Dreams of grandeur in latitude and longitude

Lithuanians see gold in a knoll that French geographers have pinpointed as the center of Europe - despite other countries' claims.

This snow-dusted hillock north of Lithuania's capital, Vilnius, hardly seems remarkable.

But French geographers and Lithuanian patriots are convinced that the geographical center of Europe is located precisely on this desolate spot - 54 degrees and 54 minutes north latitude, 25 degrees 19 minutes east longitude - in a country that most people would consider the northeastern corner of the Continent.

The Institut Geographique National in France determined in 1989 that this unassuming hill in Lithuania, and not Paris, was the center of Europe.

The announcement came at a time when the three Baltic republics - Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia - were already at the center of attention because of their peaceful drive for independence from the Soviet Union.

Yet in the decade since, capitalist marketing has been slow to reach this patch of Lithuanian countryside, only 15 miles from the glittering boutiques and gourmet restaurants of Vilnius.

A single sign on a secondary road points to a well-hidden lane that leads to the hillock. Among trees and telephone poles, a stone marks "the center of Europe." The letters of the inscription are so filled with ice that the words are difficult to decipher.

Rima Speciute treasures that inscription. "I think this is the center," she says. "After all, they didn't just think it up. It was calculated."

With her husband, Sigitas Cepulis, a former star biathlete in the Soviet Union, Ms. Speciute is out measuring a nearby plot of land that the government has just returned to the family. After Moscow annexed the Baltic countries during World War II, private property was nationalized. Restitution has been a slow and complicated process.

Bundled in a ski suit, Mr. Cepulis smiles broadly. "There's only one center of Europe," he insists, dismissing similar claims in other countries, such as Ukraine. "One day we'll understand what this is worth."

Cepulis says he owns the land closest to the stone marker. His eyes sparkling, Cepulis muses about the possibilities of this prime location: a hotel, farm-stay tourism, a Formula 1 racetrack.... "Of course, I won't just sit and fish here," he says.

While Cepulis's dreams may still seem remote, another young Lithuanian has already seized on the idea of parlaying the geographical claim into something bigger. Almost a decade ago, sculptor Gintaras Karosas set up a sculpture park some 10 miles away from Lithuania's center-of-Europe marker.

Spread out over 135 acres, Mr. Karosas's "Europos Parkas" now displays more than 70 sculptures, ranging in size from mere footprints in the ground to 22 huge concrete bulbs that some visitors have likened to dinosaur eggs. Karosas himself created the Monument of the Center of Europe, a pyramid in the middle of a "geographic clock" marking all European capitals, including Vaduz, Lichtenstein.

More than 60,000 visitors a year visit the park. Sculptors from the US, Japan, Egypt and 21 other countries have brought permanent works here, and the display includes pieces by prominent American sculptors Dennis Oppenheim and Sol LeWitt.

In Western fashion, Karosas established one of Lithuania's first not-for-profit organizations and lined up corporate sponsors for the project.

"Here we created a real process," Karosas says. "Now everybody in Lithuania believes we're living in the center of Europe."

With Lithuania eager to join NATO and the European Union, it could be just a matter of convincing everybody else.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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