Wednesday, 9 October 2013

The Sierre Tour: lots of Alpine selfies

Sierre or Siders, as it is known in German, is a town in the Swiss Alps that I went to in search of a tour. Well to be more precise, I was paying a visit to ECAV and catching up with some of the people who I met at the Critical Tourism symposium in Nida but, when in a new town what better thing to do than take a tour? And, no please don't answer that with a long list of superior activities.

First stop then was the Office du Tourisme where I enquired about tours of Sierre. The man in the office, a man of few words, recommended the map tour, handed me a free copy and that was that. With this in hand I made my way around the town.

Number 1

The pocket sized map indicated a walking route around the town with 9 stops highlighted and short descriptions of the various buildings, because yes, this map tour was going to take me around nine old and notable buildings of Sierre. Here I am in front of number 1 the Town Hall.

Number 2

It was a fine day so walking from point to point was no hardship. Indeed, I heard that this part of Switzerland is considered one of the sunniest spots and is thus popular with visitors. 

Number 3

The succession of buildings I was directed to was of rather limited interest as the descriptions were very short and revealed little that was not already evident. For example, Number 3 reads, "St Catherine's Church was built in the 17th century. The centrepiece is its alter inspired by the one in St Peter's Cathedral in Rome. It is one of the most representative examples of Baroque architecture in the Valais." 

Number 4

For a little bit of entertainment I decided to go with the tourist self-portrait format when making my way around on this tour. By number 4, La Maison de Courten, the smile was becoming a little ironic. That, I'm afraid is the effect of repetition. I came across a guide to taking tourist self portraits which seemed excessive but after having taken a few I see there are some dos and don'ts even with this format. It is the most basic 'I was here' shot and I remember seeing them being taken not only in tourist destinations but also in a contemporary art gallery in Beijing. It was quite a funny sight actually, a young woman was very efficiently working her way through the exhibits, taking pictures of herself in front of each one. I have to wonder if the prevalence of this form is due to the combination of digital cameras and social media. Were people taking such shots in the 1920s?

Number 5

Another church.

Number 6

I got the impression that Sierre is a town with a significant tourism industry but the relationship is not obviously antagonistic as it can be elsewhere. I remember hearing that the most concentrated tourist spots are up in the mountains. There are luxury resorts up there which are "another world", places the sheiks and suchlike go. Sierre, by contrast, seems to be a comfortable and quiet town, the portal through which the tourists arrive and where they might stop to eat, shop or arrange things.

Number 7

I had the excellent fortune to be staying at number 7 on the map, Chateau Mercier. The building behind me is used for artists in residence and when I had finished my tour I met two of the current artists and some of the ECAV team over dinner. 

I did not visit number 8 because it was not on the walking route. It is strange to indicate La Chapelle de Saint-Ginier and not construct the route to take you to it, but that is what the person planning this tour did. Number 8 exists as an extra stop, a prolongation. Another way to understand this however is that there are in fact two tours, a walking route which takes you past nice places and a parallel tour of historical buildings. The two tours are sandwiched together on the map but are in fact somewhat separate entities. It would be quite possible to visit all of the historically significant buildings in a more ruthlessly direct way and at the same time it would also be fine to just follow the walking route and ignore the churches and houses of the great and good altogether. As there is a often an implicit politics behind the selection of the significant buildings, particularly when they are not framed in any other way than that of being the houses of the rich and powerful, I found the walking route easier to accept as it made fewer demands upon me.  

Number 9

The smile of one who has just realised he has achieved not very much.

I stumbled across the tourism school and noted that tourism is taught as a Bachelor of Science. I guess there are many ways to understand tourism and I have to ask myself how it being considered as a social science influences the shape it takes. I am quite aware, for example, that the type of artistic engagement with the phenomenon of tourism that I am interested in developing, comes from an entirely different position. Reconciling these differences should be quite a challenge if we are to go beyond one being subsumed into the other, such as the arts being managed to promote cultural tourism or, as in my case, tourism providing the source material for an art project. On the subject of which, I'll be giving an address on this point at the European Culture Forum in Brussels 04th November.

I had earlier in the day been given a driving tour around the town and had the impression that Sierre had little centre but was instead dispersed around multiple centres. This indeed is part of the narrative of the town, that it is derived from multiple small settlements joining. From the perspective of the car this seemed to make sense.

Walking around however I came to get a sense of a town with a centre that can be walked around and of tourism being dispersed in the surrounding area. I also saw plenty of signs like this one which show the mountains and give a sense of the region. These are welcome signs for the conceptual tour guide as they provide very convenient visual props to help talk about the distant locations and at the same time understand the infrastructure that brings them closer.   

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