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SOLVANG : Danish Treat : Everything in this hamlet hints of Denmark.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

So, you’re dreaming of a European tour this summer: the theater in London, quaint Scandinavian villages, wonderful arts and crafts. But the bubble bursts when you remember that you have no foreign-language skills, jet lag leaves you frazzled and the recession has deflated your wallet.

Stash your passport back in the drawer but don’t sulk. It is possible to get the feel of Europe without the air fare. Solvang, the Danish village, is 85 miles from Ventura.

Theaterfest, featuring six plays in repertory by the Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts, opens its Solvang season June 13. It will run through Sept. 22. By arriving early or staying overnight, you’d have lots of time to explore the picturesque town nestled below the San Rafael Mountains.

Try to arrive for lunch and order the smorrebrod (open-face sandwiches), a yummy Danish design.

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Covering the dense, thinly sliced pumpernickel are artistically arranged morsels of ost (cheese), laks (smoked salmon), skinke (ham), aeg (egg), odsesteg (roast beef) and other goodies. During our visit, the waitress grinned at our attempts to pronounce Danish words.

Solvang calls itself the Danish capital of America, and glancing around the restaurant, it is easy to see why. The windows were hung with lace curtains, and the walls were adorned with carved wood trim and Royal Danish china.

That aura lingered in a stroll around the town.

The streets were colorfully decorated with flags and banners waving in the breeze. Copper roofs gleamed in the sunlight, and carved storks, the Danish symbol of good luck, adorned many rooftops. Windmills slowly turned, and life-size wooden soldiers, reproductions of the men who defend the royal palace in Copenhagen, peered from their guardhouses.

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Many homes and buildings duplicate the 18th-Century Danish style of construction, using bindingsvaerk , or timbering, on the outside. The best example is worth the small detour from the center of town to the Elverhoy Museum. This former artist’s studio displays Danish antiques and photos of Solvang’s history.

“The town was not built for tourism, of course,” said Lyle Wilkinson, museum director. He explained that it was founded 80 years ago by Danish educators from Iowa who wanted to start a folk school. Most of the original settlers came to farm in Solvang, which means “sunny field.”

“But they had traditions, and they had their customs and their food, and when the tourists began to be attracted by that, and they were written up in magazines in the 1950s, they said, ‘Hey, there’s some bucks to be made here.’ So they started to go all native,” Wilkinson said.

Going “native” has meant that today the town of 4,000 residents attracts 3 million tourists each year, according to Chamber of Commerce statistics. Yet the town--even with its share of the franchised gift and lingerie outlets that can be found in most tourist spots--retains its charm and hospitality.

The major streets offer arts, crafts and imports from Scandinavian countries and other European nations. Here one can find hand-knit ski sweaters, lace table runners, handcrafted windmills or rocking horses, copper ware, a pair of clogs or a storybook by Hans Christian Andersen, the Danish storyteller.

A tiny museum above The Book Loft bookstore is dedicated to Andersen and displays and sells individual stories and collections of his works in English and Danish. Of the more than 160 tales he wrote, the most famous include “The Ugly Duckling,” “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” “The Little Mermaid” and “The Princess and the Pea.”

Although the town is small enough that one can get everywhere on foot, a fun way to tour around is by honen . The replica of a 19th-Century Copenhagen streetcar, drawn by a pair of massive blond Belgian draft horses, provides a 20-minute excursion.

While David Esdaile drives, his wife, Caroline, points out spots of interest and offers historical highlights of Solvang.

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According to Caroline:

* The original settlers paid only $40 per acre for their land.

* Petersen’s Yummy Burgers sports a genuine thatched roof.

* The Little Mermaid is the town emblem.

The oldest building in Solvang is the Bethania Lutheran Church, where services are often conducted in Danish. Above the center aisle hangs a replica of a three-masted sailing ship.

“It’s a traditional thing in Danish churches to have a ship’s model because of the association with the sea,” Wilkinson said. Because the Danes lived by fishing and shipping, he said, the symbolism of “carrying someone safely across” is strong.

If you feel like taking a break from the Danish atmosphere, Mission Santa Ines, founded in 1804 by the Spanish padres, is just on the edge of town. Its thick adobe walls, arcade and garden provide a pleasant respite from the sun. A bit farther out, two wineries, Ballard Canyon and Carey Cellars, offer tours and tastings.

Smorgasbord, the inspiration for the American salad bar, makes an ideal choice for dinner. A typical spread served in many restaurants includes several salads, sliced meats, herring, hard-boiled eggs, and cheeses. Danish meatballs and sausages, red cabbage and potatoes are among the hot dishes.

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For dessert, stroll by one of the bakeries and munch fancy tarts and slices of apple strudel, and pick up loaves of onion-cheese and Swedish limpa bread to take home.

Danish Details

Getting there: Drive to Santa Barbara along Interstate 101. For a scenic route, take San Marcos Pass Road (California 154) to Santa Ynez. Turn onto California 246 into Solvang. For a different return trip, take California 246 to Buellton, then switch onto Interstate 101 and head home along the coast.

Where to eat: Of the 34 restaurants in town, 13 serve Danish specialties. Others serve Chinese, French, Italian, Mexican, Greek or American food. A plate of two Danish open-face sandwiches runs $4 to $6.50; all-you-can-eat smorgasbord will cost about $10 per person.

Where to stay: There are 16 motels and hotels in and around Solvang. These run from the upscale Alisal Guest Ranch, at $240 to $300 double occupancy with a two-night minimum, down to the Denmark Hotel, which has doubles for as little as $30. The average room rate is between $60 and $75. Campgrounds are available nearby in Buellton, Santa Ynez and Lake Cachuma.

For more information: Call the Solvang Chamber of Commerce at 688-3317. To reach Theaterfest, call 1-800-221-9469.


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