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Solvang: The Little Match Town

“See,” she says, sighing, “it’s like being in a fairytale!” I look around at the row of half-timbered facades, the miniature windmills propped up by metal stands, the glum looking bust of Hans Christian Anderson.

“This is not my idea of a fairytale,” I tell her. From the expression on the Danish writer’s face I’m guessing it’s not his, either.

“You don’t think it’s charming?” she asks, taking me by the arm and leading me down Mission Drive in Solvang, California.

“What’s charming about it?” 

“It’s so different, so adorable. There’s no Starbucks or McDonalds or Walmart in town, just boutiques and restaurants. I wish I lived here.” We stroll down the empty road. The European hanging signs of this self-proclaimed Danish capital of America advertise sushi, bagels, tacos, and the pizza chain Domino’s. The incongruities escape her. She drags me into a pastry shop. “Ooh! Look at those…and these…and this! Doesn’t it make you want to go crazy?” I watch in mild consternation as she orders two cream cheese croissants, a slice of almond butter ring, a half-dozen Napoleon hats, and a cinnamon roll. We sit at a diner table in a tawny flushed room filled with shabby framed posters.

“Who’s eating all these sweets?” I ask her, eyeing the sticky collection. She looks at me in surprise.

“We are! Dig in…try the custard, it’s my favorite. I take a bite, close my eyes, and imagine I’m sitting at a café on a cobblestone lane.” I obligingly break off a morsel and try to envision the same while I chew. The cloying filling stifles my inspiration; all I hear is the dreary teenage conversations of the cashiers. She senses my ennui and says, “let’s go check out some history.” Leaving the eatery we head south two blocks on foot to the Elverhøj Museum.

“Solvang’s architecture was remodeled to attract tourists not to preserve culture,” I announce inside our destination, pointing out to her archival photos of the inhabitants’ mission style houses.

“Not this cottage,” she counters, “it says here he hand-built the homestead because he wanted to live in an eighteenth-century Jutland farmhouse.” The former residence of artists Viggo Brandt-Erichsen and Martha Mott now hosts a hodgepodge exhibition which includes Viking artifacts, modern American painters, and community memorabilia. We examine newspaper clippings chronicling the hamlet’s history. Little tokens of their heritage stand out from these images: girls folk dancing in costume, a stork positioned on a pretend thatched roof for luck, a feast after a roof-raising…. Otherwise, the accounts could be those of any California territory: arrival of immigrants, eventual acculturation, war, industrialization.

“What sets this suburb apart from the various ethnic enclaves elsewhere? Besides,” I add, “It also says only ten percent of Solvang’s population now claims Danish ancestry.”

“It has a unique appearance. Other neighborhoods don’t look like their customary homes. I mean Chinatowns don’t have Chinese accommodations. Italian quarters don’t imitate Rome or Tuscany,” she answers. “Here I think they’ve managed to transplant a little bit of Denmark.”

“So the replicated buildings make it genuine?”

“They give me the feeling, which is what I want.”

“Having a certain exterior doesn’t classify as cultural though,” I reply. “If they put a miniature Eiffel Tower here it wouldn’t be another Paris.”

“If you want culture, you should come back for their Danish Days festival,” she says, “they put on a huge show with a torchlight parade, an æbleskiver breakfast, Viking reenactments, a dinner folk dance.”
“That’s exactly my point — they put on a spectacle for outsiders. When you explore Japantown in San Francisco for example, you experience their layered existence, the tensions between survival in a modern metropolis and the desire to retain their traditions. They’re not displaying themselves for someone else’s benefit.”

“How else am I going to learn about another culture? This is educational for me. I’ll never make it to Denmark, so this is the closest I can get to being there.”

“You’re claiming you’ve learned about a country you’ve never been to by coming to Solvang?”

“Yes, I have…and look they have genuine Scandinavian things…like this,” she argues, holding up an imported Swedish tablecloth inside the gift store for me to inspect. She buys it as a memento. “You really should see these streets on one of their annual events,” she claims as we circle Petersen Village Square later on, “That’s when everything becomes magical. I drive down each year for the event.”

“Isn’t it the same every time?”

“Yeah, that’s what I love about it. I know what I’m getting.”

“Why don’t you travel to Copenhagen this year instead? You can experience midsummer celebrations, taste frikadeller, see a Nordic battleship,” I suggest.

“Oh no, what a nightmare! Can you imagine me trying to stumble around out there? I wouldn’t understand a word they said, I’d get completely lost, and probably end up with food poisoning. No, I like that I can encounter a little Danish flavor not far from home.”

“But this is a theater production, it isn’t how the Danes live,” I insist. “Cities are more than a few famous dishes, a pageant, or a postcard landmark. They don’t have a single theme, or ethnicity, or veneer that defines them. They are complicated, evolving personas — not static.”

She shakes her head vigorously. “I don’t care for any of that…who wants to see the grimy, muddle with skyscrapers and factories and ugly stuff? It’s the romance I come for, the good bits….Speaking of which you’ve got to get your hands on one of these æbleskivers,” she states, pulling me into a café. “They’re supposed to be as good as from the old country.” We take our puffed pancakes to the Little Mermaid statue sitting atop a leaky fountain. Red jelly oozes from the top of my popover and runs down my sleeve. “Isn’t it delicious? Doesn’t it take you back to your European jaunts?” she inquires.

“No it doesn’t,” I retort sopping up the mess with a wad of paper napkins.

Turning to the green-tinged bronze, she shoves her cake into her mouth in one enthusiastic gesture. “She’s so lovely,” she sighs, “I wonder if the other one is as beautiful as her?”

“Why don’t we find out?” I ask. “Let’s go to Copenhagen together!” Fear widens her pupils. Nevertheless, I press on. “Don’t you want to taste what æbleskivers are like over there?”
“What if I don’t like those ones?” she mutters.

“At least you’ll know. We’ll eat cream-filled desserts, we’ll sit in actual cafés by the canal, we’ll get lost together which won’t be as scary. It’ll be an adventure!” She contemplates my invitation.

“You’ll take me to visit the other mermaid?”

“Yes.”

“We’ll eat every type of danish sweet?”

“Yes.”
“I’m making a list,” she warns.

“Fine.”

“You’ll really travel to Denmark with me?”

“Why not? Then we can compare notes on æbleskivers.” I give her my uneaten one to enjoy. She munches on it, nodding as we return towards her car.

“Okay, let’s do it,” she replies, adding, “Gosh, I really hope they’ve got windmills as cute as these….”


TRAVEL NOTE: 

Since the debut of the award-winning American movie “Sideways,” which was filmed in the surrounding Santa Ynez valley, Solvang has courted a new type of tourist, the wine-lover. Tasting rooms and bars of Solvang cater to the area’s grape varietals.


Have you been to a themed town like Solvang? Let me know about it in the comments below.


 

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80 replies »

  1. In about 1925, my father, Hans Pederson, sent his niece from Seattle to Solvang to boarding school.it was a real Danish town then and immigrant Danish kids went there, I suppose, to learn both how to be Americans while keeping their Danish culture alive.

    • I believe I have seen a photo of that school at the Elverhøj Museum! One of the best parts of visiting Solvang was going through some of the historic photos and records of the town as it came into being from the hard work of Danish and Danish-American farmers settling in the area.

  2. Hi again my friends! It’s been too long I know. My blogging has suffered thanks to a rough year, and I’m disappearing again for a while with a house move coming up, but I’ve missed you and wanted to drop by. I saw this post about Solvang and thank you for it. Great post, loved your take on the place. Living on the Central Coast of California for almost 20 years, we took the kids there a few times, enjoying it greatly. Crazy I know, but my homesickness for England found a home there even though it’s nothing like England and it’s themed not historical! But hey -it made for a fun day out. Year later when I watched ‘Sideways’ with my now husband, I burst out of the sofa when I saw signs to Paso Robles, San Luis Obispo and of course Solvang. I travelled that highway so many times. I’ve yet to take hubby there…but I will! Have a great summer and I look forward to catching up with you when I’m back to blogging properly…ever the optimist 😉

    • Hello! It’s wonderful to hear from you and thanks so much for stopping by. I love that Solvang somehow reminded you of England, what a wonderful and unlooked for association! It is no longer the quiet little town you and your children probably beheld thanks to ‘Sideways,’ but does have the same look. Thanks for sharing your memories with me and good luck on your house move!

      • I love your posts as you know, I’m just sorry I haven’t been able to visit you in such a long time, as with my blogging in general this year. But yes, I’m glad we got to visit Solvang before ‘Sideways’…I can imagine how crowded it gets now and wouldn’t like that at all! Lovely to see you again too…and thank you so much! I’ll be so glad when it’s over with… Have a great summer my friend and see you on the other side 😉 xxx

  3. I live close, so I have no excuse for having not yet visited Solvang. Yet, I do visit the bakery at Alpine village, the little German village in Torrence, every week.

  4. You nailed it when you told Ms. Scolaro that expectations drive much of our response to anything. People, places, things; there’s nothing we don’t experience through our filters, as you so aptly noted in your comment at my ‘peace’ post, and it’s up to us to interpret and modify them as best we can or will. Your intention to visit the ‘real’ Denmark is spot-on, and I suspect you’ll both enjoy it immensely! But I’ll bet you can find things to enjoy in the CA version of Solvang over time, if you return to it with different expectations.

    I have a feeling it’s a bit like Poulsbo, WA—a sort of Norwegian mini-theme-park town. The first time my Norsk brother-in-law visited the US, my sister took him to Poulsbo en route to meet our parents. He thought it was a fascinating blend of frozen-in-time immigrant memories, idealism, kitsch, hilarious interpretations of Norwegianness by people who’ve never been to the original, and touchingly innocent affection. In short, he called it “more Norwegian than Norway”—a heightened, codified version of what was remembered and imagined about the old country. Some of my own in-laws live part-time and even full-time in Poulsbo now, and it is absolutely just plain small town America underneath the gloss of Norwegian ‘style’, and as such, has all of the pitfalls and positives of a pleasant small town. Wouldn’t be surprised in the least if Solvang has a similar heart beating beneath its ‘more Danish than Denmark’ facade.

    Cheers,
    Kathryn

    • Thank you so much for sharing your brother-in-law’s experience with me. His quote feels spot on. I also believe that how we experience a place as the “outsider” whether it is as a traveler or an expatriate is very different from that of natives, and that will always be the case. Greatly appreciate the perspective!

  5. Interesting post – for a Dane !!!
    I hope you and everybody who reads here will come and visit my country. I love to live here. AND to travel to other parts of our great planet.
    If you go here – promise me to let me show you my hometown, Aarhus, ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aarhus ) . And my workplace: Den Gamle By (The Old Town https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Old_Town,_Aarhus ), which is the Danish National City Museum. It covers the period from the Middle Ages to the present!

  6. Your Solvang post grabbed me, not because I was there years ago and agreed with your experience, but because I’ve just published a memoir featuring my Danish immigrant father, “The Mysterious Builder of Seattle Landmarks. . .” His wife imported a Danish “au pair” type teenager around 1925. Since she wasn’t learning English very fast, they sent her to the Danish school in Solvang. So I guess it was a real school and a real Danish town for a while.
    As I’ve blogged my way toward this book, I’ve connected with a Danish couple who have become “my Danish family.” They took me on a a photographic tour to the Isle of Fyn, Hans Pedersen’s birthplace. A trip to Denmark is definitely in my plans too.
    So thanks for the like. Both real and virtual traveling open up new worlds!!

    • I love what you said, “Both real and virtual traveling open up up new worlds.” It’s fascinating how the threads we weave connect us in strange ways to each other. And now I have another tale in my collection that ties me both to Solvang and a future trip to Denmark! The best part of my Solvang museum tour was seeing the records of the immigrants who had come and settled there…I wished I could have learned more about them, because I identified most with their narratives. Thank you so much for sharing more of your family’s history with me!

  7. This reminds me of an episode of “Frazier” where the lead character was riding a bike and trying to avoid crashing into a mailbox… the more he tried to avoid the mailbox the more times he crashed into it! That is me and Solvang. The more I try to avoid going there, the more I end up there! I don’t understand its appeal and have my fingers crossed I won’t be “crashing” into it again!

  8. While I’m from NY, I had several long term contracts in the Santa Barbara area and had to make the drive to Solvang a couple weeks out of the year. I’ve been to many cities in Europe and Scandinavia and I have to say, I still think Solvang is quite nice, especially given the otherwise sprawling California landscape that tends to lack quaint villages and downtowns in general. Of course, I always prefer authenticity, but I certainly wouldn’t put it on the same plain as Epcot. It’s a real town and real people live there. There are real hotels, real restaurants. I actually stayed at one of the nice boutique hotels right in the center and it was phenomenal. I worked about a half mile outside of the center but would enjoy my lunches on the outside cafes of the restaurants during the day. Come happy hour time, the bars come alive with locals, bands, and dancing. No, its not Denmark, and shouldn’t serve as a substitute, but its certainly more than a facade.

    • You said it best: “No, its not Denmark, and shouldn’t serve as a substitute.” Perhaps it was my initial perception of what Solvang was (or should be) that tempered my perspective. I have heard an equally divided opinion among other visitors to Solvang (some loved it and others would never return) and I think this was based on what each of us presumed we would discover in the town. Of course this can be said of Paris or Venice, or any place which thrives on tourism. The “authenticity” of the traveler’s experience varies according to expectations and perceived reality. Thanks so much for sharing your reflections about Solvang with me.

    • 🙂 Despite my friend’s attempts to change my mind, I too found the place to be tacky. But I understand that her viewpoint about some aspects of the town has its merit. If you do revisit, let me know if you change your mind about it!

  9. Well, I loved your post so much for a lot of reasons. Bravo!! I’m a native Californian living in Texas and I miss my California Day Trips! We lived in Sacramento and we could go to Lake Tahoe in an hour and a half – Napa Valley in an hour and a half – San Francisco in 2 hours – Reno in 2 hours and be back home by 5 p.m. In Texas you have to drive for 8 hours to get to some place “different”.

    Fantastic dialog – I mean really! So life like and real! I loved the way you snagged her with your “Future Talk” of a trip to Denmark! Good for you! However, having said that I must offer this with hopefully no offense taken – you seem, from the dialog, to have a very bad case of “MisMatch” going on. A Raging Romantic with an analytical left brain type thinker (someone like an engineer) that has to be prodded into having Fun? I can just imagine this conversation – Her- Oh, look at the pretty flowers!! – You – “Why do we need flowers? It’s not like they give us fruit or nuts or anything useful!! Sorry, don’t mean to rain on the parade here. Just seems that maybe it’s a Flashing Red light as you are heading down that Friendship Path.

    I hope your trip to Denmark will be a lot of fun and Romantic too. This was really a great post and a Slice of Life piece.

    For anyone that might find a themed destination of interest these is another “Bavarian Themed Town” in Washington State – Leavenworth. It’s east of Seattle. Disney shot some movie scenes there. Check it out.
    Happy Trails,

    • I’m so glad you enjoyed this story! When it comes to traveling my friend and I have different perspectives (though as a nature lover I never disparage flowers). This makes for lively discussions but has no effect on our relationship. We push each other out of our comfort zones, but have not stopped being friends despite our opposing preferences. Thanks so much for your kind words. I hope at some point you get to return to your beloved California to explore once again its many wonderful landscapes.

  10. Hehe, this is great, I can imagine just this sort of conversation for real. And they then come to the real thing and nothing is as they assumed and expected. And yes, they all speak this pesky other language. 😀

  11. I haven’t been to anywhere quite like Solvang. The closest thing I can think of was Huis Ten Bosch theme park near Nagasaki, Japan which was built to look like a Dutch town. Having been in the Netherlands a number of times, I was surprised how authentic the park looked.

  12. I am very happy (and surprised) at the ending of your story! That’s great that you both will go to the real Denmark. The only thing I like about these reproductions, is the photos. They look nice and pleasing and I do enjoy strolling through towns like this for that reason. But, of course, the real thing is 100% better and more exciting. I enjoyed reading your story, since it reminds me of how a lot of people on this country think… 🙂

    • I was excited she agreed to come with me! Strangely Solvang had me thinking a lot about zoos and aquariums again…the same thing happens there. I manage to get pretty photos of animals and settings, but the experience is far from satisfactory.

  13. Kind of Disney, but not? Can’t say it appeals. 🙂 Let us know how the trip to Copenhagen goes. Now there’s a place I’d love to go. And it’s just a little way across the sea…

  14. I’ve never been to Solvang, but your photos/account remind me of Holland (Dutch) and Frankenmuth (German), Michigan. I always think of these places as reminders of the early immigrants who populated these areas so long ago. Maybe they’re kitsch and there aren’t many people of those origins left (actually the area around Holland is full of Dutch descendants), but I hope they remain as quirky monuments to those who once dwelled in the area. Otherwise, that part of the history of those regions would probably be forgotten. A roadside plaque or statue commemorating the former settlers just wouldn’t have the same impact. 😉

    • I think if Solvang had begun that way — Dutch immigrants building houses that reminded them of their old home — it would have seemed more appropriate to me. Elverhoj, which is now a museum, seemed more in tune with this sort of commemoration than the rest of the town.

  15. And I thought I’d see a model of a town made of matches. 😉

    The only themed “town” that occurs to me is an open air museum in Stockholm called Skansen.

  16. Solvang is indeed a beautiful quaint Danish village. Soon enough you will see Andersens’s Little Mermaid set on a stone by the water in Copenhagen!

  17. Wow! this is a lovely informative post! I stay quite close to Solvang and had no idea that there is such an interesting place to visit. Thanks for describing it in a lighthearted and funny manner. 🙂

  18. I have missed you. Thank you for another thoughtful post. How intriguing to imagine this one written from your friend’s point of view. We would be left with a completely different impression. I hope you will get her to visit Denmark with you.

    • That is very sweet of you to say. As for the other side of the coin, that would indeed be a very interesting perspective. I am also hoping she will accompany me to Denmark at some point.

  19. Interesting. I haven’t ever been to Solvang, but have always wondered. Your description sounds as though it’s a bit like Disney World’s Epcot Center, which I found quite absurd. I also don’t understand the fascination with the Little Mermaid. I skipped over it on my first visit to Copenhagen as I didn’t realize that it was a “must see.”

    • I’m not sure what the fascination with the Little Mermaid statue is either. Many towns vie to have one, apparently. Solvang did feel like Disney if you went on a day when no one else was there.

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