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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.

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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.

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