Monday, February 17, 2014

Solvang: California's Counterfeit Copenhagen

Do all fathers find it necessary to start road trips at three o'clock in the morning?  It never failed that the reveille of flickering bedroom lights at 2:45AM indicated that the time to hit the hay had ended and the time to hit the road had begun.  With sleep still very much in our eyes, we would stumble down the hallway dragging our blankets behind us and pile into the minivan for the kind of lackluster road trip where the only opportunities to see old-timey landmarks were the split seconds when the same were illuminated by headlights zooming by at 65 miles per hour.  Instead of staring into the darkness of a roadside abyss, we inevitably opted for more sleep.  My parents always said that an early start would help us avoid traffic but I suspect that 6+ hours in the car was much easier with five sleeping kids. 

As an adult, I admire mom and dad for their parental trickery.  Even as a child, I couldn't really blame them for the pre-dawn start because I fell asleep in suburban Orange County and woke up in Copenhagen. 

I'll never forget my first view of Solvang, CA, just a pit stop on our much-longer trek.  We pulled off onto a bucolic highway and, after a few minutes of gawking at ostrich farms, found ourselves in the center of 17th Century Denmark.  Surrounded by misty mountains, Solvang (Danish for "sunny valley") is the settlement of a few early-20th Century Danish transplants.  Set on recreating a taste of the old country in a familiar, if highly-unlikely, setting (downtown Solvang borders the old Mission Santa Ines), these wacky tacky pioneers commissioned a few half-timber buildings, with further residential and commercial construction following suit.  Needless to say, I was smitten; to me, a young child, it was an extension of Disneyland, a magical, fairy tale village only a few hours from home.

Only a few blocks in any direction, the village of Solvang envelops visitors in a
fully-realized environment of windmills, copper roofs, and half-timber construction.

A week ago, my brother and sister-in-law kidnapped me for a day of fun and adventure (not so sure that the duct tape, threats, and firearms were necessary).  We returned to Solvang with pleasure and purpose; one of my favorite and altogether-secret spots for fabric shopping is in the basement of Hans Christian Andersen Square, a complex of shops and a cafe owned and operated by a local family.  Talk about bargain basement prices; for only one dollar per yard I would practically buy my weight in fabric on each visit.  It was at this very location where I bought yards and yards of barkcloth and even found the fabric for this tropical frock and this border-printed number.

A photo of a fabric-buying expedition from years back.
Can you tell that cheap fabric makes these brothers happy?!  Weeeeee!!!

Sadly, the store was no longer in operation.  We entered the Solvang Information Center to see if the store had moved and to inquire after the family.  We learned that the patriarch of the family had recently passed away and, due to a possible dispute regarding the estate/will, all inventory was removed and the stores/cafe shuttered.  As I spoke to the kind and highly-informative information representative, I noticed a beautiful accordion spotlighted by a shaft of afternoon sunlight.  It took a little goading on my part, but eventually he picked it up and played it for me.

"The Happy Wanderer"
A more fitting song for the wacky tacky
adventure team would be hard to find.

Directionless and left to our own devices, we quickly settled into some of our more reliable exploits - eating and hijinks.

Solvang is a veritable smorgasbord of smorgasbords but we only really make room for Denmark's most-famous foodstuffs.  Several years ago our family hosted a young, Danish student* and, if good for nothing else, he answered the age-old question, "What do the Danes call a danish?" - answer, "Wienerbrød" which translates directly to "Viennese bread."  While Solvang does offer delicious Austrian danish, it should be noted that it is one of the few places in California to get the real Danish pastry, the aebleskiver (a pancake ball covered in jam and powdered sugar).

  *Incidentally, we made sure that he visited Solvang during his stay; he reported that Solvang
is a comically-inaccurate yet particularly-enjoyable translation of Danish culture.

I would say something about the old woman who lived in a shoe but I think she'd get mad.
I will say that the Danish-Mexican bobsled team is said to be a SHOE-in at the Winter Olympics.

After toying with the idea of hijacking a Segway tour, we decided instead to continue our wacky tacky walk around town.  We stopped in some thrift stores, crashed an antique sale, and stopped for every possible photo-op. 

What else would you do when introduced to Denmark's
favorite native son?  I think this is Danish protocol to give
Mr. Andersen a helping "Hans."

Besides defiling one of history's most-beloved authors, one of our favorite things to do in Solvang is take the back road out of town through the deer-covered hills and rolling farmland.  We invariably end up at an organic farm stand that operates on the honor system - Jeez Louise, it's a good thing we're so honorable!  Seasonal fruit, verdant greens (is that redundant?), gourds, and root vegetables are to be had at very reasonable prices.

Leave it to me, an avowed member of the animal resistance league, to fail miserably when I finally step out of my comfort zone and try to feed the goats; these billies and nannies were having absolutely no part of it.  I realize that my only point of reference is ever-reliable cartoons, but aren't goats supposed to eat tin cans and umbrellas?  Imagine turning your nose up at organic carrots!!!  Well, the joke is on you goats,  more carrots for me.....

If you find yourself a "Happy Wanderer," be sure to wander over to Solvang.  You won't find deeply-discounted fabric but you'll find a whole lot of faux-Danish charm!

Have you ever been to Solvang?  Do you have any similar towns near you?  If you are a reader from Denmark, please tell us what you think of California's answer to Copenhagen.


Mr. Tiny


  1. Many many years ago I saw an episode of Kathy Griffins old show and she went to Solvang. Ever since then, I've thought it sounds hanging out in a cuckoo clock

  2. I remember been there 17 years ago... I was 18 years old... oh gosh, time flies!
    It's always fun to see how americans recreate Europe... so old fashionned... I remember how France was recreated in Universal studio... not our nowadays country but probably Paris 100 years ago! I think they don't want to recreate the reality but just a pleasant place just inspired by our old Europe like Disneyland!

    1. Yes, it is definitely a refined/distilled/romanticized version of reality. I think most wacky tacky landmarks are like that - just the best, quirkiest parts.

  3. My first pair of Chuck Taylors came from that shoe store... I am beyond jealous of your time with the pastries. I can still taste a sort of Florentine cookie that was filled with mocha cream. I have not been there in 8 years or so, do you think is it still going strong? I hate to think of the place falling on hard times.

    1. It is definitely going strong. The town was crawling with tourists and with the exception of HCA Square, nearly all the retail spaces were full. We had a great time at the bakery only now I'm sorry that I didn't see those Florentines!!!

  4. What an awesome outing! Such a shame the store closed over family disputes. I love all of the architecture! It's such a crazy neat place! *adds to list of places to see before I die* haha

    1. Yes, I know the set designer in you would find loads of inspiration in solvang!

  5. Oh, Mr Tiny! First Wagon Wheel Bowling and now Solvang?!? It's like I just stepped back into before I moved to the Bay Area. I used to go to Solvang all the time. There's this one kitchen kisch shop I always loved to go to, it's right next to the quilt store! And the antique stores? Marvelous! I especially love their selection of jewelry.

    1. Isn't Solvang awesome?!! It isn't like stepping into a time warp, it's like stepping into the Twilight Zone!

  6. oh that looks fun! i'm sorry the fabric store was closed though! there is a shop like that in a tiny town called hohenwald here. i bought a big bolt of cute novelty fabric (kittens!) that i'm pretty sure is from the 60's for 4 dollars! probably 12 yards! maybe someday i'll so something with it. like make matching play clothes for my 9 children!

    1. I can't wait to see those kitten-covered rompers!!! Remind me when I am there that I must visit hohenwald!