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The new-found freedom of the Baltic States was cut short in brutal fashion by the Second World War: Stalin invaded in 1940, Hitler took over in 1941 and Stalin returned in 1944.

Hundreds of thousands of Balts fled to the west, but as many, if not more, were murdered or deported to Siberia. Estonian, a vowel-heavy Finno-Ugric tongue (closely related to Finnish, and distantly to Hungarian), has 14 cases and is incomprehensible to English-speakers; it's still worth a listen, though, as it vies with Italian for the title of most beautiful language in Europe.

Riga's Old Town is also pretty, but the city's main strengths are its lively nightlife and the astonishing concentration of Jugendstil buildings.

It's celebrating its 800th anniversary this year, and is regaining the vibrant, cosmopolitan atmosphere that moved Hemingway to call it, with remarkable lack of imagination, the "Paris of the North".

The Jewish communities of Riga and Vilnius were all but wiped out, and the three fledgling democracies were instantly extinguished. Latvians and Lithuanians, who are descended from old Baltic tribes, speak ancient Indo-European languages ­ Lithuanian is said to be the closest living language to Sanskrit.

The Estonians are famously reserved and tight-lipped: they're also stubborn, loyal, uncommonly good at singing and curiously dismissive of their Baltic neighbours.

As a gross generalisation, Estonian women are strikingly attractive (shame about the men), Lithuanian men are remarkably handsome (but not so the women), while the Latvians are, as usual, somewhere in the middle. Your average Balt will find the term "post-Soviet" deeply insulting, preferring the rather ungainly expression "pre-European Union".

Lithuania: Lithuanian Airlines (020 8759 7323; lt) flies from Heathrow to Vilnius from £265.

Cheap alternative: Ryanair (08701 569 569; from Stansted to Lubeck, a short hop on the train to Kiel and then the Lisco (00 370 61 55943) ship to Klaipeda.

There are a couple of unbreakable rules, however: whatever you do, don't call the Balts Slavs, and don't get the Baltic Republics confused with the Balkans. Because it's geographically convenient; because all three established themselves as modern, democratic nations in the interwar period, and emerged from the Soviet yoke at roughly the same time; and because that's what Moscow did when it forcibly annexed them during the Second World War.

Latvia and Estonia have a common history, as their ice-free ports were irresistible prizes for more aggressive nations: the Danes, Germans, Swedes, Poles, and Russians all held sway there, while the peasants were in thrall to émigré German barons until 1918. In medieval times, its territory stretched south to the Black Sea and east almost as far as Moscow before entering a Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the 16th century.

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