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EU embassies open doors to visitors Saturday

- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 10, 2012

A royal marriage that touched the hearts of romantics, a diamond jubilee that has captured the minds of nostalgics. It's been a remarkable year for Great Britain, and with the Summer Olympics in London, the excitement is still going.

For those looking to be part of the banner year — without the extra cost and mileage — the British Embassy, located along Massachusetts Avenue Northwest, will open its stately iron gates on Saturday for the European Union Open House, Embassy Row's annual block party, which invites the public into the homes and offices of world dignitaries.

This is the sixth year for the EU's open house, and 27 member states are participating, including Croatia, to become an EU member in 2013. The event runs from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and the lines of people extending down Massachusetts Avenue will be a clear reminder that doors are open.

"I think it is a success story," said Joao Vale de Almeida, the European Union ambassador and head of the EU delegation to the U.S. "It has to do with the fact that people like to go inside the embassies. They have a sort of mystery about what goes on there, a curiosity."

One of the most popular stops during the day is the British Embassy, an achievement spokesman James Barbour credits to the bond between England and America but also to "the prominence of the residence and embassy. You can't really miss us. It's a bit of a D.C. landmark."

Located next to the U.S. Naval Observatory in Northwest, the ambassador's residence is a combination of red bricks, white columns and multiple chimneys that appears to have been dropped into the District from an estate in the countryside. Behind the home is a lush garden filled with boldly colored roses.

The embassy has lined up a number of events that acknowledge England's busy year, including a station to write notes of congratulations to Queen Elizabeth II for her 60 years on the throne and the opportunity to learn cricket, a popular English sport.

"2012 was always going to be a huge year for the U.K.," Mr. Barbour said. "We know we have the world's spotlight, and we want to make the best of it."

Each of the participating embassies has a unique presentation for guests. While the Embassy of Belgium plans to serve beer, visitors to the Embassy of Finland will have the opportunity to examine the building's LEED-certified architecture.

The Dutch Embassy serves as Ambassador Renee Jones-Bos' private residence, and while visitors won't likely see into the linen closet, they will have the opportunity to examine the collection of 16th- and 17th-century artwork by Dutch artists.

"It's quite a unique thing for the public," said Floris van Hovell, spokesman for the Embassy of the Netherlands. "The residence, to some extent, has an official function. It's the place where Dutch authorities meet with American counterparts."

Asked which embassies tend to be the most popular, Mr. Vale de Almeida echoed Mr. Barbour's comments that the British Embassy tends to have a lot of fans, but hinted that appearances can be deceiving.

"The small ones are very interesting," he said. "If people try to see the big and small embassies, they'll have a few surprises."

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