Lithuania I

Crossing from Poland into Lithuania was clearly not a big deal. It seems so different, almost exotic, so far away, but really is just another EU country and not even that far away from Berlin – although it used to be a republic of the USSR not too long ago, which I can still not get my head around.
Our first stop was Druskininkai, a spa town in the South known for it’s fresh and healthy air (better than in Davos, Switzerland they say…) and mineral springs. We went more for the scenery: dark woods and clear lakes.

The sights on our first day included a “Devil’s stone”; the Lithuanian-Belarus border (or a rest area about two kilometers from the border as we didn’t dare to get closer as that is a serious border!); Grūto parkas, an exhibition of old Soviet monuments (apparently it’s some millionaire’s hobby to collect them and put them in his backyard – a little creepy to have dozens of Lenins and Stalins in the woods there); and an old monastery high above the Nemunas river.

And on to our next stop: Vilnius. Certainly a city with a history and fine barock architecture, but the Soviet history (and architecture) is also still quite visible, maybe even dominant and the weather – unfortunately – didn’t do much to add charm either.

The Geographical Center of Europe was just a quick stop on our way to Ignalina in the Northeast and the Aukštaiktijos National Park: more woods and lakes and beauty (and rain, which meant no hikes, but taking the car for a tour).

And the last stop on the first leg of this trip: the Hill of Crosses near Šiauliai in the center of the country. Over 200,000 crosses in all forms, shapes and sizes have been put on this hill plus many, many rosaries. As much a display of faith as a symbol of protest during the Soviet rule it has become a major tourist attraction. Fortunately one that does not charge admission – and parking was only 90 cents.

We’ll be back in a few days. Now we are off to Latvia.


Journey to the center of the Earth (or Europe)

My major at uni was Geography, so when I read in our guide book that the geographical center of Europe was in Lithuania I knew we had to go.

Conveniently located about 40km (25 miles) from Vilnius, the capital, it is easy to reach. When arriving it felt like we needed to get out of the car at a golf course (which indeed surrounds the site), but a few discreet signs showed the right way to walk. Otherwise the whole thing would be difficult to find as it is hidden amongst the only trees around (maybe that’s more obvious than I first thought since it really is on the golf course…). 

There’s a stele with a crown on the exact spot, also a rock with the coordinates (54*54′ N, 25*19′ E), all the EU flags are flying (the site was opened in 2004 when Lithuania joined the EU – even though this spot is the center of the continent of Europe and by no means that of the EU).

And that’s basically it – there is a visitor center, where supposedly you can get certificates saying that “I was here”, but it is closed on Mondays.

Anyway, it was an important site for me and definitely a fun stop on our trip – and another place on the world map I can tick off my personal travel agenda.