For the past two weeks, the Olympics have taken over London. Everywhere I look there are flags, volunteers, uniforms, and slightly creepy mascots. But the Games aren’t all that has been taking place in London lately, and I’ve had some unique opportunities to see London’s non-sporting highlights during the Olympics.
That’s partly because I got a press pass at the beginning of the Games. Throughout the past two weeks, there have been events for both foreign and domestic media. From after-hours tours to private tastings, the number of options for exploring London beyond the Olympics has been endless.
As such, I have tried to take advantage of as many events as I can, packing my schedule morning and night. My first opportunity came in the form of a private after-hours viewing of the Ballgowns: British Glamour Since 1950 exhibition at the Victoria & Albert museum.
The gowns, which are on display until January 2013, ranged from Princess Diana’s famous Catherine Walker ‘Elvis Dress’ to Alexander McQueen’s show-stopping feather couture. They were works of art as much as they were works of couture.
Another event I went to was a tour of one of London’s famous department stores, Fortnum & Mason. The archivist there showed my group around each department, telling us about the history of the company, showing us secret rooms like the beautiful historic wine cellar, and sharing fun trivia like the fact that Fortnums invented both the Scotch egg and the humble spork.
Speaking of food and cutlery, last week I enjoyed a foodie event at The Montague on the Gardens. The hotel’s beautiful terrace was the setting of an English wine and British cheese pairing.
After enjoying a great glass of Ridgeview Bloomsbury 2009 sparkling wine, I sampled a creamy, crumbly Belton Farm Cheshire cheese with Camel Valley Rose 2011 and a delicious Cornish Yarg with Sharpham Estate Selection 2010, a beautifully aromatic wine.
But Britain hasn’t had the market on food cornered during the Olympics. Several other countries have brought some impressive cuisine of their own.
Throughout the Olympics, many countries have set up houses and pavilions across London. Part national showcases, part headquarters for the country’s athletes, visiting fans, and expats, they have popped up from east to west.
One such country house is Denmark’s. Located in St. Katharine Docks, the pavilion consists of a houseboat, a clipper ship, a Viking ship, a summer house, food stands, and giant screens for watching Denmark’s favorite sport, handball.
I was invited to two events at Denmark House, both of which featured food. Namely, bacon. On board a Danish clipper ship, I learned that Denmark has historically been one of the biggest exporters of bacon to Britain. I also got so sample some. A lot. It made me even more excited than I already was to be traveling to Copenhagen at the end of this month.
Outside of Denmark House, I attended events at Austria House and Scotland House. The former is located in Tower Hill, and consists of a large terrace decked out in classic apres ski style. A bar, a row of tables, music, big screens, and good Austrian food all feature in the scene.
While at Austria House, I was able to sample everything from bratwurst to kaiserschmarrn compliments of the Tirol tourism board. I even watched the beginning of the Olympics Opening Ceremony there on Austrian TV. It brought back good memories of my time in Salzburg and Innsbruck last winter, and made me want to visit again someday.
At Scotland House on Pall Mall I attended my first ever ceilidh, a Scottish version of what I as an American saw as a big party with traditional music and dancing. There may have even been an attractive kilt-sporting Glaswegian man or two. Not that I was looking…
The evening was a lot of fun, what with the band, Kilter, entertaining us and teaching us how to dance. When we had worked up an appetite, haggis, neeps (turnips), and tatties (potatoes) were there to give us an energy boost.
Outside of the country houses, I got to attend a few other special events. One was a party in the New Armouries at the Tower of London. It was put on by VisitEngland to celebrate the homecoming of their Fan in a Van, Rachel, who had followed the Olympic torch all over the country from its arrival at Land’s End to its culmination in London.
Speaking of traveling all over the country, I went early one morning to the Canal Museum to learn about the waterways of the United Kingdom. Jeremy, my guide, showed me both before-and-after maps of the rivers and canals near the London Olympic Park and a giant map of all of the canals in Britain. I had no idea there were so many of them.
One of the canals is the famous Regent’s Canal, which passes right through the London zoo as it winds through the city. My final press event of the Olympics will be a cocktail evening on the zoo’s Penguin Beach (somewhat similar to the zoo’s regular summertime Zoo Lates). I can’t wait to wind down the Games while communing with the critters.
So while I may not have competed in the Olympics or gotten tickets to anything beyond the rowing, running all over the city to participate in two straight weeks of events—both Games-themed and not—has made me feel like I’ve accomplished a feat of my own.
And that’s one of the best parts about living in London. Even when something as big as the Olympics comes to town, there is still so much to see and do that I never feel like I’ve done everything this city has to offer. My London marathon continues…