“Solvang” means “sunny field” in Danish, an apt description of a city that conveys “fryd” — Danish for joy — as well as “hygge” — a sense of contentment — on every street and in every shop.
When I sat down recently with Solvang Mayor Ryan Toussaint, City Attorney C.E. “Chip” Wullbrandt, and Public Information Officer Kady Fleckenstein, those feelings of hygge and fryd were present in abundance.
“We are focused on experiential tourism,” said Ryan. “We want people to feel as if they’ve been to Denmark after they visit Solvang.”
Kady agrees: “We are about being Old World while staying relevant.”
On average, 1.5 million people come to Solvang every year, a fact that prompts Wullbrandt to say, “I love living in a place where people pay a lot of money to come and visit.”
It’s easy to see why they come. A sense of joy permeates the air. You can imagine actually being in Denmark as you stroll through the streets, passing by one bakery or restaurant after another, all of them featuring Danish dishes such as pork and red cabbage, pickled herring, and pastries like aebleskiver and kage.
Windmills are a fixture of the town’s architecture. The buildings, many of which are done in traditional Danish style, feature storks on the rooftops, a sign of good fortune in Denmark.
Solvang was founded in 1911. Three Danish-Americans — Rev. Benedict Nordentoft, Rev. J.M. Gregersen, and Prof. P.P. Hornsyld — purchased 9,000 acres adjacent to the Santa Ines Mission, land that had originally been part of the Rancho San Carlos de Jonata Mexican land grant, and began selling them in parcels. Danish farmers from the Midwest soon followed, attracted by the lovely climate and the rich soil of the Santa Ynez Valley. The town began to grow.
While Solvang remains old world, Ryan points out that it has to change with the times. As the wine industry has blossomed on the Central Coast, Solvang now has more tasting rooms than ever before, as well as two new coffee houses.
“It is important that we remain business friendly,” he said.
But Solvang will always retain its Danish connection. In 1936 it began the tradition of Danish Days, a festival celebrating Solvang’s Danish roots with folk dancing, music and, of course, Danish food. Solvang has also hosted Danish royalty over the years. In 1939 Crown Prince Fredrik and Princess Ingrid paid a visit. They were followed by Princess Margrethe in 1960. She returned in 1976, by then queen of Denmark, along with her husband, Prince Henrik. The latter would come back in 2011, helping Solvang celebrate its 100th birthday.
You cannot mention Solvang or anything Danish without a reference to Hans Christian Andersen, Denmark’s most celebrated writer and “father of the modern fairy tale.” Taking inspiration from the traditional Danish folk tales he heard growing up, he produced classics like “The Snow Queen,” “The Nightingale,” “Thumbelina” and “The Ugly Duckling.” A statue of “The Little Mermaid” — the title of one of Andersen’s most famous stories — can be seen on Alisal Road, not far from the Hans Christian Andersen Museum.
Ryan, Kady, and Chip are full of optimism about Solvang’s future.
“Solvang will never lose its charm,” said Kady, an assertion with which Chip and Ryan heartily agree. “There’s so many different experiences here that you never run out of things to do.”
Or, as the butterfly says in one of Andersen’s fairy tales, “Just living is not enough. One must have sunshine, freedom and a little flower.”
Solvang offers all these, and more — fryd, hygge, and good food. Skol!