MODERN BRITISH DRAGOMANS
The modern Dragoman is a curious beast: a scholar and a guide with a whiff of both the adventurer and the tutor about them. They are free spirits, rejected at birth by a career in the Foreign Office, but who need to supplement the money they earn through their books or their art. So they help others travel, mostly for the sheer uplifting fun of it.
But what on earth is a Dragoman?
The heyday of the Dragoman, both in terms of dress-sense and power, was back in Ottoman Istanbul where clever Levantine Christians were appointed to act as ‘interpreters’ to the various foreign ambassadors. They themselves were watched over by a First Dragoman, to whom they would often be asked to report on the real motivation of the foreign ambassadors they served and so were expected, at the very least, to be double agents. They lived by their wits, dressed like locals, spoke the seven languages of the Levant (Arabic, Turkish, Greek, Persian, Armenian, French and Italian) as well as mastering English, Dutch, Spanish, Austrian and Russian, the better to serve and understand their masters. Their employers were dependent on them, not just for the fine tuning of a diplomatic note but for sourcing the best cooks, hiring Albanian bodyguards, Greek maids, Jewish tailors and Turkish gardeners, as well as for arranging hunting parties in the winter and up-country expeditions in the spring or autumn. Some became so indispensable that they established dynasties which loyally served a particular Embassy for generations, and in retirement set up cosmopolitan salons open to the savants of both East and West. Others fell foul of the Sultan and ended their days in poverty and disgrace, or like the Mavrocordatas family, achieved all three fates before emerging as Princes of Moldavia.
The British Dragoman has always been a paler, but also a much freer species. They take some of their plummage from the scholar-rectors who guided the young Milords through the drawing rooms, classical ruins and courtesans of an 18th-century Grand Tour. More recent role models pioneered the post-war learning holiday with Swan Hellenic cruises and Serenissima journeys. To visit Palermo and Venice without John Julius Norwich, to travel across India without Serena Fass, to plot a walk without Miles Jebb or an Aegean cruise without listening to Mortimer Wheeler, was unthinkable. Those who had the good fortune to hear Dominique de Grunne tell of the Battle of Waterloo stood in a direct line of descent from those who once listened to blind Homer tell of Ajax and Achilles.
But there cautionary tales that should also be listened too, pointing out the perils of their care-free life, of travelling way beyond their means at the expense of others, of ordering meals like a host, but acting the guest when the bill comes. The modern Dragoman must guard against becoming one of those literary anti-heroes who specialised in ingratiating themselves into munificent households, and pay for their place around the dinner table with charm and icy wit. Sammy Samgras in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited is a devastating portrait of a snobbish, greedy, simpering don battening off the noblesse and largesse of the Marchmonts. The scrounging Prince Yakimoff, sweeping in and out of the foyers of grand hotels in a magnificent greatcoat whilst stalking out a likely free meal, is one of Olivia Manning’s finest creations within The Balkan Trilogy.
Do I want a Dragoman all for myself?
The modern British Dragoman does not tend to advertise his services but prefers to work through a network of old travelling companions. Business cards are rare. You are more likely to get a telephone number or an E-mail address scribbled in the title page of one of their own books, or on a flyer at the end of a lecture or a gallery opening.
Trips are usually planned over supper with friends of friends, marking out a route over a much folded, wine-stained, heavily annotated map. A Dragoman guide is often stronger on passion and picnics than time-keeping, and is almost certainly the last to wish to leave the bar and go to bed, and the first to suggest a river swim, or to take a break from church architecture in a favourite bar that ‘last time’ had some unusual musicians.
They also tend to give short shrift to the habitual run of ‘must-see sites’ in favour of a rarer, finer experience: a forgotten temple ruin, a house museum or an old weaving mill on its last legs, not to mention a favourite place in which to witness the sunset. Despite paying their bills, with something on account for the pleasures of their company, do not expect them to be remotely interested in the state of your hotel bed linen, the whereabouts of a bath plug or the timing of lunch. But if you express an interest in returning to that ruined monastery ‘one more time - perhaps at dawn?’ – or in trying out an unusual dish that you once read about, or your son wonders if it would be possible to explore a dangerous looking ancient catacomb, or your old mother would like to dance one more time on the remembered restaurant table-top of her youth, then you will find a wild gleam of conspiratorial enthusiasm in a pair of eyes that sees possibilities where others just see problems.
Flexibility, round-the-clock enthusiasm and local knowledge are what they offer, for groups of half a dozen friends or two or three families with teenage children. If you want punctuality, the precise delivery of a printed programme at an all-inclusive and exact price, you should book yourself onto a regular cultural tour agency. The money side of things is not always possible to predict. Sometimes a Dragoman will plan and accompany a group in exchange for being treated as a paid-for guest, but on other occasions they will want a fee of between 250 and 500 pounds a day. Others will arrange everything at a price per head, usually without airfares and with the expectation that all bar and restaurant bills will be paid for by their customer-travelling companions. They are good tippers themselves but would never expect to be thanked with anything other than a letter themselves – ideally tucked into an interesting volume or pasted on the back of an old print.
Anne offers up to others that which transformed her own life when, aged 18, she seized the opportunity to live and study art in Florence. A mother of three, she is married to the Scottish artist Hugh Buchanan (www.hughbuchanan.co.uk) and has taught art history in Edinburgh for some 28 years. So Anne pours her energy into plotting just four trips a year, creating journeys for groups of three or four families that entertain the parents whilst aspiring to enthral their art-loving children. The trips are always based on intimate, family-run hotels to create the informal atmosphere of a house party abroad but are animated by her own charismatic energy partly inspired by the fascination of a Somerset-born girl for her alternative European identity, as the child of a refugee from the ancient family of De Rohan. As a result, alongside Florence, Venice, Malta and Rome, Anne plots shorter long-weekend visits to such Mittel-European capitals of culture as Munich, Vienna and Salzburg, assisted (when he is permitted) by drawing lessons from her husband Hugh, who creates brilliant, draughtsman-like architectural watercolours flecked with ennui and richly observed light. Those under the age of 8 are guided by Sarah Kettlewell, who produces with them a sketchbook and completed painting in a few days.
Anne’s favourite memory is of being interrupted in mid-spiel in the Borghese gallery by a teenage boy, who told her that he had had enough of this sculpture, but that what he desperately wanted to know was about the man who could make “that picture” – turning round to point an excited finger at Caravaggio’s St Jerome.
"I have been on many of Ann’s courses, either on my own or with my husband and ‘A’ level History of Art daughter. The delights of travelling and seeing works of art with Ann are legendary. She has the ability to excite one’s mind with the art, find quirky and wonderful places to stay, not to mention the best food! I cannot recommend travels with the Buchanan family more; we learn, we laugh and we all go back." (Judy Nichol, Perthshire)
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Kayta Galitzine is a part of the White Russian diaspora in Britain, who I had the good fortune to first meet standing beside an Orthodox Priest at an outdoor baptism at a Scottish castle. Katya learned her history, her identity and her rich fund of stories at the knee of her father, Prince George Galitzine, who was himself an accomplished Dragoman of the old school and the most popular guest lecturer to Russia in the 1980s. Ten years of living through the extraordinary transformation of Soviet Leningrad to modern St Petersburg between 1989 to 1999 concluded with the publication of Katya’s book, Hidden Interiors of St Petersburg. Whilst the creation of the Galitzine library, in an her grandmother’s old family home on the Fontaka, she and her mother have created a fitting and a living memorial to the Anglo-Russian cultural exchange. She keeps her eye-in by escorting private trips to St Petersburg, achieving special access to palace apartments, theatres, contemporary artist studios and museum vaults. She combines her own enthusiasm and charm with the professional back-up of her husband’s travel company, Steppes Travel. This allows Katya to cope with seemingly any number, from a single individual to forty - from Martha Gelhorn tracking down a dissident writer, to arranging trips for Mick Jagger, Duran-Duran or the ‘Kents’. The only thing she needs from clients is to be ‘ready to fall in love with Russia’, and to be ‘prepared to go for it’.
They have responded:
“Love seeing Russia through your eyes.”
“Great fun, but found I was learning new things every day”
Mobile telephone 07812 566 089
Anthony is a man of letters: a prolific journalist and a regular book reviewer for the Sunday Times, the Literary Review, Spectator and the TLS. He sits on the editorial board of the Geographical Magazine, contributes thoughtful radio pieces on Arabic culture to the BBC, lectures at the RGS, debates at book festivals and contributes historical essays to beef up new editions of Lonely Planet guidebooks. He is also the author of four books about Egypt and the Sahara of enduring worth: The Pharaohs Shadow: travels in Ancient and Modern Egypt, Lifting the Veil, The Gates of Africa and A Winter on the Nile.
Fortunately for travellers in search of enchantment he abandons London literary life for two months in the autumn and becomes a pied piper instead. He escorts travellers up the Nile, where “history is constantly on your shoulder” collecting stories and re-telling the many tales of Egypt. Anthony rents a Dahabiya from a pair of raffishly charming friends (this is a wide pleasure barge, such as used by Cleopatra, Hadrian and Flaubert). It has just ten double berth, lanteen sails, a deck arranged like a Levantine drawing room and a rudder tackle that creaks in the soft winds. After a morning watching the banks of the Nile, followed perhaps by an exhibition to search out little-visited antiquities ashore, with a swim arranged for those young at heart , there, is no greater pleasure to sit down with the first drink of the day and hear Antony talk of the duality of Seth and Osiris, or the festivals of divine marriage that once criss-crossed the Nile with sacred craft, or how both Florence Nightingale and Gustave Flaubert (in their very different natures and temperaments) discovered their true natures during the course of a winter on the Nile.
Fine Art Travel, 13 Old Burlington Street, London W1S 3AJ, tel 020-7437-8553, E firstname.lastname@example.org, janerae@fineart travel.co.uk, web www.finearttravel.co.uk
Charles is as close to running a business from his role as a Dragoman art-lover as anyone on this list, though once you meet him you realise that his head is fortunately still totally in the clouds. When I asked him what were the benefits of running Fine Art Travel, he told me that it was still ‘the surprises.’ He remembered the bristling of a very pucker British group into the memorial-like Frauenkirche at Dresden as the Teutonic church warden ordered them to sit still in a row of chairs. But once Bach’s Prelude got started, the entire group were one by one reduced to tears.
Charles looks back on a teenage stay with Freya Stark in Asolo as the beginning of his love for both travel and Italian renaissance art. This was followed by a gap-year in Venice, studying History of Art at Cambridge and a job in the Old Masters department of a London auction house, where he suggested setting up tours to see pictures still hanging in their original private collections. His employers at Christie’s declined, so he set up the business with Jane Rae who shares his passion for art history and brought in her own meticulous professionalism. They bring in outsider lecturers - Robin Lane-Fox, Roy Strong, Boris Johnson, Philip Mansel and Grey Gowrie - to add spice to their tours, and through Charles’s network of Ducal cousins and contacts “can open any door in Europe”. Such as that of the Duchess of Alba, where the portraits of her ancestors as done by Titian and Goya, still hang on the original palace walls – with the added frisson that Goya was the reputed lover of the Duchess of Alba of his day. Five day tours of the great houses and private collections of Rome, Florence, Venice, Madrid and Istanbul are their regular stamping grounds, their clients ‘everyone from duchesses to millionaire great collectors.’
“What a terrific tour! It was a joy to explore Istanbul in such erudite company and I felt I'd learnt a lot whilst having a very jolly time and with every comfort in that exceedingly good hotel” .... Lady Shaw Stewart
"I have become an addict of Fine Art Travel. My first trip was to Naples in 2009 and I am now about to embark on my 8th. Charles is so knowledgeable and interesting and kind and has an entree to so many wonderful private palaces and houses" .... Angela Hood
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Much to the surprise of his friends, who have been hard put to keep up with his many careers (which have included to my certain knowledge: mushroom farming, a restaurant decorated with Byzantine saints in Notting Hill, teaching the classics in Winchester, running a jazz bar and working for an Albanian archaeological foundation), Rupert is undoubtedly the hardest working Dragoman on this list. In the last year, he has taken over fifteen groups to his beloved Greece. He specializes in small groups of around eight people, usually composed of two families (usually with children interested in or sometimes even studying the classics) for eight days and does everything, from driving the minibus, arranging hotels, renting local houses, checking out the right taverna and picnic sites, quoting Pindar at Olympia, Aeschylus at Mycenae, Plato in Athens and ‘Byron all over the place’. Over the last five years he has set up dozens of Hellenic trips: to Macedonia and northern Greece, to the Peloponnese, following Odysseus from Sicily to Ithaka via the Aeolian islands, Paestum and Corfu or just an introductory long weekend in Athens. His address book of clients ranges from English poets to American TV producers, through barristers, publishers and a documentary film-maker armed with three daughters. Like so many of the Dragoman breed, his energy comes from recreating the chance enchantment of his youth for others, which in Rupert’s case was being sent on a classical cruise as an 11-year old boy. “I never looked back”. He went on to read Classics at Oxford, then post-graduate Byzantine Studies at Kings College, London.
"Before the trip we discussed with Rupert the route, what texts the teenagers were reading and what our budget was. He organized every detail for us with huge efficiency and off we went. It all felt so easy. Arriving in new places to a warm welcome from hoteliers pleased to see the return of Mr Rupert; delightful swimming in the autumn sea; no panics, no instructions, no lectures. We all learned to love the Greek world seen through Rupert’s eyes. His knowledge is vast but lightly worn, imparted with such humour and charm that the teenagers were happy to follow him anywhere, and so were we."
North African trips, c/o Eastern Approaches, 5 Mill Road, Stow, Galasheils, Scotland, TD1 2SD, tel 01578-730361, E firstname.lastname@example.org
A childhood spent following a naval father around the ports of the Mediterranean prepared Barnaby for exploring North Africa in his youth –which was funded by writing guidebooks to Morocco, Tunisia, Cyprus and Istanbul. The birth of two daughters coincided with more intense desk-work: the writing of a Traveller’s History of North Africa, followed by a biography of the Prophet Muhammad, The Heirs of the Prophet (about the first Four Caliphs of Islam) and The Last Crusaders (about the battle for Mediterranean supremacy between the Ottomans and Hapsburgs). At the same time he bought the specialist travel literature imprint Eland from John Hatt and runs it with his wife (see www.travelbooks.co.uk) Over the last 20 years Barnaby has supplemented his sedentary publishing life by leading dozens of trips into Libya, Tunisia, Morocco, the western desert of Egypt, Syria, Algeria and the Sahara – even if this has been recently curtailed by the welcome achievements of the Arab Spring. Many of his most memorable ‘Dragoman’ trips have involved taking artists into the desert and watching them at work: taking the sculptor Brigid McCrum to the oasis of Siwa, the photographer Don McCullin to the Roman desert frontier of Libya, the painter Kate Boxer to investigate the prehistoric rock art of southern Morocco, and a group of biographers(Caroline Moorehead, Ann Chisholm and Antony Hobson) to visit the Great Mosque at Kairouan.
Clients continue to complain that “he eats, drinks, walks, talks and knows too much”
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Nicole was born in Cairo, and grew up in the cosmopolitan post-war culture of Levantine Egypt, where French was spoken at home, English used in school, Arabic on the street and Hebrew in the synagogue. She and her family were forced to leave their Egyptian home at the time of the Suez crisis and ‘returned’ to Italy – though “no-one had spoken Italian for generations and life was very different”. This complicated linguistic background proved to be good preparation for her first career, working as a simultaneous interpreter - which she later combined with raising a family. Once her sons were safely at university, she took herself off to read Ancient History and Egyptology at University College, London. This was followed by lecturing at the Ancient Egyptian departments of the Met in New York and the British Museum, which itself led onto television work and taking lecture tours to Egypt and the Levant. Nicole has since gone on to make the Western Desert (and the half dozen oases situated between Egypt and Libya) her area of special expertise. She has designed half a dozen tours, hand-picked the hotels or the desert camp-sites and works only with a very special desert-safari team, run by one of the best Egyptian desert experts and his extraordinary team of drivers, guides and desert chefs. She takes about four trips a year for Martin Randall (one of the leading cultural tour agencies) as well as her own longer desert expeditions. These trips, usually for around a dozen clients, have to take place in the comparative cool of the spring and autumn. Nicole’s ultimate desert trek, to the Gilf Kebir and Uweinat, usually runs every year. It takes 16 days and needs ten participants (at around £3,500 a head) to make it happen.
“a life changing experience, Nicole makes the ancient world come alive” Patrick Wright
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Sylvie is a linguist and a designer who works with found objects from her travels through the Middle East, North Africa, Turkey and Iran. She fuses snatches of textile with amulets, beads, bright colours, forgotten packaging, sample swatches of Harris tweed, printed silks - all wrapped up with her own stitched calligraphy born of a love of the vibrant oral culture of the East. The result is unforgettable, and though long-known to the dedicated followers of fashion, has recently been propelled to greater attention by a recent series of features in magazines such as Vogue and Harpers. Fortunately she needs to travel, both for the pleasure of collecting new words and phrases, as well as for the humdrum task of shopping in the covered souks of Isfahan, Cairo, Istanbul, Sanaa, Aleppo and Marrakech. So fortunately for the curious traveller, she works, now and then, as a dragoman guide – usually on long Middle Eastern journeys for specialist groups recruited from friends and patrons of museums. She likes working with local historical guides as she freely confesses to an indifference to dates and the dynasty lists of dead males, but is a brilliant and exciting guide to the living history – what is really being talked about in the streets, how the women dress behind the closed doors, the lyrics of the love songs – not to mention the art of shopping, of searching out the buzzy bars, the live restaurants. Like other Dragomans, her knowledge and enthusiasm was born out of the chance of youthful travel, wining a scholarship from her Flemish university– which she spent on continuing her studies of Arabic in Cairo. She stayed on, for six years studying Egyptian film, though increasingly the life of a freelance Dragoman, writing guidebooks, translating and designing future books took over. Chance, is all about what you make of it, which includes meeting her future travel-writer husband on the summit of a mameluke minaret.
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by Barnaby Rogerson