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Introducing Lithuania

Rebellious, quirky and vibrant, Lithuania (Lietuva) is Europe's best-kept secret. Shoved successively between Russian pillar and Nazi post, tenacious little Lithuania stunned the world when it played David and Goliath with the might of the Soviet Union - and won its independence just over a decade ago. Today the nation that vanished from the maps of Europe is back with a vengeance: it's part of the EU, was the first of the 25 EU players to give the European Constitution a stamp of approval and is a fully fledged 'n' fighting partner of NATO - home no less to four F-16 military alliance jet fighters used to police Baltic skies.

This is a country with a colourful history, once boasting an empire stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea. Its raw pagan roots fuse with Catholic fervour - the Polish inheritance that sets it apart from its Baltic brothers - to create a land where Catholics and Orthodox mingle happily in the forest to pick wild berries and mushrooms from nature's altar. Its capital, Vilnius, is an incredibly small place (can this really be a capital city?) with astonishing contrasts - eerie shadowy courtyards, eccentric artist community, awesome arts and beautiful baroque. Its natural treasures - forests, lakes, the magical Curonian Spit in Western Lithuania - shimmer, while its oddities - the Hill of Crosses in and a Soviet sculpture park - add a flavour found nowhere else.

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