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Out of Context: A Tour of Displaced Toponyms

by Nicky Gardner

Picture above: Calgary Bay on the Scottish island of Mull gave its name to a great Canadian city (photo © paul Iovichi / dreamstime.com).


If ever you find yourself kicking your heels in Glasgow at lunchtime, why not take the once-daily direct train to Malta? The journey only takes an hour. Find out more as we check out a few unlikely place names.

On our journeys around Europe, there is often real delight in serendipitously stumbling upon an extraordinary place name, a toponym which unexpectedly invites us to a distant land. Speeding along the highway which crosses the great dyke which divides the Dutch IJsselmeer from the North Sea, there is suddenly an exit from the motorway signed to Zurich (purists will note that the Swiss city name is decorated with an umlaut, so Zürich). In that moment on a long drive one is suddenly invited to contemplate the possibility of pausing for lunch in a pleasant café by an Alpine lake.

Such transposition of familiar place names is of course very common is areas beyond Europe where migrants from Europe have settled, taking with them some of the place names of their homeland. There’s Potsdam and Berlin just a short hop from each other on the south side of the N2 highway in South Africa’s Eastern Cape region. But sometimes toponyms imported from overseas are thrown together in improbable association: on Interstate 90 in Montana, heading south-east from Butte to Bozeman, exit 298 is signed to both Amsterdam and Belgrade. Swing right off the interstate and take your pick of two great European cities — both just a mile or two away.

Our favourite duo of transposed place names are to be found in northern Switzerland. Driving south from the German town of Singen towards Swiss Schaffhausen, one crosses the Swiss frontier and enters a community called Moskau — the German name for the Russian capital. Just one kilometre further along the same road is Petersburg.

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