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Lithuania 2019

by | Jan 19, 2020 | Member travel

Lithuania in Focus: European conflicts, a land of start-ups, and a city for which becoming the “European Capital of Culture 2022” is all about now

The largest country of the three Baltic States, with about 2.8 million inhabitants, was the destination of our annual EOWA research trip in September 2019.

Lithuania cast a spell over our 12 participants from the get-go. It began when our guide Karolis Zemaitis, greeted us at the airport. He made sure we’d see the most and best in and along the way to Vilnius, Kaunas, Klaipeda and the Curonian Spit.

We met with fascinating people from all walks of life – leaving the impression of an unbelievably positive, European-oriented society on all of us.

Itinerary of the Lithuania trip 2019

EOWA member Frank Hofmann, a long-time correspondent of Deutsche Welle in many Eastern Europe countries and in Brussels, gives us his very personal impressions:

Kaunas – European Capital of Culture 2022 re-discovers its old glory


The office space in the pedestrian zone radiates modern charm.  It is the headquarters of the European Capital of Culture 2022 campaign.

Two years look like a long way to go. And a lot of work. But the staff can do without a desk. A single long white table serves as the creative center for the roughly dozen cultural planners who are to come up with the ideas that will attract Europeans interested in culture to come to Lithuania’s second largest city in 2022.


The Capital of Culture team at work

Spread out before us are freshly printed brochures on the so-called “architecture of hope”, Lithuanian’s Art Deco interwar modern architecture. Almost every month the team is publishing and distributing new information. That’s because the makers are not focusing on what will be in 2022, but what is happening along the road to the cultural mega event.

“The European Capital of Culture – it’s happening now” – that is the motto of this project. The “architecture of hope” of more than 100 years ago has become their leitmotif. Kaunas is trying to step out of the shadow of the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius and make its own mark.

After all, Kaunas was Lithuania’s capital – between the two world wars. Today the city is almost exclusively characterized by “ethnic Lithuanians”, unlike then, when Russian, German, and Jewish minorities added to the city’s flair.

Kaunas lost its importance when Vilnius became the capital of the Soviet republic of Lithuania. Today 35,000 students are enrolled annually. But most of them leave town right after their studies are completed.


A committed team manning City Hall wants to change that: Hardly anyone here is over 40 years old, most are much younger. Just like vice mayor, Mantas Jurgutis, who races through the city council’s to-do list in a 20-minute lecture as if it were a marathon: The network of cycle paths will be expanded the hotel industry will get a boost.

Mantas Jurgutis: “I hope you can feel what we’re doing here.”

We are supposed to “feel” what the young troops are doing here – the facts are

not enough for them.

Vice mayor and creator: Mantas Jurgutis

Outside, rain whips against the windows; inside, numbers, photos and graphics chase over the screen in the mayor’s office.

According to Jurgutis, 6,000 buildings from the era of modernism have already been listed and marked with plaques. “But what good is that, if there is not enough hotel capacity for city tourists yet?”, he asks us.

At least, there are 2,300 beds in the city’s central hospital.  That’s because Kaunas is the hospital hotspot of the entire region – the municipality is known for this throughout the country. One of the many goals, is to expand health tourism and make it part of the city’s sustainable tourism.

Jurgutis speaks and promises with enormous speed. The team in the town hall demands and presents. And seems to be successful with it.

Laisvės alėja - The magnificent freedom avenue of Kaunas

Kaunas has one of the largest industrial parks in the country with special conditions for the incoming industries – like the German car light manufacturer Hella which has set up a plant. The country’s most famous self-made man is also at home here: Vladas Lasas. He is UPS‘s general agent in Lithuania, but above all he is a gifted pragmatist who is starting to electrify transportation within his own company, with so-called package cars. Together with Virgin Group magnate Richard Branson, Lasas founded “”.

Lasas says of his first visit to Richard Branson, “I flew to see him with Ryanair and returned in his private jet”: He convinced Branson that there was future potential for a CO2-neutral world in small Lithuania and in Kaunas.

The Second World War brought Soviet rule and oppression to Lithuania. That’s how many here see it. And that’s when the once so proud temporary capital was again marginalized. But it has been regaining its posture since the fall of the wall, and more so now with thanks to its basketball stadium, home of the Zalgiris team that attracts fans from all over the region.

They play in the European basketball league and have a close connection to Berlin and its flagship club Alba Berlin. With an annual budget of twelve million euros, Zalgiris is small among the big – “but we fight with passion,” says Paulius Motiejunas, himself a former player and now the club’s young president.

Pride of the city of Kaunas: Žalgiris Arena

“When in Kaunas, you must see a game”, they all say. They are mega events. “We can’t compete with the atmosphere of a city like Berlin – but we have the fan base.” And they regularly bring the arena to a boil.

Old Town of Kaunas

Two low-cost airlines attract fans from all over Europe to Kaunas. And more and more want to come back again – perhaps soon to a European Capital of Culture, which is already offering a convincing program two years ahead of the actual launch.

Vilnius – Lithuania’s capital with a modern flair

Our other destinations on this trip did not lag behind in positive energy. The capital city of Vilnius was at the forefront.

Our itinerary was put together by Karolis Zemaitis from the local city marketing agency “Go Vilnius”. Karolis was a true miracle maker in fitting in impressive meetings and showing us as many landmarks as possible to make the most of our short visit, creating a feeling that this is a place you’d like to return to and explore further.

Well versed in the history of Lithuania and just as knowledgeable in contemporary topics, Karolis, with his smartphone at hand, always had answers to our endless questions thereby giving us a well-rounded overall picture of the country.

Modern Vilnius

A meeting  with Matthias Sonn, Ambassador to Germany, further deepened this: Even though he only recently had been appointed to the job in Vilnius, he gave us some input from the midst of important geo-political issues:

Group photo with the German ambassador Matthias Sonn

With regard to NATO’s multinational battlegroup stationed in Lithuania as a response to the Russian-European conflict over Ukraine, Sonn sees his term in office under the motto: “Lithuania and Germany: a partnership you can rely on – in a free and united Europe and in overcoming global challenges.”

Germany is the leading NATO nation in Lithuania. It borders on Russia’s immediate external border with the enclave of Königsberg. In the course of this week, Karolis most clearly summarized how important this is for the Lithuanians: “The idea of a Russian attack on the country is omnipresent. “If there were just us few Lithuanians, it wouldn’t impress Moscow,” says Karolis “ with Nato soldiers here from other countries, things are different.”

“For many Lithuanians, the NATO presence is crucial,” says Ambassador Senn, who now resides in the building of a former sub-organization of the Soviet KGB. Every day, Lithuanian authorities count more than 100 cyber attacks.  It is important to strengthen the country’s “resilience” against such attacks.

Shortly before our interview, a photo of an alleged German tank of the NATO battlegroup in a Jewish cemetery had caused a stir. The cemetery had been desecrated and it was insinuated by them. A fake photo, it was uncovered by the Lithuanian “Cyber-Centre”. Indeed, the historical consequences of the tyranny of the German Reich are undeniable. In 1939, Vilnius still had a Jewish majority of its population, which was later exterminated by Nazi Germany.

Group photo in the hypercool Workspace Café
Lunch with Remigijus Šimašius, Mayor of Vilnius

Mayor Remigljus Simasius firmly agrees that this history also belongs to his city. All the more does this liberal mayor want to make his city attractive for the European digital economy.

He proudly presented the city’s open-source app, which combines all mobility providers in one application.

We met him in the bistro of the MO Museum, the most important museum for modern art in the region, which this autumn curated a show dedicated to the upheavals in Europe 30 years ago.


Frank Hofmann

On our bus tour to the city of Klaipeda, we experienced rural Lithuania in its autumnal splendor along the way. We stopped at various points to see the border of the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad on the opposite bank of the Memel River. This is where Schengen and NATO ends.

River border between Lithuania and Russia

Klaipeda – Lithuania’s gateway to the world

Klaipeda was founded in 1252 under the German name “Memel”. Today the third largest city in the country is mainly known for its seaport, which remains ice-free all year round and is an important hub for cargo and passenger ships between Lithuania, Scandinavia and Germany.


Showcase hotel and residential building in Klaipeda

During the Second World War Klaipeda was literally devastated, but recovered quite quickly. The pretty old town, which was declared a cultural monument in 1969, reminds us of times long past with its narrow cobbled streets and remains of the old Memel castle.

Klaipeda waterfront

The center of the historic old town is the theater square with its fountain of the figure of the Annie of Tharau, based on a very endearing tale.

Marketplace Klaipeda

On the last day of our journey, a very special scenic highlight awaited us:

The Curonian Spit – a nature reserve with a dreamlike dune landscape

From Klaipeda we took a small ferry to the 98-km-long

Peninsula on the north coast of Samland.  Since 1945, the northern 52 km have belonged to Lithuania, and the southern 46 km to Kaliningrad.


Charming solitude on the Curonian Spit
The Curonian Spit

Its impressive dune landscapes had already fascinated Thomas Mann, who had a holiday home built there in 1930. Today a cultural center is housed there in his honor.

Just like Thomas Mann, but also we were also enthusiastic about this beautiful scenery complete with forests, dunes and the sea on both sides of the spit.

The Thomas Mann House, today museum in Nida
The endless dunes of the Curonian Spit

This unique landscape with its imposing shifting sand dunes, which has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2000, is closely interwoven with the Baltic mythology.

Away from the fine sandy beaches of the Baltic Sea there are centuries-old pine forests where wooden sculptures from Lithuanian folklore guard the paths.

Most of our group returned home from Klaipeda to Kiel by car ferry: a 22-hour mini-cruise bringing us to the end of a fascinating journey to a “newly discovered” great country.

Lithuania, we will return!


Klaus Bergmann

Magnificent natural landscape - The Curonian Spit

Photos: © EOWA