The first thing to understand about Blue Guides is: they're not for everyone. In particular, they aren't for people who only want to have to take along a single guidebook when they travel. Although in recent years the series has begun to include some fairly sketchy data about hotels and restaurants, information about where to stay, eat or shop has never been the raison d'etre of this series. Rather, the purpose of the Blue Guides has always been to provide accurate and astonishingly comprehensive information about the history, architecture, art history, and literary associations of the countries or regions each guide covers. For those purposes, the Blue Guide has no peer. (The series has also always been distinguished by the abundance and excellence of its maps, city plans, and museum floor plans.) If you want to travel, miss nothing of any interest or significance, and come back with your mind much enriched and primed for further reading and exploration, then you're one of the people Blue Guides are written for.
Traditionally, Blue Guides were known for being authoritative and reliable, but the writing was typically understated and restrained. That began to change a few years ago, and now -- just as with the New York Times -- Blue Guide authors no longer shy away from writing marked by local color, word pictures, and individuality. At the same time, the series retains its old virtues of exhaustive research, accuracy, and comprehensiveness.
Bernard McDonagh, the author of the Blue Guide: Turkey, is the Michelangelo of the new model Blue Guides. He began by authoring a volume for the series on Turkey's Aegean and Mediterranean coasts, which was widely acclaimed, and then expanded it to cover (almost) the entire country a few years later. I say "almost" because this volume covers Istanbul only in summary fashion, since there is another Blue Guide volume (by the estimable John Freely) that covers that great metropolis in microscopic detail.
The Blue Guide: Turkey's comprehensiveness immediately distinguishes it from the competition. The coverage of the best-known sites like Troy, Ephesus, or Aphrodisias, of course, is superb: Ephesus merits 22 pages, along with one full-page and another two-page plan of the site and its environs, and Aphrodisias gets 10 pages. But lesser-known sites like Assos, Priene, and many others that might receive a paragraph in most guidebooks are also covered in detail, usually with an excellent plan. Indeed, the book includes no less than 45 site plans of archaeological sites, including such relatively obscure ones as Nysa, Labraynda, Limyra, Sillyum, Sura, and Uzuncaburc.
For years, the secret behind the Blue Guide's comprehensiveness was its authors' willingness to mine obscure archaeological excavation reports and 18th and 19th century traveler's accounts for nuggets of information that would have escaped the less diligent. McDonagh lifts the veil on this technique, often quoting at length from the impressions of visitors from centuries past. And these are anything but tedious: for example, we have Lord Byron's observation that "The Troad is a fine field for conjecture and snipe-shooting, and a good sportsman and an ingenious scholar may exercise their feet and their faculties upon the spot . . . .", or Pliny's report that the tombs in the necropolis at Assos were made from stone containing "a caustic substance which consumed the flesh of bodies placed in them within 40 days," or the 18th century antiquarian Richard Chandler's recollections of sharing quarters with a Greek family in a sepulcher located amidst the ruins of Iasus.
The great delight and ornament of this volume, are McDonagh's reflections and word pictures, which grace the text the way similes grace the Iliad. A sampling follows.
"In summer the view from the temple [of Athena at Assos] is one of the most beautiful in W Turkey. Across the calm waters of the Bay of Edremit, Lesbos, homeland of the first settlers ion Assos, is clothed in purple haze. Far below lies the little harbour, from which St. Paul sailed on his missionary journeys, while on terraces cut into the steep slope of the hill the ruins of the ancient city protrude like sun-dried bones through the maquis."
"Miletus is not one of the most attractive sites in SW Turkey. During late autumn, winter, and early spring much of the area is an unpleasant morass. In summer this becomes a drab brown wilderness covered with thorny scrub. A sense of profound melancholy broods over the ancient city, a feeling of abandonment and decay that is accentuated by a monotonous landscape little relieved by the occasional tall clump of reeds or the jagged stump of a ruined building."
"The dervishes no longer dance in the semahane. The sema is now held in a high school gymnasium in another part of Konya. Presented as an exhibition of folklore, for some it is nothing more. However, others find it a moving religious experience. The dervishes who take part in the sema today live in the world. They are bus mechanics, teachers, schoolboys. They are no longer obliged to submit to the extended novitiate and strict discipline of the past. Yet, when they dance, the air becomes charged with a feeling of great spirituality and the spectators forget the bleak setting in which the sema is being held, are no longer conscious of the icy temperature and discomfort of the unheated arena." "The attraction of Ulucinar lies more in its delightful situation and relaxed atmosphere than its historical associations. To stand on the bridge over the small river and watch the fishermen land their catch, to swim from the clean beach of the Arsuz Hotel, to enjoy an excellent meal on the terrace within a few metres of the sea, these must be sufficient reward for even the most demanding traveller."
Whether you're a first-time visitor to Turkey or a veteran -- or even an armchair traveller -- you could hope for no better companion and guide than Bernard McDonagh.