Any Londoner suddenly picked up and dropped down into the Old Town of Latvia’s capital would realize pretty quickly that they were not at home. But for viewers across the Soviet Union, Jauniela (literally New Street), a narrow cobbled street in the heart of Riga’s Old Town, was Baker Street, home of the world’s most famous fictional detective, Sherlock Holmes.
The Baltic states, and Riga in particular, were popular filming destinations for Soviet directors. This was largely due to their architectural heritage, which was quite different from Russia and most of the other Soviet republics, as a history of domination not only by Russia, but also by Germans, Swedes, and Poles had left these countries with a wealth of Gothic and Baroque architecture that meant they were often reminiscent of countries farther west. For Soviet directors who wanted to represent Western European cities in their work but for whom actually filming there would have been difficult to impossible, the Baltic capitals were obvious fall-backs.
But it is the television series The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson that is most indelibly associated with Riga. In its opening scenes, Holmes is seen marching home, accompanied by Watson, along a decidedly un-Victorian-looking Jauniela.
Still thought of in Russia as one of the best TV series ever made, a total of 11 episodes were filmed between 1979 and 1986. It’s a testament to a long history of Russian obsession with the great detective, extending from the huge popularity of translations of Arthur Conan Doyle’s original stories at the turn of the century (as well as spin-offs by local writers that had Holmes solving cases in various Russian towns and cities) to the more recent mania for Benedict Cumberbatch in the BBC series Sherlock. Regarded as perhaps the most faithful of all cinematic adaptations of Conan Doyle’s stories, it’s even won fans in Holmes’s home country: Vasily Livanov, the Russian actor who played Sherlock in the Soviet version, was awarded an MBE by the Queen in 2006.
And Riga has recently started to make the most of its unlikely association with the famous literary character. Since 2011, the city has celebrated Sherlock Holmes’ birthday on January 8th, with enthusiasts attending in period costume, and more than a few pipes and deerstalkers present. Nearby, on Mazā Monētu iela, the Sherlock Art Hotel offers 17 rooms, all named after and themed on individual Holmes mysteries.