If you think Lithuania is somewhere in South America, think again. If your eyes are fixed on a map of the Balkans, press another key on your keyboard. So where is Lithuania located? The lyrics of one of our songs say it’s in the middle of Europe – and indeed, those are not just song lyrics. Using the method of gravitational centres, researchers at the National Institute of Geographic and Forest Information in France established that the geographical centre of Europe is in fact found in Lithuania. The nation is only a few hours by plane from other European capitals and can also easily be reached by coach, train or even boat. So welcome to this country of Northern Europe, to the very centre of Europe… to Lithuania.
Kazys Pakštas, a famous Lithuanian traveller and geographer, came up with the idea of a Baltoscandian Confederation as early as before World War II. His desire was the integration of Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Finland, Sweden, Norway and Denmark. The geographer visualised these seven countries as a single highly durable and stable bloc of Northern Europe.
After Lithuania regained its independence, the United Nations attributed it to the group of Northern European countries in 1992. Geographically, Lithuania is a country of Northern Europe, given this classification under the UN’s geographical distribution of world regions and states. The history of Lithuania backs up this designation: for example, the country has had relationships with Nordic countries through wars and trade routes, Grand Duke of Lithuania Sigismund Vasa was born in Sweden. The Nordic countries were also the first to recognise this nation’s independence and opened embassies here, as well as supporting its democracy and the development of its society. Scandinavian capital predominates in Lithuania today, and the Baltic Assembly and Baltic Council of Ministers maintain close links with institutions in the Nordic countries.
A mere 200 kilometres of the Baltic Sea separate Lithuania and Sweden, a distance that can be covered by ferries, yachts or even windsurfers. Vidmantas Urbonas, an ultra-triathlon champion from Lithuania, swam across the Baltic Sea in 2007, stepping off on the island of Gotland.
We live by the sea. And it doesn’t matter that it’s cold more often than it’s warm; we can’t imagine ourselves or Lithuania without the Baltic Sea.
Our sea is beautiful but rough, with the coastline often suffering from western and northern winds, and the waves of the sea huge and sometimes dangerous. But when the sea is calm, it has a breathtaking beauty, and the purple sunsets there resemble picture postcards inscribed with wishes for peace and quiet. History has it that the ancient Romans would come as far as the Baltic Sea coasts to purchase amber during the early years of the era of the Roman Empire – a time when the sea wasn’t referred to by its current name, which only became common in the 16th century.
Today, the Baltic Sea is a place loved by fishers, experienced yachters and cruise ships, whose passengers can discover a number of things here. These include travelling sand dunes said to be among the largest in Europe and the UNESCO-protected Curonian Spit National Park, as well as perfect peace and the absolute harmony of people and nature.
Baltic Sea countries are famous for their natural beauty. In Lithuania, we like to go to the seaside for our holidays, with the Baltic Sea region also a home to the traditional Sea Festival, sailing regattas and music festivals. We sometimes go to the sea just to be with it, feel the white sand of the coast between our toes, find a piece of amber cast up by the waves and ponder the flow of time.
Of all the legends about Lithuania’s capital, Vilnius, the people who live here most love the one that tells us of Grand Duke Gediminas’s dream about a wolf howling in hundreds of voices. Nobody can verify whether it was this dream wolf that encouraged the Grand Duke to found the city of Vilnius, but the proof that he invited merchants, soldiers, craftspeople and priests from all over Europe to the city is irrefutable. Our Latvian neighbours preserved his letter in Latin of 1323 – the first written source in which the name of Vilnius is spelled out in black and white.
Customs did not change much as time went by, and the historical centre of Vilnius also changed little. This remarkable part of the city, next to the river Vilnia, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site famous for its white churches and red roofs.
Our capital city has always been at the crossroads of Eastern and Western cultures. The city’s historical buildings are charming for their differing styles, featuring elements of Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque and Classicism. Narrow streets in the Old Town and spacious, open squares provide evidence that Vilnius was never inclined to shake off the influence of alien cultures. Indeed, quite the opposite – it always showed them respect and readily used them for the city’s embellishment.
Today, as well as other Baltic capitals, Vilnius is a modern, homely and welcoming city full of culture and creation. It is a place where you can see talking statues, hear music being played, smell good food and have adventures. You can get to the centre of Vilnius by boat, take to the sky in a hot-air balloon, pick some beautiful liverleaves from the forest in the middle of town, or count stars from the top of the hill where the legendary iron wolf howled in Gediminas’s dream.
Our ancestors would have it that your neighbour is closer than your kin. They respected their neighbours as much as we respect our neighbours surrounding Lithuania today. In 1989, we formed a chain of people hand in hand with Latvians that stretched up to Estonia to proclaim to the world our deepest wish to see Baltic countries free and independent. Lithuania declared its independence in March 1990, putting us back on the map of the world.
We are unified with our neighbours by history and roads of common culture and trade that branch off through these countries. We formed an expanded Grand Duchy of Lithuania in the 15th century with what are now Poland, Belarus, Russia and part of Latvia, making it the biggest country in Europe. We had common rulers, artists, writers, poets and architects.
Our Latvian neighbours descend from the same group of Baltic people, while our languages are similar and similar motifs can be found in fabric patterns, musical instruments and dances.
Latvians, Estonians, Russians, Belarusians and Polish people often visit Lithuania, and we are grateful to them for the love and respect that they show our country. We are happy that ourselves and our neighbours visit each other, because we can tell each other endless stories that take us closer to our roots and our common history.
The idea of global Lithuania is very important for every Lithuanian. History was cruel to us, banishing us from our home and spreading us around the world. War caused some people to flee the country in search of asylum in Germany, the UK, the USA, Australia or Canada, or even as far as South America. Others were forced from their homes, with the Soviets exiling Lithuanians to the vast expanses of Siberia in trains and animal wagons.
Today, we can travel the world without hindrance by boundaries. We are full of the joy of discovery, and we carve out careers in NASA laboratories, on the global stages of theatre and music, and in the skyscrapers of businesses. An estimated 1.3 million people of Lithuanian descent live abroad, most of whom share their feelings of nostalgia in Lithuanian communities – which amount to more than 40 around the world. It is in these communities that the Lithuanian language and traditions are fostered, with their members participating in sports competitions and song and dance festivals of the world’s Lithuanians. No matter where they live or what they are doing, the roots of Lithuanians are here. That’s why it’s such a pleasure to hug each other no matter where you are in the world – because our Lithuania is where we meet.