How To Spend It

Destinations | Perfect Weekend

William Dalrymple’s Delhi

Internationally acclaimed travel writer, historian and broadcaster William Dalrymple is the co-founder of the Jaipur Literature Festival, Asia’s leading literary festival.

May 20 2011
Hilary Whitney

“We live on a farm about four miles outside Delhi, surrounded by fields and peacocks. Ideally, I’ll get up very slowly and enjoy a leisurely breakfast on the terrace with my wife, Olivia, and our children, Ibby, 16, Sammy, 14, and Adam, who is 11.

Until the end of March, Saturday mornings are spent watching Adam play football. I hated football at school, but I have a new-found enthusiasm for it as a dad and run up and down the touchline shouting encouragement and embarrassing my family.

After football, we might visit the National Museum, an old-style museum with a great collection of Chola bronzes. There’s also the National Gallery of Modern Art, which used to be grotty but has just been refurbished and now has some excellent exhibitions, such as the recent one of work by Anish Kapoor.

If we need to do some shopping, we’ll go to Khan Market, which, during the 20 years I have lived here, has changed from being full of slightly dusty, locally owned shops to the international brands you might see anywhere. A former hangout of mine, The Bookshop, has been replaced by a branch of Swarovski. Fortunately, there are other excellent bookshops such as Full Circle, Faqir Chand and, best of all, Bahri Sons. Then we’ll get some lunch at Karim’s in Old Delhi – a fabulous striplights-and-formica-topped-tables Mughlai kebab restaurant near the Jama Masjid – very cheap and super-delicious.

By the end of March, however, it’s too hot to run around. In May, temperatures can head towards 50°C, so we might escape to The Claridges Nabha Residence in Mussoorie, a lovely old raja’s summer villa overlooking the Dehradun Valley; or The Glasshouse on the Ganges, a rather nice modernist 1930s building near Rishikesh. In Delhi you’re gasping for breath, but in the Siwaliks or the Himalayan foothills it’s still cool and the water from the cold tap is actually cold – unlike in Delhi, where it’s often boiling.

If we’re at home, we might have friends over for dinner. I love north Indian food, but it’s too heavy in the really hot weather so we eat a lot of Middle Eastern dishes: cold yoghurt soups and Lebanese chicken. We have a vegetable garden, cheese from our goats, and our cook, Nisha, can create anything from a recipe – we have all the Claudia Roden, Moro and Greg Malouf books. The wine here used to taste like disinfectant, but there are now a couple of really good vineyards. The Sula sauvignon blanc is a particularly drinkable and delicious summer white.

On Sundays we like to go to Mass at the Vatican Embassy, although we still haven’t worked out the language system – often we turn up and the service will be in Italian or Polish, or even Finnish. We’ll have lunch at the Olive Bar & Kitchen, a Mediterranean-style restaurant with a whitewashed courtyard and a wonderful big shady peepal tree. The children think it makes the best pizzas in Delhi.

After lunch we might go for a walk in the Lal Kot ruins (pictured), or just go home and jump in the pool. For supper we’ll have something simple such as scrambled eggs, then watch DVDs. We’ve nearly completed 24 and have just got into Downton Abbey. Last year we worked though Bleak House, which has to be the greatest BBC costume drama ever made.

Sometimes I’ll sit on the terrace with a book, sipping pastis. I’m writing a book about the first Afghan war and I’m reading about all these different worlds, from Tolstoy’s Cossack stories through material on Qajar Iran to Ranjit Singh’s Sikhs, which is hugely enjoyable.

I usually retire around midnight, praying for the air conditioning to work. If it isn’t, we drag our mattresses onto the terrace and sleep under the stars, which – once you’ve untangled your mosquito net – is rather lovely.”

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