Vienna/Bratislava

The Austrian capital and its Slovakian counterpart are rediscovering a beautiful relationship.

Like real twins, some twin cities get separated. Vienna and Bratislava are naturally divided by about 60km, a language, and a national border, but also by history and ideology: Bratislava lay behind the Iron Curtain for nearly 50 years when it was Czechoslovakia’s second-biggest city. But before that, there had been a clear link when both cities were neighbours in the Austro-Hungarian empire.

In recent years, there’s been a reunion between the two cities, both of which are on the Danube River. Reconnection began when Slovakia became independent in 1993. Slovakia joined the EU in 2004 and adopted the euro in 2009, enabling economic exchange and investment opportunities. A highway between the cities opened in 2007. With firms such as Volkswagen and Kia now established here, Bratislava has become a car industry hub, while Vienna and its environs are booming in biotech and research. Multinationals such as Samsung and Hewlett Packard see the advantage of the greater “Twin Cities” region, but even smaller firms like the Viennese hatmaker Mühlbauer cross boundaries, with some of the company’s hats now being made by Bratislavan tailors.

The two cities’ chambers of commerce, industrial organisations and tourism boards now work together and the region has the potential to become a super-efficient transport axis, with synergies between ports, better use of airports and new rail projects in the works. But perhaps the region’s best resource is its educated inhabitants – the joint student population is about 250,000, some of whom live in one city and study in the other.

Brazzaville/Kinshasa

The two African cities don’t have much in common, apart from a history of civil war but moves are afoot to bring them closer together.

The world’s closest capitals, Brazzaville and Kinshasa, regard each other with some suspicion across the wide, brown expanse of the Congo River. Separated by 3km of water, the two cities have developed very differently. Brazzaville, capital of the Republic of Congo, has maintained many colonial trappings, having the atmosphere of a provincial French town dozing in the tropical heat. Kinshasa on the other hand is the chaotic home to 10 million souls and cultural heart of the Democratic Republic of Congo, a seething, febrile place famous for its music, nightlife and sporadic violence.

Both Congos have known civil war, with traders taking advantage of conflict-induced shortages on either side of the river, opportunistically shuttling goods in the rusting, overcrowded ferries plying the crossing. On occasion in the 1990s, the two countries even traded fire, launching rockets at each other across the water.

Relations have improved, but the crossing is still not for the fainthearted. Safety concerns aside, the “beaches” in each city, where boats dock, are a whirl of semi-legal officials demanding taxes, payments and bribes before you stumble out in the sweltering heat, lighter of wallet but clutching your documents. There is talk of building a road and rail bridge to connect the two cities but these kinds of projects usually take years to realise, if they happen at all.

For now, the crossing is an exhilarating experience but also a stark reminder of the difficulties Africans face in moving people and goods across borders.

Monocle 24

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