FX Excursions

FX Excursions offers the chance for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in destinations around the world.

Vilnius: Well-Centered

Sep 1, 2004
2004 / September 2004

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What is old is new again in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius. This quickly changing city of nearly 600,000 residents is the capital of a country that’s new not only to the World Trade Organization and nato, but also to the European Union — joining as of May 1. After decades of Soviet occupation, officials hope these memberships will put this northern European country back in the minds of business travelers.

“We believe that our membership with the wto will give a lot of benefits to Lithuania,” said Alvitis Lukosevicius, director general of the Lithuanian State Department of Tourism. “We are ready to host international events and cooperate with wto in all fields of activities.”

Much of that planned activity will take place in Vilnius, notable not only as the country’s largest city and its capital, but also for its location just over 16 miles from the geographic center of Europe. When Lithuania took its place in the e.u., the geographic center site was marked with a column of white granite, a symbol of Lithuania’s hopes that this destination will become a focal point for business throughout the continent.

If that happens, it won’t be the first time Vilnius and the surrounding region has been at the center of Europe’s attention. Until quite recently, Lithuania had led a sort of “push-me-pull-you” existence. When the country was annexed by Russia in the 18th century, its citizens struggled to maintain their culture, language and religion — a fight that continued well into the 20th century. While Lithuania enjoyed brief development as an independent republic between the two world wars, wwii brought the return of occupation, this time by the Soviet Union. Still, its tenacious people rose to become one of the first republics to break free of Soviet rule following the collapse of the Soviet bloc in 1991. Two years later, the last remaining Soviet soldiers pulled out of Lithuania. Today, the Baltic state is an independent democratic republic whose seat of government is the inland city of Vilnius.

If your last visit to Vilnius was during the Soviet era, you’ll discover it’s a vastly different city now. Staid statues of Lenin and stark buildings have been replaced by a thriving nightlife. Symbols of Roman Catholicism are evident, and lively architecture reflects the modern-day optimism that pervades the city. Recently, Le Meridien Villon opened a new conference center, the largest in the Baltics, just one of many indicators that the city is open and ready for business.

The new growth in Vilnius is, however, a planned growth — one that takes advantage of the expertise of Canadian urban planning consultants hired in 1998. Under their guidance, the city has drawn up a master plan for development through the year 2015. The paramount goal of the plan is to market the city at the center of Europe as the leading site for business meetings and conferences. To that end, the plan calls for the construction of more than 80 new hotels by 2015 to handle anticipated demand.

While it plans for the future, Vilnius pays homage to its often turbulent past. Today the city is a unesco World Heritage Site, noted especially for its architecture, including medieval courtyards and so many churches that it’s sometimes called “The Northern Jerusalem.” One of the city’s biggest attractions is Sts. Peter and Paul Church, a baroque church constructed in the 17th century. Inside there are nearly 2,000 statues of historic, mythological and biblical figures. Another historic attraction is the University of Vilnius. Dating to 1579, it’s one of Europe’s oldest universities.

Bolstered by the highly trained professionals affiliated with the University of Vilnius and the city’s more than half a dozen other universities, Vilnius can pride itself on its population of experts in the fields of science, publishing and art — which is how it got one of its other nicknames, “The Northern Athens.”

Vilnius is noted for its expertise in it development, electronics and construction. The city is also the heart of the country’s banking industry, hosting the Bank of Lithuania, the Lithuanian Bank of Development and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. Under Lithuanian law, foreign banks can do business in the country through branch offices or by acquiring stock in local banks. Permits issued by the Bank of Lithuania are necessary to acquire more than 10 percent of stock capital.

Getting to Vilnius is easier than ever thanks to a new passenger terminal at Vilnius International Airport (vno), an airport that processes about 320,000 passengers annually. The primary carrier is Lithuanian Airlines, with additional service provided by sas, Lufthansa, Finnair, British Airways and others. Excellent connections to rail centers across Europe are also available through Vilnius Central Station, which serves more than 7.5 million passengers annually.

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