That catchphrase 'Latvia - best enjoyed slowly' can certainly be applied to me!

My first of several visits to the country was some thirty-five years ago at the beginning of the 1980's. During my latest visit in May this year I was particularly aware of how important my long and slowly unfolding experience of the country over the years has been. It has so greatly enriched both my enjoyment and my ever increasing affection and respect for a fascinating destination that is still strangely one of Europe's best-kept secrets.

When I made my first early visits it was still very much the Soviet era. I was based at the British Embassy in Moscow dealing with cultural and educational activities. The UK never recognised the Soviet occupation and incorporation of Latvia into the USSR and this meant that British diplomats in Moscow in general did not make work visits to Riga because of the danger of it being misinterpreted as diplomatic recognition of Moscow's rule. I was in the fortunate position that not only was a softer line taken on educational and cultural links but because of having been seconded to the embassy from the British Council, a de jure non-governmental organisation, I did not count as a 'real' diplomat. This allowed me to make visits to all three Baltic countries without a problem. Without a problem I should say, if one leaves out of account that one had to get official Soviet permission in Moscow for such visits and on arrival one was in receipt of the generous attention, in terms of personnel and the time they allocated, of the KGB.

Latvia was then very Sovietised, with a seemingly inexorable process of Russification continuing, yet it was nevertheless still a very different world from Moscow. Relations at a work level were more serious and professional and there was also the joy, amongst the Soviet drabness, of being able to find a decent cup of coffee not normally available in the Soviet Union. The cup of coffee may have been there but not, of course, the vibrant and ubiquitous cafe life of today's Riga.

Possibly the most memorable of my visits was in 1991. I flew into Riga by private jet! In order not to create a false impression I should explain the context. I was at that period back in Moscow having arrived there in early 1989 to begin setting up British Council operations and offices in several Soviet republics and in the Baltic states. This led to my becoming the first British Council Director for the Soviet Union, and subsequently after its collapse, of the Russian Federation. Following the failed coup in Moscow in the summer of 1991, the UK like other countries, recognised the new Latvia as an independent country. I was immediately ordered to go to London to accompany the UK Minister of State for Foreign Affairs on a whistle-stop visit to Latvia and the other two Baltic countries to congratulate the three heads of state and confirm diplomatic recognition.

We were a party of four aboard the jet, the Minister having decided he wanted to be accompanied by three working-level staff representing bilateral political, commercial and cultural relations respectively. On arrival in Riga we had our passports stamped with the new Latvian visa. I think mine was numbered 46 or similar and somewhere in my attic I still have that passport - a souvenir of being one of the first people to enter independent Latvia. At the time, the rush to try to be physically the first, or amongst the first, to the new Latvia did not strike me as characteristically "British". In retrospect I think it was in part explained by the past history of UK-Latvian diplomatic relations, not least the precedent in November 1918 of British recognition of Latvian independence one week before the Republic of Latvia was proclaimed!

I have already mentioned that that visit also included stops in Tallinn and Vilnius. Since the early 1980s I had been continuously good friends with a remarkable Estonian, Lennart Meri, who had become Minister of Foreign Affairs (and later, of course, became President of Estonia). We had a joyous reunion in Tallinn in an historic new context. He had been an enormous influence on me and my world-view for many years, particularly through his long-held visionary and unflinching conviction that the Soviet Union would perish.

From the mid-1990s I was director of an international arts and cultural organisation based in London and had more links with Latvia. I had extensive contact in particular with those responsible for promoting Latvia's culture in the UK, including those in the Latvian Embassy. It was not an easy task promoting Latvia at that time because it is easy to forget how for the average person in western Europe so little was known about the history, cultures and traditions of any of the post-Soviet countries. Although it has changed now it was not uncommon for there to be an inability for the general public in Europe to distinguish, for example, Latvia from Lithuania.

In 2005, I rejoined the British Council specifically to be its Director in Ukraine. Management reorganisation, particularly in relation to its European operations, led felicitously to my also line-managing from Kyiv the British Council offices in Riga, Tallinn and Vilnius. It meant that I was able to make a few short visits to Riga and see the progress Latvia was making. Just after I ceased having my Baltic responsibilities, a very bright young woman joined the British Council in Latvia as director. Unfortunately, Dace Melbarde left after a couple of years but she is of course now doing a very good job as Latvian Minister of Culture!

And so what of my most recent visit and impressions? I was in Riga for a week on a work visit related to an EU-funded project involving eleven countries of which Latvia is one. The project is looking at the possibilities for creating more synergies between the cultural and creative industries and the tourism sector to encourage innovation in the development of tourism products and services. Although a work visit, because of its nature, I was very much looking at Latvia from a tourism and cultural perspective. Space does not allow me to go into detail but I was frankly very impressed and below I very briefly mention what impressed me most.

People and institutions. In Riga there was a freshness, enthusiasm, sense of direction and quiet confidence that seemed to be genuine and new. I was impressed by the professionalism and motivation of the people I met, especially the younger people. Most of the institutions I visited also seemed to have a thought-through and up-to-date clarity of purpose even in those areas, such as aspects of the cultural and creative industries, where development is still at an early stage. Perhaps a symbolic representation of all this was the newly refurbished and 'reinvented' National Museum of Latvia which opened in May and the committed people who have been associated with it. It is a world-class institution and justifies in its own right getting on a plane for a city break in Riga.

Riga has always been wonderful architecturally but it is now looking at its splendidly best. There are no doubt many reasons for this but I think the 'tipping factor' is almost certainly all the investment and preparations which went into Riga being European Capital of Culture in 2014 and  subsequently holding the Presidency of the European Union. There is always everywhere debate and controversy about the justification of the investment required for 'big events' and whether they have lasting impact but in the case of Riga, and in terms of tourism and culture, I think it has taken the city, and by extension the whole country, into a new and very positive era.

And what of the future? During my latest visit on a number of occasions there was discussion of the celebration of the centenary of Latvia's 1918 independence. Events are planned to start in 2017. Latvia has every reason to use the occasion to celebrate its present as much as its past. Perhaps also it can use it to stop being one of Europe's best-kept secrets! 'Best enjoyed slowly' of course, as I have experienced it, but hopefully by a greatly increased number of people discovering a unique country.

Terry Sandell, 08.07.2016, Society, History, People