Lovely little Latvia. So small and scenic and sociable. I was almost suspicious when the first bubbly hotel receptionist welcomed us with a warm smile, and then cut the price of the room when we hesitated at her first offer. Was this a trick? When is she going to shout at us in Russian for parking the car in the wrong place?

When the waitress spoke English too I nearly jumped over the bar and hugged her. How I’ve missed being understood! I then set about making polite small talk in the form of my entire life story until I realised she probably WAS just being nice. But still, she laughed in a jovial way as we counted out coins to make sure we had enough to pay for our first two Latvian beers ‘Hahaha, just like a Latvian student!’

We were also welcomed to Latvia by our new friend, Pork. There must be some sort of genial condition known only to Latvians which requires you to eat pork with every meal or go blind or something. I don’t mind, pork is a nice sweet meat, after all. And you need something fatty to wash the beer and potatoes down with.

As if the pork and friendliness weren’t enough to make me fall in love with the place, I quickly realised Latvia is beautiful as well. AND you can drive across its decent, quiet roads in no time; which is nothing short of awesome, having just driven through the 1st, 3rd and 9th biggest countries in the world.

We had only 5 days to spend here, and drove from Rezekne, near the Russian border, through quaint country villages with still autumnal leaves, past pristine rivers to Sigulda, about 50km north of the capital, Riga, where we hired mountain bikes to practice stacking it on rotting leaves through the forest on the banks of the Gauja. Then we continued onto Riga, revelling that it only took us a few hours to practically cross the entire country.

We spent two days walking off the pork on the hazardous cobbled streets of Riga’s old town; getting a feel for how much Latvia has been through in the last century of German and Soviet occupation – and how proud and prosperous they are, roughly twenty years since gaining independence. Unlike other ex-soviet states, there seems to be little evidence of Russian grey-wash blocks of flats or ugly overpowering industrial structures – instead they seemed to have maintained the charming look of ye old provincial Latvia, and the Latvians don’t look anywhere near as miserable their neighbours.

The only hint of a dark side I saw was a steady (or unsteady) parade of people drinking in the streets, some who looked as though they were knocking back a brew on their walk to work.  I also read in the ‘Guide to Riga’ magazine that up until recently Latvia had held the record for the world’s drunkest person and from what I saw the national past time of choice seemed to revolve around attempts to reclaim the title.

All too soon, city time was over and we were moving on to the Baltic coast, and before I knew, Joe had convinced me that camping in the Baltics in November was perfectly normal…