Destinations Magazine

Solvang: a Slice of Denmark in California

By Rashmi Gopal Rao

Danish windmills, statues of Hans Christian Andersen, Danish bakeries, wooden storks and elf houses atop Danish style buildings.  For a moment, you could think this is straight out of a quaint town in Denmark, but this is Solvang in California for you!

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History

Translating into “sunny field” in Danish, Solvang was founded by three Danish immigrants Reverned Benedict Nordentoft, Reverned Jens M. Gregersen and Professor Peder P Hornsyld all of whom shared a common dream of establishing a Danish town in America.  To provide a bit of context; between 1861 and 1910 there was an exodus of people from Denmark who migrated to the United States in anticipation and hope of better economic opportunities, social status and freedom.  This number crossed a whopping 90000 in the 1880s and while the Danes settled in their new country, they still bonded together on Danish culture, customs and traditions. Hence there were several Danish colonies that mushroomed during this time in the Midwest and Solvang is an example of one of the most successful Danish colonies that was founded in 1911.

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With a population of about 5500, Solvang is a picturesque town just 24 km north of the Pacific coast and about 75 km from Santa Barbara in California.  Replete with the old world charm a visit to Solvang is sure to get your senses refreshed and rejuvenated.  It is the sort of town where almost everyone knows everyone else, ‘downtown’ consists of few blocks and a couple of crossroads, stores are small and cozy, traffic is sparse and life is pleasantly slow paced.

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Horse Trolley and Elverhoj museum of History and Art

An ideal weekend getaway from Los Angeles, Solvang is best explored on foot.  However, if you want to experience the rustic essence of this little town, hop on to the Solvang trolley that provides a narrated tour of the town in a carriage that is drawn by two draft horses!  A wonderful, romantic experience that has been in existence since 1973.

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The best way to start your tour would be to make a stop at the Elverhoj museum of History and Art that is just about two blocks away from the town center.  Housed in a traditional structure that is reminiscent of an 18th century Danish farmhouse, the first thing that catches your attention as you approach the museum is the hand crafted wooden door with an innovative latch, that is reminiscent of the days of the yore.

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In fact, the museum was once the residence of Solvang’s most gifted couple Viggo Brandt-Erichsen and his wife, Martha Mott who were acclaimed artists and built this house in the 1950s.  One of the few museums dedicated to Danish culture outside of Denmark, Elverhoj has extensive exhibits relating to Solvang’s history and development.  The museum celebrates the industrious Danish-American spirit including the native culture and heritage through several photographs, models, artefacts, sculptures and paintings.

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Symbols, beliefs and traditions of the Danes

As you take a stroll through the serene, balmy roads lined with picture perfect houses set amidst the prettiest of gardens, you notice many of them having large birds ‘resting’ on the rooftops.  A closer look will reveal that these are wooden models of the European White stork that is now officially extinct in the wild in Denmark.

stork

Nevertheless, it is a tradition to have these birds on roof tops as they are believed to bring good luck and prosperity.  Windmills, little elf houses that are believed to be protect houses and Scandinavian styled buildings with timbered roofs are other typical Danish symbols found commonly in Solvang.

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Hans Christian Andersen connection

It is only apt that Solvang which seems to be straight out of a fairy tale houses the museum of Hans Christian Andersen Museum apart from having a Hans Christian Andersen square.  Located upstairs in the Book Loft Building, this charming museum is a trip down memory lane where you can browse books, artefacts and memorabilia related to the fairy tales that have been the favorite of generations.

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Operated by the Ugly Duckling foundation, the museum has exhibits and displays relating to Andersen’s life including a model of his childhood home and antique tools for making wooden shoes.

While in the town, do take time out to check out the fare in the bakeries and restaurants that serve specialty Danish pastries, pancakes and sausages.

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Some more glimpses of this absolutely delightful town.

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This article appeared originally in The Tribune here.


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