Why Do We Love Old Towns?

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If you’ve ever looked for a simple and cheap way to experience the joy and wonders of time travel, then you should visit the nearest old village or town. Wherever you live, it is very likely that a centenary castle, a millenary abbey or simply a very old road is waiting for you, just around the corner.

If you look at them from far away, you wouldn’t notice anything in particular; maybe only some mild curiosity would arise about its architecture, its modern use or just its age, and shortly you will be back to your Twitter or Facebook feeds. However, if you decide to take some further steps to get nearer to that bizarre old building or that ancient city you always wondered so much about then, upon reaching your destination, your interest will probably be piqued by some more unusual things. Maybe it will be the strange dialect whispered by local people, derived from times gone by, or a specific detail about that abbey or road that makes it stand out from the rest.

These details will have the power to transport you back in time. Suddenly you will start to wonder: “How much the language of this city has changed during the centuries? Will these people be able to understand anything said by their ancestors?” or “What is that scratch on that castle? Was it caused by a cannon ball during some forgotten war?” Then your mind may begin to rewind past ages and centuries, trying to imagine what was it like to live in that old town: whether down those ruined stone stairs a king retired to speak pretty words to his lover or what that old man could have thought about in that dungeon under the city, closed to every light and sound, marking its initials on the wall.

Netley Abbey. Credit: Riccardo Marrocchio

Some old towns have so perfectly and beautifully maintained their historic centres, that these mind voyages can be provoked by practically everything that you can see around you. As an international student at Southampton, who is originally from Italy, I have experienced these sensations many times myself, having lived in Rome for almost ten years at walking distance from the Colosseum. In that wonderful city there are many ruins, blended with new buildings and roads, that inspire the memories of an empire that once ruled most of Europe and the Middle East.

When I came to Southampton to pursue my studies, I thought that I would never feel those sensations again. However, on one of my recent trips to uncover the attractions of Southampton and its neighbouring cities, I have felt these seem feelings that I first experienced in Italy. This didn’t only happen at famous historical sites like Stonehenge or the round table of King Arthur at Winchester or the places linked to the disaster of the Titanic. Indeed, to my surprise, I have discovered many beautiful sites in and around Southampton that could really excite the fantasy of your mind. There’s the Old Town Cemetery, full of old and intricate tombs covered by grass and trees, each telling the story of a man or a woman who lived in or just went by this city, even centuries ago. There’s the Netley Abbey that rests in a wonderful garden just outside Southampton; looking at its huge heights and its rose windows one can only imagine how beautiful it was when it was still covered by stained glass, projecting colourful lights inside the shadowy interiors. And further on, there’s an important part of English naval history docked in Portsmouth Harbour, with the HMS Warrior, HMS Alliance and HMS Victory, where Captain Nelson was shot during his efforts against Napoleon.

Portsmouth’s Historic Harbour. Credit: Riccardo Marrocchio

And yet, a beautiful historic centre is not only a place to let your mind wander or to have a romantic escape with your lover. Most of the old towns around the world have gained protection under the UNESCO heritage because they remind us of who we were; of the peaks we have ascended but also of the lower points of history. The unusual dialects spoken by the elderly population of old towns remind us of ancient wisdom collected through the ages, preserved in their short popular sayings. The battle scars branded in castle walls remind us of battles past and present.

And then, using these memories of who we have been, we can look forward to who we would like to become.

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I am a Italian Physicist who crossed the English Channel to pursue a PhD in Engineering. During this journey, I brought along with me my love for reading, for science, philosophy and my fascination for travel, which you will find scattered through my articles. You can follow me on Instagram as @physicist_rick

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