Solvang, the Danish Capital of America

In 1911, a small group of Danes travelled to California. Here, they established a Danish colony which enabled them to escape the harsh Midwest winters. They called this town ‘Solvang’, translating as ‘sunny field’ in the original Danish.

The sun is shining overhead and the skies are as blue as the oceans to our right as we take a left turn onto State Route 246, deviating from our original plan of staying on Route 1 until we reach Los Angeles. This road takes us through one of the less-well known cities of the Golden State, and one that doesn’t necessarily belong in this nation. It has become somewhat of a tourist attraction, (for those who know it’s there), and it’s clear to see why.

The architectural similarities between Solvang and mid 1900s Denmark are clear. With long, low-slung half-timbered buildings and a cocktail of tiled and thatched roofs, the buildings make you feel as if you’re wandering a remote village nestled in a valley in the Danish countryside. Small leaded glass windows decorated with hangings bearing the distinctive white cross of the Danish flag look out from above gift shops, bakeries and museums dedicated to some of the most influential people to come out of this little country in the North Sea. After driving around the town for what seemed like hours, we had managed to find a parking space on the high street. Our gleaming white Hyundai looked positively futuristic parked in front of a little red-brick cottage which wouldn’t have looked out of place in an old European folk film. The floral china sign next to the front door pronounced the name of the shop Edelweiss, which as fans of The Sound of Music would know is a small, white European mountain plant just as prevalent in Denmark as it is in Austria. Leaving the sweltering heat of the early Californian afternoon we entered the low-ceilinged, roof-beamed emporium, and the contents within were as touristy and stereotypically Danish as we could have dreamed. Glass cabinets filled with painted model windmills and beer stein-shaped shot glasses, sit below coat hangers laden with ‘traditional’ Danish folk dresses and mens’ Lederhosen. Checkered curtains and costume Viking helmets line the walls behind the tills, at which you can purchase I Heart Denmark! bumper stickers or postcards of cottages and windmills. 

After making our purchases, (mine include a boot-shaped shot glass – not entirely sure of the significance – and a pair of white frilly stockings), we exit the shop, following our sudden hunger pangs to the bakery across the road. Inside there is room for only two little tables, the majority of the space is taken up by a gigantic chiller, filled with rows upon rows of apple strudel, baklava, cinnamon buns, éclairs, lattice pie, macaron and pie of all flavour. We each decided on a treat and went outside to enjoy them under blue skies. My own apricot turnover was as satisfying as I’ve ever had, washed down by a not-so traditional strawberry shake. But hey, it only serves to remind that we’re still fully in the boundaries of the United States. Having quenched our thirst and satisfied our hunger, we take a stroll down the high street, marvelling at the quaint cottages and idyllic landscaping. Reaching the bottom of the road, we fall under the shadow of a large windmill. The windmill is a traditional building associated with Denmark, so it seems only right for one to have been built in this little town. As it is no longer in use it is now the site of the local winery, reinforcing the stereotype of the Danish love for booze. We have a quick look inside, however due to America’s laws on alcohol and under 21s, we are forbidden to make any purchases so leave empty-handed. 

On our walk back to the car we cross the main square. Sat inconspicuously on the corner in the shadows of a large oak tree is a large, square building. Above the solid wood door, lettering can just about be made out proclaiming the building to be the site of The Hans Christian Anderson Museum. We push open the creaking door and make our way inside. We appear to be the only patrons of this dusty space, and make our way around the cabinets displaying everything from a model of Anderson’s childhood house, to first, handwritten drafts of his early stories. It seems only fitting that this little Danish-Californian suburb would have such an institution, Anderson being one of the most famous voices to come out of Denmark. Upstairs is a library with a plethora of copies of his stories and other works, and as we make our way down the stale-smelling aisles, I stroke the covers of books so old that I feel they may crumble under my touch.

After this more subdued activity of our trip we make our way back out into the bright sunshine, and are faced with a most familiar sight. Having never been to Denmark, I’ve never seen the object itself in person but I have seen pictures of its slight, slate-grey frame. It is the Little Mermaid statue that sits on the shore of the Inderhavnen in Copenhagen. Of course it isn’t the sculpture itself but a smaller, identical replica. This shows just how far the residents of this small town will go to bring a taste of Europe to the West Coast of America, as many people who visit Solvang will never make it as far as the real Denmark. And that’s sad, really.

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