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Riga - In the flat Baltic nation of Latvia, where hills are few and far between, wily alpine skiing fans have found ways to indulge their passion without flying south to hit the slopes.
“Every year we grow the hill a little. It's now about 25 metres higher than it was,” says Vadims Kamenevs, marketing director of the Zagarkalns ski resort in Cesis, 90 kilometres northeast of the capital Riga.
Kamenevs' team have spent recent off seasons piling an earth-mix onto a natural hill, and it now stands 112 metres above sea level.
It says a lot for Latvians' love of downhill skiing that people in the Baltic nation of two million are prepared to grow their own mountains.
“If you want bigger slopes, there are only two ways you can go - either up or down, and we didn't want to start digging,” Kamenevs laughs.
The tallest hill in the country, Gaizinkalns, rises just 312 metres above sea level and, predictably, it has three pistes on its flanks.
The Zagarkalns resort is not alone in using cosmetic surgery to enhance nature's modest mounds.
In the western port of Ventspils, a ski hill was built from scratch in 2005. It too is growing each year, currently towering 52 metres over the nearby Baltic Sea beach and oil terminal.
Named “Lemberga Hute”, or “Lembergs' Trilby”, its bizarre shape imitates the preferred headwear of colourful local mayor and political kingpin Aivars Lembergs.
Whereas cross-country skiing is a national obsession in neighbouring Estonia, Latvians prefer the thrill of downhill skiing and snowboarding.
“Although Latvia is not a land of mountains, its steep slopes and snow-rich winters are just perfect for short runs with skis or on snowboard,” according to a recent report on 400 European ski resorts from the European Consumers Centre Network.
“And while it may seem quite unusual, alpine skiing is one of the Latvians' favourite winter-time activities. Ski runs are located in almost every municipality,” it adds.
The report also gives a clue as to why Latvians have kept skiing even during an economic crisis that saw their country battered by the world's deepest recession in 2008-09.
The country offers the continent's cheapest skiing, with one-day adult passes costing the equivalent of about four euros (about R40) - albeit on a slope just 250 metres long at the Ramkalni ski centre just outside Riga.
In contrast, the continent's most expensive adult pass is found on the somewhat larger Matterhorn in Switzerland, at 62 euros.
Latvia also has its own slope for well-heeled skiers, however, with the Zviedru Cepure resort charging 50 euros for a day's skiing on a kilometre-long slope.
One of the benefits of small hills is that skiers can be confident they will not be stuck halfway up a mountain awaiting rescue before spending weeks on crutches.
According to the Latvian Ski Track Association, just 61 people were hurt during the 2011-12 season.
According to Kamenevs, the competition generated by dozens of small slopes is driving rapid improvements in facilities.
“Latvia is the capital of downhill as far as the Baltics are concerned. We get lots of visitors from Estonia, and Lithuanians tell us it's cheaper for them to come here for a weekend than to visit their local facilities,” he says.
“The Russian market is also becoming very important. Russians can easily combine a weekend break in Riga with a couple of days' skiing on different slopes.”
Since Latvia joined the European Union in 2004, its slopes have found an extra role - teaching a new generation of skiers skills that they can then take to the Alps, Pyrenees or further afield, which was impossible during 50 years of Soviet occupation.
“A fair share of our winter passengers are skiers,” says Janis Vanags of national airline airBaltic, himself a fan of the slopes.
“Latvians are quite keen to explore less-known ski areas in Finland and Norway, plus new resorts in Georgia are generating a lot of interest. We are quite stubborn. We won't let the fact that we just have a few small mounds stop us from skiing,” he adds.
With the arrival of the Baltic winter, Latvia's 31 ski centres have just opened for business, and with luck they will stay open well into March.
At the top of Zagarkalns' main run, 23-year-old Janis Bendiks says skiing is a way of life even in a small town such as Cesis.
“It's simple. You finish work at five o'clock, then everyone heads to the slopes. This evening the run will be packed. It's right on my doorstep, so why not make the most of it?” he asks before swerving expertly away in a cloud of powder. - AFP