Simon Calder: What awaits Walt in Wilts? Twin-town tales

The man who pays his way

Of the many embarrassments that have dogged my progress, the most toe-curling episode involved a travel fair in Bristol. I had been booked to talk at 2pm on the joys and benefits of hitch-hiking. I started hitching from London at 9am on a miserable, wintry day. After a series of staccato lifts of a junction or two along the M4, I climbed into a brown Ford Sierra heading for Bristol. But the car suffered terminal gearbox failure between junctions 15 and 16.

By now it was past noon. With hitch-hiking on motorways both foolhardy and illegal, I legged it down the embankment to escape. The Sierra had expired on the outskirts of Swindon, the Wiltshire town that owes its existence to Brunel's Great Western Railway. Said line was being dug up. So, as the bus-replacement service stuttered across western England, I called the organisers.

Suppressing a smirk of Schadenfreude, they announced that the hitch-hiking talk was postponed by an hour because of the lecturer's inability to hitch to Bristol. Next time I shall stay put in Swindon: as The Independent reported this week, the town is now officially twinned with the planet's greatest pleasure hub, Walt Disney World in Florida.

Twinning arrangements are popular from Aberdeen (linked with Bulawayo in Zimbabwe) to Zurich (which grabbed San Francisco). Besides radiating brotherly love, such partnerships often give citizens preferential deals in their twin towns.

I first became aware of this in the early 1970s, when a generation of British schoolchildren were consigned by train to Stalinstadt. This steel-making town on the East German-Polish border was twinned with Sussex's own hotbed of revolution: Crawley New Town. By the time troupes of teenagers took trains eastwards in the name of international solidarity and cheap holidays, it had began to shrug off the Stalin connection, and had been renamed Eisenhüttenstadt: "city of ironworks". An ugly wasteland of hopes crushed by an autocratic regime, all arbeit (work) and no spiel (play). So much for Crawley: Eisenhüttenstadt was no better, as the budget Bolsheviks found after crossing the Iron Curtain to reach East Berlin, where they changed to the all-stations-to-despair.

*** In their shared lack of appeal, Crawley and Stalinstadt were ideal partners: any twinning relationship needs balance to flourish. You cannot say the same about some of the bizarre relationships that prevail among "sister cities" around the world.

Oklahoma City – celebrated mainly for the highway, Route 66, that speeds visitors away to California – won the civic hand of Rio. How did Watford persuade the grand Russian city of Novgorod to tie the twinning knot? After all, when the music stopped at the Anglo-Russian dance, Exeter was saddled with the dismal petro-chemical city of Yaroslavl – an industrial accident in waiting.

With Britain's economy now twinned with Burkina Faso's, pairing is essential to boost inbound tourism. Yet the pretty West Yorkshire town of Holmfirth, location for Last of the Summer Wine, chose to hook up with the Kazakh town of Kostanai. It has not brought a flood of tourists from the former Soviet republic.

When I called in to Holmfirth's excellent Postcard Museum, now sadly closed, the Kazakhs had sent some ideologically uplifting cards to celebrate International Women's Day. They were shown uncomfortably adjacent to vulgar postcards of buxom wenches enjoying the British seaside. Swindon may have similar surprises in store for Mickey Mouse.

Why Chesterfield is Coventry's step-twin

Europe has some seriously serial twinners, such as Graz in Austria. Arnold Schwarzenegger's home town boasts of links with eight cities from Trondheim in Norway to Trieste in Italy; the British partner is Coventry, while the German Stadtefreund is Darmstadt. I went to this town, south of Frankfurt, in search of Frankenstein's castle. It claims 14 partners – including Chesterfield, which makes the Derbyshire town a step-twin with Coventry.

Weymouth was presumably given the brush-off by Ostend and signed up, on the rebound, with Holzwickede in Belgium – whose subsequent Flemish fling means the Dorset resort unwittingly shares civic DNA with Colditz.

Still, at least the East German town where Allied airmen were incarcerated is close to Dessau, the home of the Bauhaus design movement. William Cook's story about it, published in The Independent Traveller, has just won this year's Germany Travel Writers' Award.

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