Just as you cross the city limits, the understated southern architecture that defines the farms and cabins in the northwest corner of the Peach State give way to something a little more European.
The theme here is decidedly alpine, from the painted wooden facades to the sloping roofs to the signage, which is in German. If I didn’t know any better, I might think I’m vacationing in Bavaria.
But Helen is real – really faux in an endearing way that sets it apart from most other mountain resorts. But it’s hardly alone.
When it comes to ersatz European villages, Solvang, Calif., is another standout. We were also unprepared for the jarring change between California wine country and Danish town as we exited off the 101 – that’s what they call it in California, simply “the 101” – and drove along Mission Drive toward town.
Unlike Helen, which turned Bavarian as a way to attract visitors, Solvang was founded by real Danes more than a century ago. Today, that heritage and the resulting attractions (bakeries, souvenir shops selling Euro trinkets and a copy of Copenhagen’s Little Mermaid statue) fuel a robust tourism industry.
We had no idea any of that awaited us at the time; Solvang was just the town we passed through enroute to some of the more remote wineries in Santa Barbara County. But we had to stop when we saw it – how could we not?
Our son Aren, who was just a toddler, enjoyed the European pastries we found at Mortensen’s Danish Bakery for the rest of the day, and the adults tried a bite or two as well before continuing our journey.
By the way, it’s impossible to tell that Solvang’s roots are more authentic than Helen’s. Both are Americanized for the convenience of the visitors. For example, the public restrooms don’t have pay toilets, as they would in Europe. And there’s way too much fudge – something pretty much unheard of in Europe – for sale in town.
Helen and Solvang aren’t the only faux European villages in America, nor are they the most famous. Leavenworth, Wash., in the eastern foothills of the Cascade Mountains, also does the fake Bavarian theme, and it does it well.
Why Bavarian? Like Helen, the city fell on hard times after the sawmill industry died and the Great Northern Railway Company was re-routed around the city. In the early 1960’s, in a last-ditch effort to turn around their fortunes, city leaders decided to change Leavenworth’s look. They believed the eye-catching alpine architecture would bring tourism into the area. And they were right.
Each faux European town comes with its own quirks, which make it all the more compelling. Solvang’s Southern California climate is decidedly un-Danish, but Leavenworth gets the winters right, and the snow-covered huts look like something straight out of Southern Germany.
Our vacation rental in the mountains of Helen didn’t have a trace of Teutonic, but the town clearly tried to out-German other German villages, with clichéd street names like Edelweiss Strasse, named after the rare alpine flower and, um, that song in The Sound of Music. You know the one?
There’s also Hansel & Gretel’s Candy Kitchen (they sell fudge, of course) the Black Forest Bear Park (I’ve lived in the Black Forest, nice try) and the Old Bavaria Inn. My favorite street name: Narr Weg, which loosely translates into “crazy path.” Maybe it was an urban planner’s way of saying, “Crazy thing we’re doing here, isn’t it?”
All three of these faux European cities are tourist towns through and through, so they make great places to visit. They also make me want to see the real thing. Alas, kids, a Bavarian ski vacation is not in this year’s budget.
I’m hard-pressed to name the best faux European village in the United States, but I think these are the three strongest candidates. Maybe you can help us sort it out.