Heart of Grass
Talk about being at the centre of Europe is commonplace. But when Lithuanians say it, they really mean itâ€¦
What do you do if you want to promote yourself as a tourist destination but don't have anything likely to be of the remotest interest to people? Well, as the Scots living around Loch Ness will tell you, you make up a good reason â€“ even if it doesn't really exist!
Better still, you get the French to make up a reason for you. Not only does this make it look like you're not trying to pull a fast one by promoting your own pitch, it means that French intellectuals can indulge their love for pointless but scientifically rigorous research to back up your claim.
Which brings us to the small and formerly insignificant village of Purnuskes in Lithuania. Located 26 kilometers north of Vilnius, it may feel like the middle of nowhere, but it's actually the middle of somewhere. It's commonplace for politicians to prattle on about being 'at the heart of Europe' in a metaphorical sense â€“ even the British like to claim that and they're not even attached to the mainland â€“ but in Lithuania they mean it literally.
The story of Purnuskes' rise to the status of continental focal point dates from 1989 when scientists from the French National Geographic Institute, headed by Jean-Georges Affholder, conducted a study to identify the geographical boundaries of Europe and, by extension, the continental centre.
The conclusion of France's finest geographers was that 'X marks the spot' just outside Purnuskes. A huge stone was put in place and officially designated as the rock-solid center. Then the French geographers realised they had forgotten to include the smallish Mediterranean island of Malta in their calculations. This suggests that either they were not quite the hot-shots everyone assumed or that they simply weren't using very good Michelin atlases.
After a quick recalibration, they announced that the centre of Europe had moved, but only by 100 meters. Good job it was just Malta they missed rather than Sicily.
To mark Lithuania's accession to the European Union in 2004, a brand new monument was erected, consisting of a pillar surmounted by a crown of stars. It looks rather like a steelworks' chimney emitting sparks.
About 15 kilometers away is an unlikely theme park dedictaed to the concept of the centre of Europe, but the official centre itself is a somewhat quirky affair, not least because it is located in the middle of a golf course. When I turned up to take a look, no-one was out on the links, but presumably it is not unusual for proud Europeans to pose for a picture only to have to duck from a sliced 5 iron hit from the 16th tee.
I'm not entirely sure why, but it seems strangely appropriate that a pay-and-play golf course should represent the heart of Europe today.
The only trouble is that over a dozen other places also claim to be the geographical centre of the continent. These include the village of Krahule in Slovakia (which boasts a 'Hotel Centre of Europe' â€“ probably the only hotel in which you demand a room the middle rather than with a balcony), several places in Poland and even the Estonian island of Saaremaa.
A former claimant was the nicely-named village of Dilove in Ukraine. That was the place designated by Austro-Hungarian surveyors in 1887 (using the same old trick of getting foreigners to verify the claim) until Nazi geographers revealed that â€“ guess what? â€“ the heart of Europe was actually Dresden in Germany. On the plus side, that allowed them to claim that as the definitive Europeans they were predestined to lord it over the continent. On the negative side, it made Dresden much easier for allied bombers to find in order to flatten it.