MARTYN McLaughlin finds out what’s on offer at London’s various ‘national houses’
FOR Scotland, it is an upmarket club in the well-heeled environs of Pall Mall, complete with ceilidhs, clan gatherings and nips aplenty.
The Italians favour a tasteful conference centre, well-stocked with the finest wine, while the Austrians – self-effacing to the last – have plumped for a ski chalet complete with sauerkraut and a yodelling telephone box.
Far from the venues in and around London at which the nations of the world are vying for Olympic glory, those same countries are fighting to take gold for hospitality, allowing visitors to the capital to tour the world without leaving the city.
In a trend that has intensified in recent Games, countries now seek to outdo one another not just in the myriad sporting events, but with finger food, cocktails and live music.
Scotland’s presence has attracted a flurry of criticism back home over the £400,000 cost of hiring the Army and Navy Club to showcase the country. Described by Alex Salmond as a “little bit of England that will be forever Scotland”, it attracted Lulu and the Proclaimers on its opening night but has struggled to attract any significant footfall since.
Like every so-called “national house” at London 2012, its official role is to highlight home-grown industry and attract trade, investment and tourism. Not every country, however, regards its presence in London in such serious terms.
While some of the 205 nations competing in the Games aspire to project a suave and sophisticated image, complete with strict invitation-only events, others have jettisoned all pretension to show off a frivolous front, and being open to all residents of London and international visitors alike.
Peppered across London, the venues include sports arenas, theatres, gardens and art galleries, and the result is a dizzyingly eclectic mix, offering a base for athletes, officials and occasional celebrities.
All of the African continent is represented under the one roof at Kensington Gardens, where invited guests can enjoy music, dance and theatre performers, with Ethiopian drummers, Tunisian singers and Moroccan bands the main draws to date. Russia has arguably the most ambitious delegation. As host of the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, it has pulled out all the stops with two open-air attractions, Russia Park and Sochi Park, set in Kensington Gardens.
Russia Park is a sea of Astroturf dotted with bean bags, ping pong, chess and mini-golf. Medal winners and artists share the stage, with entertainment ranging from Central Asian throat singers and jazz bands to mini-rock festivals. Those who have attended praise the beef stroganoff on offer, but warn that the Queen song We Are The Champions appears to play on an endless loop.
A ten-minute walk away, Sochi Park is the showcase for the city and region that will host the next Winter Games, with attractions including virtual skiing and a nightly ice-dancing show featuring big-name Russian skaters. It is, though, a costly affair – tickets cost £18 in advance, or £20 at the door.
Another country keen to make a good impression with Olympic officials is Brazil, which will host the 2016 Games in Rio. It has transformed Somerset House, a sprawling edifice beside the River Thames, into Casa Brasil. The courtyard has been taken over by Brazilian bands, including Sargento Pimenta – Portuguese for Sgt Pepper – a popular Carnival ensemble that takes a samba approach to Beatles classics.
The bar serves up a mean caipirinha, a Brazilian cocktail, while there is also a “3D paragliding experience” and extensive exhibitions of Brazilian art and design, much of it bold, confident and playful.
For those in search for a flavour of the South Pacific in London, the tourist boards of Fiji, Samoa, Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea have transformed a pontoon moored at St Katherine’s Dock into a makeshift island, complete with palm trees, grass skirts, warrior dances and a traditional thatched “bure” meeting house.
Recession-hit Ireland has installed its national house – inevitably, perhaps – in a pub. In the King’s Cross area, close to the trains that run to the Olympic Park, it sprawls over three floors, from a basement bar styled on a British comedy club, to a main floor with live music, to a roof terrace and bar. With hearty fare such as burgers on the menu, and the Guinness flowing, the atmosphere is convivial and unpretentious.
The celebratory atmosphere is also in evidence at the Netherlands’ Heineken House, legendary for its festive vibe and free-flowing beer.
It has taken over Alexandra Palace in north London, and the venue has many areas in which to eat, drink and relax and a large concert hall where DJs get a youthful orange-clad crowd gyrating.
Another hot ticket is the base of Jamaica. Housed in a section of the vast O2 arena called The Bubble, it celebrates a half-century of independence for the island nation, with displays paying tribute to its music, cuisine and, of course, sport.
Given that Usain Bolt, the country’s poster boy, has been known to enjoy spinning the decks as a DJ, it could be the place to be in London.
The Swiss have also sought to cultivate a party mood, but appear to have tried rather too hard. Based on the South Bank, their cavernous Glaziers Hall venue is a converted warehouse that has been transformed into a “red zone” for the duration of the Games.
While the colour represents the Swiss flag, organisers also claim it embodies Switzerland’s commitment to “painting the town red” while in London. That may be a bold ambition when Ireland has innumerable taps of Guinness at the ready, but at least visitors to the Swiss enclave can enjoy some rather offbeat events, such as folk wrestling and cheese rolling.
In sharp contrast to the Irish and Dutch, Denmark has turned the yacht-fringed marina of St Katharine Docks into a restrained corner of Scandinavia.
Yes, there is music, hotdogs and beer, but the pace is relaxed. Scandinavian designs, a Viking ship and food such as pork neck marinated in beer with rosehip compote is on offer, while big screens show Olympic highlights, including handball – a Scandinavian obsession.
Nearby Austria House offers bratwurst with sauerkraut and Stiegl beer on a ski chalet-style terrace with views of the Tower of London, as well as big-screen sports and that “yodelling tele-phone box.”
So far, however, most seem to agree the gold medal should go to the Czech House, which has transformed a conference venue in Islington into a giant party playpen.
With indoor basketball, pool tables, fusball, a chill-out zone, plenty of Pilsener, DJs and even the Czech funk band Monkey Business one evening, nearly every whim is catered for.
The venue scores extra points for eccentricity. Outside is a large sculpture by Czech artist David Cerny of a red double-decker bus doing push-ups. Inside, an inflatable version floats surreally over the heads of partygoers.
Do, though, eat beforehand. A portion of goulash and bacon dumplings will set you back £17.
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Weather for Edinburgh
Sunday 19 May 2013
Temperature: 9 C to 17 C
Wind Speed: 7 mph
Wind direction: North east
Temperature: 10 C to 20 C
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Wind direction: North east