Is it Baltic or Balkan? I get asked this question almost every time I mention Latvia. Not many people have heard of the Baltic country or know where it is, but it is Latvia's centennial this year and there is much to explore in this undiscovered gem of northern Europe.
When I arrive in late August, as warm sunny days are transitioning into cool autumnal skies, I imagine I will find a sort of Scandi-Russia hybrid after centuries of rule by Germany, Sweden and Russia. There is some evidence of that in the sound of the language, the food and the neutral minimalism of modern Latvian design.
But the people - warmer than the Swedes, quieter than the Russians and more relaxed and laissez-faire than the Germans - are quite different.
To get to the heart of the culture and the people, one must go to the countryside, where Latvians live by the seasons, sing folk songs and celebrate nature with pagan festivals, as they have done for centuries.
Most visitors start by heading to the historic centre of Latvia's capital Riga to admire the city's mediaeval quarter, romantic cobblestone streets and colourful Art Nouveau district - and they should. Riga has "the finest collection of Art Nouveau buildings in Europe", according to Unesco, which added the city's historic centre to its World Heritage list in 1997.
Riga sits along a sheltered natural harbour 15km upriver from the mouth of the river Daugava, once the haunt of Vikings and the start of an ancient trade route called the Amber Road, which brought high-quality Baltic amber to the Mediterranean Sea for more than a thousand years.
Large quantities of Baltic amber were even found in the Royal Tomb of Qatna, Syria, and in the breast ornament of the Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamen, both from around 1300BC.
Established in 1201 by Bishop Albert of Riga, a German whose task was to protect his country's trade in the region and convert the pagan natives to Christianity, the city and much of the surrounding countryside were largely under German control until 1621, when it was lost to the Swedes and then to the Russians in 1710, by which time it was one of the largest cities in Northern Europe.
The Russians brought industrialisation and the city bloomed, experiencing its golden age from 1890 to 1914, when Riga was the third-largest and the most advanced city in the Russian empire - it was the first to install electricity, lifts and central heating.
It was during this period that ornate Art Nouveau buildings were constructed, with bold sculptural facades of bare-chested figures, curling floral motifs and emotive, almost tortured faces, with open mouths and sorrowful eyes - quite unlike any others I have seen in Europe.
ART NOUVEAU CAPITAL
Stepping into the Riga Art Nouveau Museum (www.jugendstils.riga.lv/eng/muzejs), I get a glimpse of life during that remarkable era.
The museum is a time capsule of an apartment that used to belong to renowned Latvian architect Konstantins Peksens. He designed more than 200 buildings in Riga alone, many of them in the Art Nouveau style, and lived in this apartment until 1907.
Everything is gorgeously detailed, from the pale-blue cylindrical stairway and elaborate floral banister in the lobby to the stained-glass windows and antique kitchen that is complete with an aga stove and dish towels delicately embroidered with ripe fruit. Even the wooden key holder is elaborately carved and inlaid - no object is too insignificant for finery.
Historically, however, Latvians were farmers and fishermen. Government and business matters were often managed by foreign merchants and noblemen while Latvians worked the land.
This is where Latvian culture developed - in the fields and ancient forests of the countryside, where folk songs, dances and pagan festivals flourished quite independently.
One afternoon, I take a trip to Sigulda, a resort town and adventure park with a castle, cafes, museums, bobsleighing, bungee jumping and dozens of kilometres of hiking trails, all a 45-minute drive from the city. It is a top tourist destination in Latvia, favoured by locals and visitors alike. It is also an entry point to Turaida Museum Reserve (www.turaida-muzejs.lv), a 44ha park of rolling forested hills housing the historic Turaida Castle built by Bishop Albert in 1214, a church and a museum - all reflecting more than 1,000 years of Latvian history.
There, I meet Mr Janis Rudzitis, a historian at the museum, a towering but gentle man who enthusiastically leads me around the reserve.
He is a fount of knowledge about Latvia and the Baltic tribes who lived there and he points me to important sites along the way - an otherwise unremarkable patch of grass on Folk Song Hill, for instance, where more than a thousand people gather every year to celebrate Jani, the summer solstice.
It is one of the country's biggest festivals of the year and Latvians congregate around bonfires across the country to drink, sing and jump over the bonfire to relieve their troubles, and spend the whole night dancing with wreaths of leaves and wild flowers in their hair.
I am enamoured by this side of Latvian culture, so he takes me to the forested edge of the hilltop glade to see a near-perfect circle of trees, their interlaced leaves and boughs forming an eyelet canopy over barren dirt.
Trees - oak and linden, in particular - are sacred to Latvians and each species has its own symbolism. Almost 45 per cent of the country is covered in woods and the government keeps track of more than 8,000 Great Trees (Dizkoki), the grandest and oldest trees growing around the country.
Latvians will literally hug trees and often go into the woods or sit leaning against a tree to recharge.
But here, for reasons that no one can explain, nothing grows inside this mysterious circle, though it receives plenty of sunshine and rain. And no one knows if it is the work of nature or human hand.
On a flat rock the size of a dinner plate, half buried in the centre of the arboreal ring, visitors leave offerings, mostly coins, for wishes and good luck. It is like a portal to another world.
Mr Rudzitis says: "The roots of paganism are still strong in Latvia. Christianity came here quite late, hundreds of years after the rest of Europe, but the church services were held in Latin, so no one understood them.
"Until the 16th century, people would go to church and then go to their sacred trees, lakes and stones to pray afterwards."
We continue along Folk Song Hill, a park with more than a dozen boulder-sized granite sculptures by Latvian artist Indulis Ranka, which depict the elements and characters of famous Latvian folk songs.
Called dainas, the four-line songs are the cornerstone of Latvian identity, a record of the people's stories and outlook on everything from love and death to farm work and the changing of seasons.
As one daina says: "To song I was born, to song I grew up/To song I lived through my life/With songs I shall be lain/In a mound of white sand."
For centuries, the dainas were transmitted orally and were on the verge of being lost until the late 1800s when hundreds of collectors travelled to the isolated farmhouses and hamlets across the country and recorded more than 260,000 folk song texts by hand.
The scraps of paper they were written on are stored in The Cabinet Of Folksongs in the National Library of Latvia (www.lnb.lv), an iconic structure which was designed by renowned Latvian-American architect Gunnar Birkerts to look like a glass mountain castle.
CULTURE IN THE CITY
Today, you can get glimpses of Latvian connection to nature and song in the city and certainly at the Latvian Song and Dance Celebration (dziesmusvetki.lv/en), where hundreds of amateur choirs and folk dance groups - about 30,000 people - from around the country perform for an audience of tens of thousands in Riga.
The festival, which takes place for a week every five years, is celebrating its 145th anniversary this year and is one of the many events being held in honour of Latvia's 100th birthday (www.latvia.eu/latvia100).
There is a five-year celebration of the anniversary of the proclamation of the Republic of Latvia, which took place on Nov 18, 1918.
You can find Latvian tradition in the food and produce in Riga Central Market (www.rct.lv/en), a daily market housed in five pavilions with hundreds of stalls selling fresh and cured meats, spices, seasonal flowers, farm fresh vegetables and wild mushrooms.
There are also forest fruit - rowan berries, blueberries, red currants and field strawberries, no bigger than the tip of my pinky, that are little exquisite bursts of flavour.
In the dairy pavilion, visitors can sample fresh whey, cream and mid-summer cheese - a pale-yellow curd dotted with caraway seeds that is considered one of the oldest types of cheese in Europe.
Do not miss the fish section, where smoked salmon, mackerel and herring lie in luscious piles next to caviar and fried and jellied lamprey which, at €37 (S$60) a kg, is a local delicacy.
Wash it all down with kvass, a non-alcoholic sweet-sour beer made of fermented rye which can be bought by the bottle, though Latvians prefer theirs homemade.
Across the Daugava river in the Kalnciema Quarter (www.kalncie maiela.lv/en), a cluster of renovated wooden buildings from the 19th century houses a Saturday market overflowing with local produce, baked goods and art and handicrafts made by Latvian artists and designers.
I fall in love with the wooden spatulas and spoons hand-carved by a greying man on the other side of the make-shift table. He names the different types of wood they are made of - apple, cherry, walnut - some curved in the natural shape of the branch they were carved from, the smooth handles bearing colourful wood inlay in traditional Latvian folk patterns.
There is a modern Latvia, too, in the flourishing Latvian food scene embodied by Restaurant 3 (www.restaurant3.lv/en) and Muusu (www.muusu.lv), where some of the country's top chefs are updating familiar Latvian flavours and bringing fine-dining techniques to wild and organic produce.
Modern Latvia is also in Labietis microbrewery (www.labietis.lv/en/about-us), which makes more than 50 types of beer, including a rotating selection of seasonal flavours such as forest, sour cherry and flower of the fern. It also crafts more traditional stouts and pale ales.
There is also Abavas (www. abavas.lv), which is bravely making wines far north of the typical latitudes and specialises in premium craft drinks made from Latvian fruit. Their cherry velvet port, hopped apple cider and rhubarb sparkling brut are standouts found on drinks menus around Riga.
Check out annual festivals such as music festival Positivus (www.positivusfestival.com/en), the biggest in the Baltics. Or savour Piens (piens.nu), a relaxed, hipster, family-friendly and free festival featuring local music, circus, art and theatre performances in and around the grounds of the dilapidated K.K. fon Stricka Villa, a performance and art venue in Aristida Briana, a gentrifying-hipster neighbourhood in north-east Riga.
TO THE COUNTRYSIDE
There is a lot going on in the capital, but you will not understand Latvia's heart and soul until you head out to the countryside and do as the Latvians do - take a walk in the woods, pick berries, flowers and mushrooms.
I spend a few lovely hours at Vaidelotes (www.celotajs.lv/en/e/zs_vaidelotes), a working farm which holds seasonal festivals, music performances and ancient rituals, and teaches people about the Latvian way of life.
Ms Gunita Brusa, one of the owners of the farm, shows us the way, pointing out organic flowers and herbs which she turns into tea. We sample a cup of tea which tastes and smells like a field of summer flowers, while she sings a traditional tune, sweetly and full of emotion.
For a more upscale country experience, go to Zoltners (zoltners.lv/lv/home), a relaxed but chic seven-suite country hotel on a working farm with an excellent restaurant and microbrewery on the banks of a pretty tree-lined pond.
The farm is surrounded by nature zones such as the Pokaini forests, Peter Upisa Lilac Park (www.dobeledara.lv/petera-upisa-darzs) and Tervete Nature Park (www.latvia.travel/en/sight/tervete-nature-park) with a ropes course and fairy sculpture forest which is ideal for kids.
Do not miss a tour of Rundale Palace (rundale.net), an 18thcentury Late Baroque masterpiece often described as the Versailles of Latvia, a 45-minute drive from Zoltners.
Designed by Italian architect Francesco Bartolomeo Rastrelli, who also designed the Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg, the palace is a mesmerising display of wealth, with silk-lined walls, gilded ceilings, ornate porcelain rose chandeliers and other sumptuous ornamentation. There is also a manicured maze of a garden.
If the sun is out, head to the white sand beaches of the Baltic coast, once a favourite seaside destination for Russian aristocrats. It is stunningly calm and quiet at Dieninas (www.facebook.com/dieninas.lv), a cottage by the sea in the historic fishing village Berzciems, which looks out across the Gulf of Riga.
All I can hear when I arrive are seagulls calling in the distance and the smallest of waves lapping at the shore, and I immediately feel at peace.
Getting to Dieninas is a pleasant drive through the countryside, about a 11/2-hour drive from the city, past villages of wooden houses and forests of birch and pine. The rustic cottage is a typical fisherman's house from 1890 with small cosy rooms which are available for rent as a homestay.
At a sheltered picnic table behind her house, our jovial host Iveta serves a simple feast of nourishing fish soup with carrots, potatoes and homemade fish balls, hot-smoked Baltic flounder and cold-smoked Baltic seabass and sprat fish, her speciality, which are broiled and served in a vinegar sauce.
Everything is delicious and light and we eat greedily, peeling back the bronzed skin of the fish and picking the firm pinkish flesh with our hands.
It is my last meal in Latvia and I'm jealous. I'm jealous of the Latvian connection to nature, of the ability to hug a tree and not be called a weirdo, of spending weekends foraging in the woods or by the sea breathing in fresh Baltic air.
On my tour of Vaidelotes farm, I had placed my hands on one of Latvia's Great Trees, a sacred 850-year-old oak.
Taking a moment to think about its history, all of the changes and generations this tree has seen and the efforts of the local farmers to protect it, I felt the energy of the ancient trunk seeping through my palms, like magic.
Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.
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