Solvang: A hamlet beyond Hamlet

You can’t travel more than a mile in the foothills of the Central Coast without seeing a series of buildings or homes or even freeway rest areas made to look Spanish Colonial, all adobe and rutilant tile roofs. Even the McDonald’s off Highway 101 looks as if it was designed in Father Serra’s time.

Everywhere, that is, except for this curious slice of Denmark, barely six blocks long and three blocks deep, shoehorned into the Santa Ynez Valley wine region. Solvang may be 40 miles north of Santa Barbara and 35 miles south of Santa Maria, but by all appearances it looks like someone took a wrong turn and wound up in 18th century Copenhagen.

Once you veer east on Highway 246 in Buellton for the 4-mile drive, the very color scheme of the valley seems to change, from dusty beige earth tones of hillsides dotted with verdant oak to a riot of rich blues and yellows and red, everywhere red: flags, banners, awnings facades. It’s all very “Wizard of Oz”-like, that moment when Dorothy awakens to Technicolor.

Call Solvang a Disneyland for Danes, but instead of rides and attractions, you’ll find bakeries touting flaky Danish on every block, boutiques housed in dwellings featuring gables, garrets and imitation thatched roofs, selling traditional dress of the Danish provinces and, of course, clogs. There are enough windmills to power this burg of 5,400 residents, except the blades never turn.

At first glance, you think, is this a town or a stage set? The place is exceedingly clean, antiseptic in the Scandinavian manner. Even the lone homeless man sleeping in Hans Christian Andersen Park discreetly moved when a couple posed for a picture in front of the statue bearing the park’s namesake.

But as with so many slices of Americana, the original purpose for Solvang (“Sunny Field” in Danish) is long gone, but the town still cashes in on its heritage.

One hundred and two years ago, three wise Danish expats – two reverends and a professor – came from frigid Iowa and bought 9,000 acres of a former Spanish land grant in hopes of spreading Danish culture and make a living off the Central Coast’s fertile soil. They built churches and schools, homes, ranches and dairy farms, even a college. Danes came, by the carriage-full, both from the chilly Midwest and from the ancestral homeland. Solvang’s climatic civic event came in 1936, when actual Danish royalty paid a visit.

What turned the town from a quaint ethnic hamlet that pretty much minded its own business into the tourist destination (don’t say trap; too harsh) that it is today was a 1947 spread in the Saturday Evening Post calling Solvang a “spotless Danish village that blooms like a rose in California’s charming Santa Ynez Valley.” Farms were starting to get played out, so tourism became the bumper crop. Town leaders renamed streets with Danish words and cities, erected windmills and half-timbered, gingerbreadlike cottages, as in the old country. They started selling a smorgasbord of curios, preparing aromatic Danish kringles and pungent pickled herring and pork-and-red-cabbage, washed down with a growler of Carlsberg, to those seeking an authentic Denmark experience without traveling the 5,602 miles to actually visit.

Like a method actor who immerses himself in his role, Solvangites have played their parts to perfection, from the first “Velkommen” to the last “Farvel.”

Little matter that the woman in traditional Danish folk dress behind the counter at Olsen’s Bakery is a Latina, or that Arne no longer is the one to serve up “Arne’s Famous Aebleskivers” (think a pancake rolled up in a ball) at the Solvang Restaurant, or that cowboy boots and sensible flats, not clogs, are featured in the window of the Solvang Shoe Store. And never mind that less than 10 percent of the population can claim Danish ancestry, according to the town’s Elverhoj Museum. Everyone can pledge allegiance to the red-and-white cross flag within the city’s 2.4 square miles.

“I’m not Danish, but I’ve lived here 50 years, so I can say I’m an adopted Dane,” said Katheryn Mullins of the Book Loft, which doubles as the Hans Christian Andersen Museum, honoring the beloved children’s author. “This is one way we’re keeping alive the town’s heritage.”

Andersen, whose oeuvre of classics includes “The Ugly Duckling,” “The Little Mermaid,” “The Emperor’s New Clothes” and “The Princess and the Pea,” is something of a patron saint in town. Better him, perhaps, than that other literary Dane, the indecisive Hamlet.

The museum, which fills the loft above the book store, is chock full of first editions with artistic covers, original letters written in Andersen’s hand, and scale models of his childhood home and hometown of Odense. (In fact, arguably the town’s best hotel, the Royal Copenhagen Inn, is designed to look like Odense – with ice and vending machines.) Even with Disney’s movie-version of “The Little Mermaid,” Mullins laments that many kids aren’t reading Andersen’s children’s stories. But, she added brightly, lots of little ones do get their picture taken in front of the Little Mermaid statue – a copy of the original in Copenhagen – on Mission Drive and Alisal Road.

“People tell me there are too many distractions for kids these days to read Hans Christian Andersen,” Mullins lamented. “The stories are often quite long.”

Still, the kids’ parents – or maybe, more accurately, grandparents – can spend a pleasant few hours combing through Andersenalia. He wasn’t all sunshine and positive vibes, as sanitized American versions of his stories let on. The museum has a display devoted to his unrequited love for the singer Jenny Lind, which hurt him deeply. Also this quote is highlighted: “Suffering serves as ballast for our craft on the waters of life.”

That’s not something you’ll see embroidered on a pillow down at Solvang Needlework on Mission Street, but credit Mullins for presenting Andersen as a real person, not a Disneyfied automaton.

Merchants, naturally, have no problem perpetuating the sunny Danish theme, turning nostalgia into commerce. Denmark may not be considered a true capitalistic country, but tourists don’t know that.

One of the oldest businesses is Elna’s Dress Shop, which since 1942 has been selling contemporary women’s clothing but specializes in traditional Danish “costumes.” Elna Larsen, who died at age 981/2, ran the place and did all the sewing for decades but in her latter years outsourced manufacture of the Danish lass attire, not to Singapore but to seamstresses in town.

The shop is the go-to place for Danish traditional dress in Southern California, not that there’s any overarching need. Still, celebrities have graced Elna’s little shop looking for $160 adult dresses, $95 for kids.

“Hugh Hefner’s ‘Girls Next Door’ – the original ones, very attractive – came in the store one day,” said worker Dee Dee Asmann. “I knew they had to be somebody special because it was one good-looking girl after another. Suddenly, there’s boom mike hovering over me and a guy saying, ‘Surprise, you’re on ‘Girls Next Door.’ They ended up not buying anything. We did get that actress, Michelle Potter. And Roseanne Barr came in looking for a dress for her son.”

Surprisingly, or perhaps not, Elna’s has a small but ardent male clientele, Danish maidens apparently popular with the cross-dressing set.

Clogs, of course, make the outfit. And for that, the Solvang Shoe Store is the go-to seller. The store has a few all-wooden clogs on display, but the ones they sell are a little more comfortable and forgiving – just a little. Saleswoman Angelina La Pointe boasts that her store is the “primary clog provider in town” and imparts this wisdom to customers: “Clog construction is very high in the arch and very firm. You need to find one that’s a really good fit, because it won’t move.”

Indeed, most of the clogs on display seemed as flexible as the giant red wooden statue of a clog on the sidewalk in front of the store into which children climb.

“That big red clog out front is sort of a feature of Solvang,” La Pointe said. “You’ve got to get your kid’s picture in it. There are families that have generations of pictures in that shoe, so that’s pretty cool.”

Cheesy as that may sound, it pales compared to the kingdom of kitsch that is the Thomas Kinkade Signature Gallery of Copenhagen Street. The late “Painter of Light” is not normally associated with Denmark, but he apparently vacationed there in 2004 and was so inspired that he set up his easel on Mission Street and painted a streetscape featuring the green awning of his own gallery. Ryan Bee, a Kinkade saleswoman, said the gallery had sold four prints of Kinkade’s “Solvang” ($1,495 a pop, signed). She had one left in the back to show off.

“He did it right across the street,” Bee said. “This was plein air. He did it in two hours. It was kind of crazy.”

Kinkade captured the thatched roofs, fluttering flags and dropping tree limbs on cobblestone streets, but he forgot the aeblskivers. Nothing says Solvang like aeblskivers, the Danish breakfast staple that nearly every restaurants feels obliged to sell. At the Solvang Restaurant, the three balls of cooked pancake batter, larded with powered sugar and drizzled with raspberry jam, is popular at breakfast, lunch and dinner. The Arne of “Arne’s Famous Aeblskivers” may have sold the restaurant 26 years ago, but the dough keeps rolling in – and out.

Johnny Ala drove a half hour from Santa Maria just to have his favorite breakfast. “It’s just great, like a warm pancake in a ball,” he said.

As traditional as the Solvang Restaurant is, it became a catalyst for the changing face of Solvang in 2004 when a scene from the wine-besotted movie “Sideways” was filmed in a booth. The film spawned a new breed of tourists for the area, oenophiles combing the Santa Ynez Valley for tasting rooms. Solvang hasn’t suffered as a result; in fact, it’s opened tasting rooms of its own in town. They are, naturally, housed under thatched roofs and half-timbered cottages.

Got to stay in character.