August 14, 2023

Selling Old Towns: Consumption and Hyperreality

Karen sternheimer 72523By Karen Sternheimer

I’m a sucker for an old town when I’m traveling, and based on the crowds I regularly find on these visits, I am not alone.

Old towns hold out the promise of a walk into history and a chance to see something that we seldom get to see in our daily lives. They feel like they represent the most “authentic” aspect of a place, one that might distill the essence of what it means to visit this locale. In contrast to the mundane, everyday nature of most places, old towns seem like they offer something special.

On a recent trip to Munich, one of the first things we did was walk around Altstadt, (German for old city), not too far from our hotel. Due to the time change we woke up early and were out the door by 7 am on a Monday, when the streets were relatively empty, other than commuters heading to work.

Below is an image of Munich’s town hall in its most famous square, Marienplatz, which dates back to the nineteenth century, although much of it was rebuilt after World War II, and then expanded in the 1990s. Picture1Likewise, the department store below sustained extensive damage during World War II and was also expanded in the early 2000s. Much of Munich was rebuilt after the war, as about half of it was damaged during Allied bombings. City leaders decided to rebuild it to look as similar to it had looked before the war, so even much of the “old town” is just a few decades old. Not so old for Europe.


In this sense, this old town might reflect what French sociologist Jean Baudrillard called hyperreality, the endless reproduction of symbols without an original. Even the pre-war city hall was called neues rathaus, the new city hall to replace the old town hall, built in about 1310. Within Baudrillard’s concept, the symbol comes to represent the “real.” The mostly rebuilt old town in Munich is largely a stand-in.

Old towns—and any travel, really—allow visitors to merge with the location as well, through pictures and social media posts. We become “part” of a place, at least symbolically, using the reproduced image. For many social media devotees, being there might be less important than producing images of being there.

It is always interesting to watch someone obviously focused on creating an Insta-moment (posing in stereotypical ways, re-taking the same image of themselves multiple times after checking it out on the screen). I have seen people on a gondola in a Venice canal appear to pay little attention to their surroundings while duck-facing for the camera. I’ve also seen someone miss the sight of a beautiful beach in Hawai’i while staring into a camera held with a selfie stick.

You might have also noticed the big “sale” banner on the photo above. Kaufhaus means department store in German, so its use has not changed. But one thing I have noticed about nearly every old town I have visited is that their primary focus appears to be shopping.

The photo below is from Innsbruck, Austria’s old town. The architecture is striking, as is the logo for the Hard Rock Café right under the building’s lettering that translates to “Old Innsbruck 1577.” Shops and restaurants line the promenade.

Picture3Around the corner, a building bearing a fresco painting appears to date back to 1566. On the street level, passersby can purchase a range of souvenirs, from t-shirts, socks, and hats, and even what appears to be child-sized traditional garb.

Picture5This area was packed on a late Monday morning, filled with people carrying shopping bags.

Somehow, I’m always surprised by both the crowds and the focus on shopping in old towns. Several years ago, I thought we’d “pop in” to the old town in Verona, Italy.  There were massive parking structures to accommodate all the tourists, and the streets became so crowded that it was hard to walk around (the photo below was taken when we first arrived in Verona, before the crowds). We experienced the same situation when we arrived in Venice, where the city itself is essentially a commercialized old town.

Picture6Perhaps my biggest surprise came while visiting Bergamo, Italy’s Citta Alta. I was enchanted by online descriptions and the fact that several of the buildings date back to the twelfth century.  While not too crowded in 2021, the area teemed with trinket shops and overpriced restaurants.

Picture7On the plus side, I had perhaps the best sandwich of my life on the way back to the car outside of the touristy area by a nearby college campus. I don’t even remember what kind of sandwich it was, just the freshly baked bread and melted cheese….

Buying something in an old town is perhaps another way for us to be connected to the place and past. We might remember our visit in the future through our purchases. And these have often been spaces of commerce throughout history, so the shopping-heavy focus is likely centuries old as well.

What other meanings do we often make of old towns and tourist centers?

Photos courtesy of the author


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