton, Library, 1965
Pendlebury was a modest, self-effacing archaeologist, and a secret agent. A real-life Indiana Jones. Written in 1939, this book remains a good, general guide to the mysterious Minoan culture of Crete.
by Freya Stark, New York: Overlook Press 1988
By jeep, by horse, and on foot, Stark follows Alexander the Great through Anatolia. Life in modern Turkey mingles with an imaginary reconstruction of the landscape Alexander might have seen.
THE JOURNEY'S ECHO: SELECTIONS FROM FREYA STARK
by Freya Stark, New York: Echo Press, 1988
A Stark sampler filled with tangy aphorisms: ``I am naturally disposed to take the unexpected easily, and therefore belong to that half of the human race whose enjoyment of life seems to annoy the other half.''
THE WPA GUIDE TO AMERICA
Bernard A. Weisberger, editor, New York: Pantheon, 1985
After more than 50 years, this portrait of America before expressways and VCRs has become a literary epic. The guides to individual states as well as New York City, Washington, D.C., and New Orleans are frequently reprinted.