Latvia CultureFew Latvian artistic figures or works are internationally known. The country_s literature was kickstarted in the 19th century with the writing of a national epic poem called Lacplesis (The Bear Slayer) by Andrejs Pumpurs, which was based on traditional folk tales. The giant of Latvian literature is Janis Rainis, whom Latvians claim might have enjoyed the acclaim of Shakespeare or Goethe had he written in a less obscure language.

Latvian verses known as dainas are often short and poetic and have been compared to the Japanese haiku. In the 19th century, great collections of folk lyrics and tunes were made by Krisjanis Barons. In fact, over 1.4 million folk lyrics and 30,000 tunes have been written down in Latvia.

The first major Latvian painter was Janis Rozentals, who painted scenes of peasant life and portraits in the early 20th century. Vilhelms Purvitis and Janis Valters were the outstanding landscape artists of the time. Karlis Rudevics, a leading figure in Latvia_s Gypsy community, is known for his translations of Gypsy poetry and his striking paintings inspired by Gypsy legends.

Latvian is one of only two surviving languages of the Baltic branch of the Indo-European language family, and speakers of Latvian regard it as an endangered species. Just over half the people in the country speak it as their first language. The language spoken in east and west Latvia has dialectical differences from the standard Latvian spoken in the central portion of the country.

Latvians are descended from tribes such as the Letts (or Latgals), Selonians, Semigallians and Cours. In each of the country_s seven largest cities, Latvians are outnumbered by Russians. Over 200,000 Latvians have emigrated, mainly to Australia, Canada, Germany, the UK and the USA.

Smoked foods – particularly fish – are popular in Latvia, as are dairy products, eggs, potatoes and grains. Smoked flounder, eel, herring and pilchards are staples of the country_s diet, while specially preserved lampreys are a Latvian delicacy. Soups and sausage are also popular. In summer and autumn, fresh berry pies and tarts are abundant. Latvia_s leading beer is Aldaris, but the concoction that prompts the most curiosity is Riga Black Balsam, a thick, jet-black, 45-proof mixture that tastes downright revolting. It_s been produced only in Latvia since 1755.

EnvironmentLatvia is the middle child of the Baltic family, both in geography and in area. It_s larger than Estonia to the north and smaller than Lithuania to the south, while all three Baltic States are dwarfed by their eastern neighbours, Russia and Belarus. Latvia borders the Baltic Sea to the west and north-west. The Gulf of Riga, a thumb-shaped inlet of the Baltic Sea, pokes into Latvia_s northern coast. The Vidzeme Upland in eastern Latvia boasts the country_s highest point, Gaizina kalns, which rises to a dizzy 311m (1020ft).

About 40% of Latvia is forested, and elk, deer, wild boar, wolves, lynx and brown bears are prominent forest inhabitants. Beavers and otters live in the inland waterways and seals along the coast. Latvia is also home to 6500 pairs of white stork (six times as many as the whole of Western Europe). Latvia_s sole national park, situated in the Gauja river valley east of Riga, has great scenery, walking trails, castles and a wildlife centre. There are a number of nature reserves, three of which are situated in the Kurzeme region in western Latvia.

From early November until the April thaw, temperatures rarely rise above 4°C (39°F) and the sun shines only a few hours a day. June to August daytime highs are normally in the 14-22°C (57-71°F) range. July and August are the warmest months but are prone to persistent showers. Getting There & AwayDirect flights link Riga with Berlin, Copenhagen, Frankfurt, Geneva, Hamburg, Helsinki, Kiev, London, Minsk, Munich, Moscow, Paris, Prague, Stockholm, Tallinn, Vienna, Vilnius, Warsaw and Zurich. There are no direct flights between Riga and North America, Australia or Asia. Latvia is yet to cotton on to the departure tax lurk, but once those tourists start pouring in….

There are direct buses to Riga from Denmark, France, Germany, Norway, Poland, Sweden, Finland, Russia, Belarus, Estonia and Lithuania. If trains tickle your fancy, the Berlin-St Petersburg service passes through Daugavpils in south-eastern Latvia. Trains also link Riga with Moscow, St Petersburg and Minsk, and Daugavpils with Chernivtsi.

If you prefer to suck in the sea air, there are direct ferries to Riga from Travemünde in Germany and Stockholm in Sweden. Getting AroundRiga_s airport is at Jurmala, 14km (8mi) west of the city centre. The airport is connected to the capital by bus and taxi.

Buses and, to a lesser extent, trains go just about everywhere in Latvia, although services are less frequent to off-the-beaten-track destinations. Both are cheap and slow. Riga has a comprehensive network of trams, trolleys and buses.

Driving and bicycling in Latvia are popular, as the main roads are good and distances aren_t great. Most of the major car rental agencies have offices in Riga and at the airport. Driving is done on the right side, and there are 24-hour petrol stations along all the major roads. The Tourist Club of Latvia offers a nine-day cycling itinerary round Vidzeme and Latgale (eastern Latvia) plus three days in and around Riga.Further ReadingThe Singing Revolution by Clare Thomson traces the path of all three Baltic states towards their new independence through an account of her travels there in 1989 and 1990. Among the Russians by Colin Thubron recounts a drive through the pre-glasnost Soviet Union, including Riga. It captures the gloomy, resigned mood of the time. The Baltic States: The Years of Independence 1917-40 by Georg von Rauch and The Baltic States: Years of Dependence 1940-80 by Romualdas Misiunas and Rein Taagepera are both weighty historical tomes. Venusburg, by British novelist Anthony Powell, was published in 1932 and tells the amusing tale of an English journalist trying unsuccessfully to make his mark as a foreign correspondent amid exiled Russian aristocrats, Baltic German intellectuals and earnest local patriots. It re-creates the atmosphere of a thinly disguised 1930s Latvia, which is never actually named. Letters from Latvia by Lucy Addison is the compelling journal of a 79-year-old who, at the outbreak of WWII, refused to leave Latvia, enduring the German, then Soviet occupations.

The Holocaust in Latvia 1941-1944: The Missing Center, by Andrew Ezergailis, provides an insightful and balanced account of this provocative subject and addresses the sensitive issue of Latvian participation in the Holocaust.