Few 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.
Latvia 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.