I didn't go to the Olympics yesterday. But I did go and visit some of London's Olympic Houses.
If you've been watching the TV coverage, you might be forgiven for thinking the only country at these Olympics is Great Britain. But 203 other countries are competing too, and many of these have a presence in town as well as at the Games. National Houses are a feature of every Summer Olympics, and perform two key roles. Firstly they provide a base for officials and spectators from each country to muster and socialise, and secondly they promote the aforesaid country abroad. Mostly the former, to be honest. Some of the Houses are purely national hideaways, whereas others are more welcoming and throw a big party every night. I've been to visit a few, the largest that don't charge to get in, and I've ranked them subjectively below from best to dullest.
Imagine Denmark (at St Katharine Dock) 27 July - 12 August 2012, 11am-10pm Denmark have gone for the outdoor option, with a variety of stalls and activities around one corner of St Katharine Dock. Danish TV is here, and a big screen, and a bar serving not-outrageously-priced Carlsberg. The food's popular, judging by the queues, and there's table football to play while you wait. They change the theme every few days - it's been cuisine, it'll soon be Nordic design, but currently it's Vikings. There are dozens of flaxen-haired Danes in period costume, strumming, carving or whatever, plus a full-size longboat tied up at the quay which you can step down and visit. Most impressively, because Denmark is the home of small plastic bricks, someone's recreated the Olympic Park in Lego, That someone is Warren Elsmore, and he's sitting alongside for the entire fortnight keeping an eye on his creation. The detail's great, from the spectators in the stadium to the bikes on the BMX track, plus the flowers in the parkland and the Overground trains rumbling through. It's not the biggest national presence in town, the Danish House, but it felt the most inclusive and the most welcoming.
Casa Brasil (at Somerset House) 27 July - 8 September 2012, 11am-5pm They're up next in 2016, so Brazil have arrived in London with marketing guns blazing. Organisers have built a music stage in the fountain courtyard, but when that's not operational the main action is closer to the river. An exhibition in the lower galleries showcases Brazilian art, photography and design, mixing the traditional and modern with flair. Then there's full details of what Rio16 will bring, including details of proposed infrastructure and the background to their Sugar Loaf logo. It's very professionally done, so it's no surprise when the tour ends in a shop where you can buy preliminary merchandise for the upcoming Games. Ian bought a mug. Don't expect any freebies, bar a tear-off letter from the official Rio font. But when London hands over the flag next weekend, you'll have a much better idea about the very different Games coming next.
Africa Village (in Kensington Gardens) 28 July - 12 August 2012, 10am-9pm Two very different Olympic Houses sit either side of the Albert Memorial. To the west, at a premium price, Russia's Sochi Park with its glitzy ice rink. But to the east, for nothing, a collection of African nations in tents. The African village has little pizazz, but as an introduction to continental culture it's unbeatable. Wander down the central aisle to interact with Morocco, Tunisia and the "new" country of Egypt. Far more intriguing are the lesser known states like Cameroon, Gabon, Rwanda and Togo, each set up with crafts to peruse and buy, and leaflets and brochures to take away. Some of the national representatives hold back, leaving their country to speak for itself, but others are clearly having the time of their lives. Food and drink are available, with cuisine from The Gold Coast Foods, plus there's a big screen showing feeds from events the BBC definitely aren't airing. It's colourful eye-opening stuff, and a world away from the oligarch's playground opposite.
House of Switzerland (at Glaziers Hall) 20 July to 12 August 2012, 9am-11pm Round the back of Southwark Cathedral, that's where the Swiss Olympic House is tucked away. It's also one of the most tourist-friendly, blatantly seeking to encourage you to take a trip to the Alps, and none the worse for that. Grapple your way up the climbing wall, watch Lindt chocolate being made, or maybe bump into defeated Roger Federer on the big stage. Watch for the freebies - mints, Swiss biscuits, even plastic packs of Emmental cheese - although don't expect large portions. The experience is a bit bitty, but all credit to the Swiss for attempting to welcome the world rather than hiding away from it.
Austria House Tirol (at Trinity House) 26 July - 12 August 2012, 10am-10pm By Tower Hill, a little bit of Alpine hospitality. There's not much here, just a row of tables, food and beer, and the opportunity to have your photo taken with goggles on a skilift. But it's all done with panache, and a genuinely social vibe has been created. Perhaps the Tyrolean Bacon Snack will tempt you too.
Deutsches Haus (at the Museum of Docklands) 27 July - 12 August 2012, noon-1am The Germans must have offered a lot of money for the Museum of Docklands to have effectively closed down for the summer. One half's private, but the other is serving up bratwurst, pretzels and... oh my word, it's a bierkeller. Dozens of long tables laid out in rows, some local lad playing table tennis on a suite of screens, and a roomful of actual Germans soaking up the atmosphere. It's free to get into the Fan Fest before 5pm, but costs £5 after (which I suspect is when it's at its liveliest).
Belgium House - Cycling Paradise (at the Inner Temple) 27 July - 12 August 2012, 11am-7pm The Belgians have grabbed a great location, but they'll only let you into a small portion for free. A display stand in this legal courtyard celebrates the Low Country's love of cycling. There are kits to see and bikes to pedal, but mostly this a tourist landgrab hoping to tempt you and your two-wheeled steed across the Channel on holiday. As a reflection of the true target audience, all prices (for general admittance, and beer) are in euros.
Casa Italia (at the Queen Elizabeth Conference Centre) 27 July - 12 August 2012, noon-8pm It's free to enter, but unless you're Italian I'm not quite sure why you would. It's got the biggest screen I saw anywhere, and an entire conference hall full of seats. But, unless I missed something, too commercial and businesslike to be of general interest.