ASOLO, Italy -- Dame Freya Stark, world famous as an explorer and writer of exotic travel books, has died in her home in Asolo, some 40 miles northwest of Venice, at the age of 100, friends announced Monday.
The friends said she died of natural causes late Sunday at her home in the Alpine foothills where she had lived for many years. The funeral was to take place in Asolo cathedral on Thursday, with burial in a cemetery of the region.
Stark, who was honored with the British title of Dame several years ago, made her name in the 1930s as an intrepid lone woman traveler in the Middle East and in Tibet, Afghanistan and the Himalayas. On her 100th birthday she received congratulatory letters from Britain's Queen Elizabeth II and the Queen Mother.
She was famous for her indomitable, independent character. At the age of 90 she scared off young burglars at her villa in Asolo by pointing a pistol at them and saying: 'Dear young men, I have six bullets in this gun and an infallible aim. You decide what to do.'
Stark was the last of the line of great British women travelers and authors whose adventures fascinated the stay-at-homes of their time before the relentless advance of tourism brought even the most exotic of locales within reach of the average family.
But few of those before her had the literary gift that led her to be called 'the aristocrat of stylists.' Or the luck to discover in Luristan in Persia, in almost the first of her journeys to the Middle East in 1931, a surviving stronghold of the sect of the Assassins who ruled by dagger and poison for 600 years before the Crusaders went to Asia.
This led to a book, 'The Valley of the Assassins,' that made her famous and other books added to her renown. In 1972 Queen Elizabeth named her a Dame of the British Empire, an honor equivalent to a knighthood. She was still traveling in what others would have considered old age -- riding a pony in the Himalayas at 87 and floating on a raft down the Euphrates for a TV documentary at 85.
Of the Himalayan trek in 1980 that ran into severe blizzards, she said:
'We rode down steep descents, up sharp inclines. One had to stand in the saddle or grip with the knees. I was riding about eight hours a day. '
She did not know her sherpas had a basket to carry her in, if necessary, but it was not needed.
'Of course,' she said, 'my doctor did his best to prevent me from going but I don't think at 87 one ought to be afraid of dying.'
During World War II the British sent her on propaganda tours to explain their Middle East policies and these were accounted a success except in the United States where audiences, aware of her deep committment to Arabia, were not inclined to consider her neutral on the Zionist campaign for a homeland.
The reception rankled. She was quoted as saying at the time that it was obvious only the British were fit to lead and when she crossed into Canada from the United States she said she was glad to be in a country where people did not always think in terms of profit and loss.
She was also founder of the World War II 'Brotherhood of Freedom' in the Middle East whose members were pledged to spread 'gossip' about political liberty. Some skeptics thought the idea of mobilizing gossipers somewhat bizarre but Field Marshal Lord Wavell credited the movement with helping internal security and with keeping down the number of sabotage incidents.
Freya Stark was born Jan. 31, 1893, to two artists married but incompatible. She was educated somewhat haphazardly by governesses. Much later she said: 'The want of a regular education has never caused me any regret. But the absence of beauty has been disappointing'.
As a child and young woman she had a long series of illnesses. During her explorations she suffered from malaria and dysentery which she accepted as occupational hazards. But for all of that she was remarkably hale in octogenarian interviews.
'Spry, astute, witty, well-informed,' was one description of her.
While studying at the School of Oriental Studies in London she began her literary career as an obscure contributor to the Iraq Times. Then, despite her small size -- she was 5 feet 3 and slender -- she set out, usually alone, on her journeys to the wilder corners of the world, especially Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Syria, Arabia.
She once said: 'I have never traveled to write. I have always traveled to explore.'
But her trips inspired more than 20 travel books and six volumes of her collected letters.
One of her best known books, 'Dust In the Lion's Paw,' (1961) recounted the siege of the British Embassy in Baghdad in which she smuggled face powder into the compound although there was danger of massacre.
'A woman asked if I didn't think it time for us to give up using our lipsticks,' she recalled, whereto she replied: 'I mean to be killed, if it comes to that, with my face in proper order.'
She was at home in desert gear but in western cities loved good clothes and never missed the Paris collections if she was in Europe. She once arrived for a Paris showing strapped to a chair on top of a truck because she had broken her leg and it was encased in plaster.
She was awarded many honors, among them the Founders Gold Medal of the Royal Geographical Society and the Sykes Memorial Medal of the Royal Central Asian Society for services to literature and travel. She was the first woman to receive the Royal Geographical medal.
In 1947 she married Stewart Perowne, diplomat, author and amateur archaeologist who discovered the lost city of Aziris in 1941. She lived in Asolo, Treviso, Italy in a house with a sumptuous marble bathroom especially designed for her.
She liked to claim that her interest in Arab lands stemmed from her conviction that oil 'would become of great importance in my lifetime.'
Asked in old age what she missed most in life she said:
'I miss mountaineering and walking. I regret being more or less tied to these wretched asphalt roads. My whole object in life was to get away from the motor car.'