Perched at the top right-hand corner of Europe, on Russia's western borders, Latvia is a curious blend of the grim austerity of eastern Europe and the refreshing good health of Scandinavia. In Riga's suburbs, trams clank mournfully through dim streets smelling of coal dust and leaded petrol. Yet barely a mile away the pavements are alive with laughter, issuing from dozens of cafes which have sprung up like mushrooms in the night in the four years since independence from the former Soviet Union.
"Each month Riga becomes a little brighter," says Shameel, a dealer in musical instruments who was nursing a German beer in one such cafe. "Before, there was nowhere to go and nothing to do. Now you wouldn't believe it."
Independence has not come easily for tiny Latvia. During eight centuries of colonisation by Germans, Swedes and, most recently, Russians, the country has suffered 25-year wars, Nazi occupation, aerial bombing, deportations, and mass executions. After losing 450,000 of its citizens during the Second World War, then a further 175,000 in Stalin's deportations to Siberia, it's small wonder Latvia's population today numbers only 2.7 million. Russian immigrants, who flooded in for work during the Soviet era, now outnumber the Lats. "The Russian occupation army has been transformed into the police and frontier guards," says Edvarts Uzulans, a 65-year- old carpenter and former marine whom we met on the streets of Riga.
Despite the sometimes sinister presence of so vast a neighbour on their border (rumours abound that the Russian Communist Party has vowed it will reoccupy Latvia if it ever returns to power), Latvians retain a wry sense of humour. "How do you know when a Russian leader has died?" they joke. "Look at the weather report and see if Moscow is minus one".
Today there is a car museum just outside Riga where a lifesize model of Brezhnev sits behind the wheel of a Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow. His heavy, inscrutable face shows an expression of rare surprise, in imitation of the moment when, in 1980, his car veered out from a convoy to stare straight at an oncoming truck. Brezhnev survived the collision. His face would register more surprise still if he knew his Baltic republics were independent once more.
With Latvia's new currency, the lat, now free from the shackles of the Russian rouble, Riga abounds with flourishing new businesses; McDonald's and Coca-cola have both chosen Riga as their Baltic headquarters. The spirit of industry which made this the third most important industrial city in the USSR, churning out cars, trams and trains for the entire union, has turned its energies towards private enterprise. The parks have been beautified, the fountains restored, restaurants modernised and buildings scrubbed. After a shaky start Latvia has some excellent hotels, often run in partnership with Scandinavians, and some of the best food in eastern Europe; you are unlikely to go hungry.
With possibly the largest collection of art nouveau facades in Europe, mixed with a liberal sprinkling of heavy Gothic, Riga also boasts streets that could have come straight off the set of Batman Forever. Exit from a tavern and you find yourself staring up at a starlit confusion of griffons, gargoyles and muscled statues staggering beneath stone globes. Old Riga is peppered with half-timbered coffee houses such as the 1789 of that vintage, or the even older subterranean Livonia. Set within the original stone walls of a 15th-century street, this underground restaurant serves the best roast pork in Riga in an atmosphere of conspiratorial intimacy. A large stuffed raven keeps watch from the bar.
While inflation may be on the march in Latvia's upmarket restaurants and bars, a train ticket remains ludicrously cheap. You would be hard pushed to spend more than pounds 1 travelling anywhere within the country. Just half an hour's journey from the capital, we discovered the secret of its inhabitants' healthy good looks. The soft, clean sand of Jurmala beach stretches for miles, washed by the Baltic Sea, blessed by a surprisingly hot summer, and backed by a promenade of shops, bars and leafy cafes.
Latvians fall quickly into conversation with Western tourists. After three days in Riga we were urged by everyone to visit the Gauja National Park, where Latvians bond with Nature. In the forested, bear-infested valleys around Sigulda, there was no limit to the activities on offer: hot-air ballooning at pounds 65 an hour, bungee jumping from the bridge over the river, bobsleighing on an Olympic piste in winter. You could even jump out of an aircraft attached to an old Soviet Army parachute. We settled for the cable car that swung out over the river valley, admiring the russet turrets of 13th-century Turaida Castle from 300ft up in the air.
The best way to enjoy the tranquillity of the Gauja River, which runs through the Gauja National Park, is by canoe. Since tourism from the West has yet to reach anything more than a trickle of curious visitors, prices are still temptingly low. The Baili camping service at Valmiera rents out Indian three-person canoes for pounds 9 a day, a tent for pounds l.50, and an experienced guide to take you down the river for pounds 10 a day. Their price list includes such exotica as "birch bosom (for steam bath)" for those returning to their wooden lodges after a few days on the river.
Downstream of Valmiera lies Cesis, a quiet medieval town with the sleepy provincial atmosphere of a hilltop village in France. In the crisp, autumn light we set out to explore its castle, one of the undiscovered jewels of Europe. Built by the Germans in 1209, much of its battlements and two of its towers remain intact. We had the place to ourselves. Because of the scarcity of Western tourists, there were no signs, no railings, no lights, granting us that precious sensation of discovery as we crept up the spiral staircases in pitch darkness, scorching our thumbs on the flickering flame of a cigarette lighter.
After Cesis, it was time to head west to dip our toes in the Baltic. For just pounds 17 a day, we hired a car - a Ford Escort, no less - from the Hotel Cesis. We were in for a pleasant surprise. Rescued from the ravages of chemical spills in the Soviet era after 45,000 people joined hands along the coast in anti-pollution protest, the Baltic waters were crystal clear. We'd expected the sea to be choppy, grey and wind-whipped, but here at Tuja we stood on pure white sand to face a mill pond that stretched to the horizon. Even the gulls were becalmed, riding sedately a little way out to sea as if waiting for something to happen. All the way up to Estonia the coast road was flanked by perfect campsites: small, sandy clearings in the pine trees that sloped gently down to the sea, with not a scrap of litter.
Leaving Tuja, we bounced along unpaved roads past scenes of uumechanised pastoral life that belonged to another age. Headscarved women emerged from wooden-slatted farmhouses to clamber aboard horse-driven traps. Bronzed farm boys tossed hay into stooks beneath the ramshackle bundles of abandoned storks' nests. The countryside bore an air of inexplicable sadness; perhaps it was just the end of summer, perhaps the prospect of a future invasion by picnicing Germans in BMWs. Or maybe Latvia is just holding its breath, unable to believe it has finally achieved the independence that has evaded it for so long. !
GETTING THERE: Air Baltic Corporation (0171-828 4223) flies direct from London to Riga. The flight takes 2 hours 30 minutes; provided you stay for a Saturday night, tickets cost from pounds 269 return.
INFORMATION: British citizens do not require visas for Latvia or any of the Baltic states. Other nationalities can buy a visa in advance for pounds 7 from the Latvian Embassy in London, or on arrival. For accommo- dation contact Gunnell Travel Service (01473 828 855) which has 18 years' Baltic experience. For camping, canoeing and outdoor activities contact the Latvian University Tourist Club (Riga 22-223 114).