The Olympics’ many cultures
The Imagination Denmark hospitality house in St Katharine Dock is home to a Lego replica of the Olympic Park, which took 300 hours to build. (Valerie Denny Hughes)
Countries from all over the world participate in the Olympics, and there’s no better way to soak up their cultures than to visit the many hospitality houses in London that have been set up as venues for their athletes and fans to gather.
Learn the fine art of yodelling at Austria House, watch an ice skating show at Sochi Russia House and find out exactly how many seconds until the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro at Casa Brasil. And at almost all the houses you can cheer on the team on the big screen, swill some local booze and dance to live music. You don’t even have to be in London to visit Kenya House, which is hosting Google hangout (a live video chat through Google+), for anyone to join from their computer.
Here are a few of the most unique houses that are open to the public. See them before they close on 12 August.
The best reason to visit Belgium House is not for an order of their mouth-watering fries or a stack of their waffles, but for its location in historic Middle Temple. Built in 1562, Middle Temple is one of the four Inns of Court -- four ancient societies for lawyers in the UK -- located on three acres of gardens between Fleet Street and the River Thames. Middle Temple hosted the first performance of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night in 1602, and in 1584 Sir Walter Raleigh received a charter here from Elizabeth I to establish the colony of Virginia in North America. Middle Temple is also located next to Temple Church, which was the headquarters of the Knights of Templar in the 12th Century and was featured in the movie The Da Vinci Code.
After you've wandered around Middle Temple checking out old suits of armour, reading the plaques and taking in all the history, you can grab a Stella or Hoegaarden and watch the games on a movie theatre-size screen in the grand hall. Then wander back to the expansive gardens while nibbling on Belgian fries with frit'kot (made of mayo, ketchup and onions). And if you're into cycling, be sure to check out the Belgian Cycling Paradise, an outdoor exhibit featuring historic racing bikes and a virtual cycling tour of Belgium, the founder of cycle racing.
Even though Brazil is not hosting the Summer Games until 2016, they started the party early at Casa Brasil, located in Somerset House, an enormous neoclassical building in central London that overlooks the Thames just east of Waterloo Bridge, where Elizabeth I lived before she became Queen. Today Somerset House is known as a centre for the arts, and plays host to the popular Tiffany & Co ice skating rink every winter. This summer, a stage has been set up in the courtyard for Rio de Janeiro Hour, a concert featuring a different type of Brazilian music each night, ranging from Brazilian folk to bossa nova to samba. Inside Casa Brasil are three different art exhibitions showcasing 33 artists and designers from around the country. You can also get an early start on buying Olympics gear at Boutique Rio 2016, a shop selling official Rio 2016 merchandise.
At the Imagination Denmark house, the Danes have taken over St Katharine Dock, just east of the iconic Tower Bridge, with a cosy outdoor affair that includes a big screen and Danish-designed chairs for viewing the games; a cottage completely furnished in stylish Danish furniture; a kitchen for cooking demos; and a few stalls featuring Danish fashion and jewellery. This is probably the most family-friendly of the houses, with a Lego replica of the Olympic Park, which took 300 hours to build. For adults, there's a 60ft restored Viking ship docked in the marina area and a re-enactment of the book Beowulf.
Sochi is the home of the 2014 Winter Olympics and Sochi House in Kensington Gardens is aimed at getting visitors excited for their arrival. Visitors can take a virtual train ride through Russia, go on a virtual bobsled run and take their photo with the current Olympic torch. You can also buy tickets to see six Russian Olympic figure skaters and 18 world champion skaters perform in a show at an ice arena in the Sochi House pavilion.
The Russia House, also in Kensington Gardens, is more traditional and showcases the food and culture of Russia. You can picnic in the park, learn how to the winter sport of curling, meet Russian athletes and sample Russian foods such as shashlik (A beef or mutton kebab), pirozhki (savoury pastries filled with meat or fish and rice) and blini (a small buckwheat pancake typically served with sour cream caviar) and enjoy roaming Russian performers as well as outdoor concerts and dance performances.