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LITHUANIA


Lithuania is situated on the eastern Baltic coast and borders Latvia in the north, the Kaliningrad region of the Russian Federation and Poland in the southwest and Belarus in the southwest and east. The highest point, the Juozapines Hill, raises 294 m above sea-level. The country boasts 758 rivers more than 10 km long and about 3,000 lakes. Forests cover about 30 per cent of the country's area. The climate is maritime-continental. The average temperature in February is -4.9°C and +17°C in July. Water temperature in August is 17-22°C. The best time to visit Lithuania is June when days are longest and sunniest. July is the hottest summer month with the highest temperature of + 34°C though rains are likely during the first half of the month.

In 1989 the French National Geographical Institute named a spot on the road to Moletai, 25km (15mi) north of Vilnius, as the centre of Europe. It's marked by a small, granite sculpture that has been vandalised, but a new sculpture - a pyramid with all the European capitals and their distances from the centre marked on it - is planned for the site. To get there, turn right off the Vilnius-Moletai road at the 'Europas Centras' sign.

The country has 5 national parks: Aukstaitijos, Zemaitijos, Dzukijos, Trakai Historical and Kuronian Spit. The last was established to preserve the unique natural beauty of the Neringa Peninsula which sometimes is called the Lithuanian Sahara. Lithuania is situated midway between Eastern and Western Europe. The shortest way from Germany to Russia crosses Lithuania. The country borders with Latvia in the North, Belorussia in the South, Russia (Kaliningrad Region) and Poland in the West.

Independent between the two World Wars, Lithuania was annexed by the USSR in 1940. On 11 March 1990, Lithuania became the first of the Soviet republics to declare its independence, but this proclamation was not generally recognized until September of 1991 (following the abortive coup in Moscow). The last Russian troops withdrew in 1993. Lithuania subsequently has restructured its economy for eventual integration into Western European institutions.

The historic city of Vilnius (founded 1323) is the capital of Lithuania. Surrounded on three sides by wooded hills and situated in a picturesque valley formed by the rivers Neris and Vilnia, the ancient yet modern centre of the city lies on the southern or left bank of the river. Unlike Tallinn and Riga in the other Baltic Republics, Vilnius is not of Germanic origin, although like these other cities it has a large old quarter which is gradually being restored. Vilnius lies 250km (155mi) inland from the Baltic Sea on the banks of the Neris river. It's in the southeast of Lithuania, just a stone's throw from the Belarus border. The centre of the city is on the southern side of the river, and its heart is Cathedral Square, an open square with the cathedral on its northern side and Gediminas Hill rising behind it.

The New Town lies 2km (1mi) west of the Old Town and was mostly built in the 19th century. City hall is situated here, as is the Museum of the Genocide of the Lithuanian People, housed in the former Gestapo and KGB building. The guides here are all former inmates and will show you round the cells where they were tormented. South of the river there's a bronze bust memorial to American rock legend Frank Zappa. Vilnius' Soviet-era suburbs are north of the river. There are plenty of accommodation options in and around the Old Town; this is also the best place to nose out a good restaurant.

The Old Town, the largest in eastern Europe, stretches south from Cathedral Square. A church spire can be seen from every one of its winding streets, which, coupled with its countless hidden courtyards, make it intriguing to explore. Other landmarks include Vilnius University, the President's palace, an observatory and the old Jewish quarter and ghetto. Restaurants, pubs, nightclubs and cafés abound. Three Crosses Hill overlooks the Old Town and is a long-standing landmark. Crosses are said to have stood here since the 17th century in memory of three monks who were martyred by crucifixion on this spot.


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