This article first appeared as a 2-part series on Inquirer.net.
DIARY OF A TRAVELING FANGIRL
By Tessa Mendoza Cruz
I had just gotten off the tour bus in central Belfast. It was my second Game of Thrones-themed tour in the two and a half days I’ve been in the capital of Northern Ireland. I was pursuing a tip on where the cast may be hanging out when I saw him.
At first I thought my mind was playing tricks on me, after a full day of absorbing all things Thrones. But after a second look, there was no denying it. The curly jet-black hair was unmistakable. I was standing in front of Jon Snow.
It seemed like a fitting conclusion to my world tour of Game of Thrones filming locations that has spanned three years: to stand and look at the actor playing my favorite character. Only, I’ve come too far to just gawk. If there’s something I learned from the series, if you want something bad enough, you have to seize it. So I did.
A Crash Course on Game of Thrones
The hit HBO show was borne out of a series of fantasy novels by American writer George R.R. Martin. The ongoing saga revolves around the past and current history of the mythical continents of Westeros and Essos. The focus of the story has been on the highly contended Iron Throne from which the occupant rules the Seven Kingdoms of the land, as well as the surrounding story lines of the characters associated with it.
It was early spring when my husband Glen and I visited Iceland, a seemingly perfect setting for the “A Song of Fire and Ice” series. After all, this small island nation at the rim of the frigid Artic Circle has numerous active and inactive volcanoes, with eruptions as recent as a few months ago.
At the time of our trip, we were aware of the show but haven’t watched a single episode. Our tour group hiked along the outer portions of Svinafellsjokull, an outlet of Vatnajokull, the largest glacier in Europe. The sun was starting to fade when we got there. A memorial for two young German travelers who were lost in the icy wilderness made us mindful not to stray from the path.
The rocky mountainside that bordered the immense glacier was the most rugged place I’ve ever been. Our guide talked about how the HBO cast and crew came to Iceland to film scenes set Beyond of the Wall. This was fictional region north of a 700-foot barrier of solid ice 300 miles long constructed to defend the Seven Kingdoms. It was only when I saw Seasons Two and Three later on did I fully appreciate walking on the terrain where Jon Snow and the Men of the Night’s Watch encountered Ygritte and her fellow Free Folk, also known as Wildlings.
Another filming location we unknowingly visited was the Þingvellir National Park. Named a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it forms part of the most visited sights in the country called the Golden Circle.
We walked on a path beside an imposing craggy ridge as we wrapped our heads around the fact that the area was where the European and North American tectonic plates drifted from each other. The coarse landscape was softened by streams of sparklingly clear glacier water. It wasn’t hard to see why the area has been chosen by the show’s producers as a fitting background of several onscreen journeys, often arduous and perilous.
Like Iceland, our visit to the Andalusian city of Seville preceded our discovery of the show. Nevertheless, it was just as fascinating to see the grand royal palace of Alcazar on the show as Sunspear, the seat of House Martell. I have to sometimes remind myself that its places like these that inspire writers and filmmakers to come up with fantastical palaces and castles in their work, and not the other way around.
The intricately elegant Moorish architecture and design of the buildings and its sumptuous gardens were a sight to behold. I noticed that visitors like myself walked slowly in and around the palace as if possessed by a regal spirit, taking in every tile and arch thoughtfully and contemplatively.
Renowned as one of the most beautiful palaces in the world, the Alcazar of Seville was well suited to represent the capital of Dorne. Its dignified air was befitting the fictional city’s pedigree as the only land joined to the realm by marriage rather than by conquest.
Spain appears to have enchanted the HBO producers as filming for season 6 has been planned in the coming months in Girona and Almeria, among other places.
The exotic land of Morocco has long held a veil of mysterious allure. From the expansive Atlas Mountain range to the reaches of the Western Sahara Desert and on to the fascinatingly confusing nooks and crannies of its fabled cities Marrakesh and Fes, the country is photogenic at any angle.
During our 15-day tour of the country last March, we stopped at two places that were used to depict locations in the continent of Essos, where the silver-haired Daenerys Targaryen was working on the logistics of her plan to claim the Iron Throne.
One look at the earthen buildings of Ait Ben Haddou and you know you’ve seen it in a movie or two. It has an impressive connection with Hollywood both old and new, having seen filming of landmark movies like Lawrence of Arabia, Jesus of Nazareth, Gladiator and Prince of Persia on its streets and buildings.
In Game of Thrones, it was transformed with the help of some movie magic into Yunkai, a city-state of Slavers’ Bay. We stayed at La Fibule D’or, a family-run inn overlooking this UNESCO World Heritage Site. Our group was warmly received by the inn’s owner, a gregarious fellow who likes to go by his screen name Mr. Action. He has been an extra on the show as well as other movies that were filmed in his town.
Moving towards the coast, we came upon Essaouira. This picturesque fortified city doubled as Astapor where Daenerys Targaryen meets the Unsullied soldiers through a heinous slave trader. The 18th century seaside ramparts, including the distinctive square tower, were prominent in scenes from Season 3. Standing in the middle of the round cobblestone Scala of the Kasbah, I felt a palpable energy as I heard my voice echo and reverberate. The experience made channeling my inner Khaleesi quite memorable.
Dubrovnik, dubbed the Pearl of the Adriatic, has long been popular among conquerors and cruise ship tourists for its strategic location and innate charm.
It has played King’s Landing to perfection. The medieval walled city, one of the best preserved in the world and yet another UNESCO World Heritage Site, aptly provided the grandeur necessary for the capital of the Seven Kingdoms.
By the time we visited Croatia, we were avid fans of the show and planned our trip around our fascination for it. We booked the Game of Thrones Walking Tour through Viator. Our guide Anna, who herself had been an extra for the show, took us to key spots. There were many excited oohs and aahs as she revealed with her reference photos what scenes were filmed there.
Among the prominent Dubrovnik landmarks that made their appearance on the show were Lovrijenac Fort or St. Lawrence Fort and the harbor right below it, Minceta Tower, the grand Baroque stairs leading up to the Church of St. Ignatius as well as the two of the City Gates, Pile and Ploce.
Not to be outdone, the city of Split, found three hours north of Dubrovnik, has its own allure that drew the Roman Emperor Diocletian to build his retirement home there by the Adriatic. The vaults of Diocletian’s sprawling palace complex turned out to be the perfect place to house growing dragons.
Luck was on our side, as filming was ongoing during our time in Croatia. We saw active sets in Dubrovnik with elaborate props to depict various corners of the capital including the squalid slums of Flea Bottom. It was exhilarating to come as close as one can get to walking in fictional King’s Landing.
On our last day, we happened upon the extras holding area for a scene that they were shooting for the tail-end of Season 5. Croatians and other Europeans sat around in costumes that identified them as either Sparrows or King’s Landing citizens, as they waited to be called to work. We sat by a group of friends who took time off from work and traveled from the capital of Zagreb to be part of their favorite show. They shared their experiences animatedly. Their enthusiasm was palpable, their pride completely understandable.
While the city was abuzz with the cast being in town, we had no major star sighting. The closest we got was when a pair of travelers from Miami that we met told us the they saw Lena Headley, who plays the deliciously wicked Cersei Lannister, sunning herself poolside at their hotel. My husband had to dissuade me from casually dropping the said hotel, lest we missed our outbound bus.
While I technically came to Malta for a conference, I must admit that its connection to the show was a significant factor in my decision to come over. As my conference schedule was in conflict with the schedule of the tour of local filming locations, I had to manage visiting several key spots on my own, and they did not disappoint.
If Croatia saw the height of popularity of the epic series, Malta witnessed its birth. When HBO came to film Season 1 in this tiny island-country in the middle of the Mediterranean, they had no idea how massive the show would become. The country’s own medieval sections, gates and walls served as King’s Landing until production moved to Croatia the following season.
A big controversy over environmental damage to Dwejra Bay, a protected site, had caused HBO to find other places to film. Standing on the shoreline, I could see why the producers wanted the majestic Azure Window as a backdrop for Khal Drogo and Daenerys Targaryen’s wedding. But standing there, I saw the spectacularly unique fossilized surface of the rocks and understood the uproar over the failure to protect it better. Before they parted ways, Malta left an indelible mark on Game of Thrones and set the tone for the look and feel of future filming locations.
Feeling adventurous, I took a local bus on my own from the modern capital of Valletta to the medieval capital of Mdina. I found the City Gate, used as King’s Landing own, easy enough. With tips from travel and fan blogs and my phone’s GPS, I made my way around the city’s winding alleys to the filming location in Piazza Mesquita. Twilight was approaching when I found the spot where pivotal scenes in Season 1 were shot. A British family was curious as to why I was shooting what seemed like a pretty but generally random corner. I explained my intent and became an instant tour guide.
It was only fitting that my Game of Thrones journey ended in the beating heart of the whole operation. Once known for violent bombings and clashes between Republicans and Unionists called The Troubles, Belfast has had quite a dubious history. Besides being the home of the Europe’s most bombed hotel, its other claim to fame was building what was then the largest ship in the world that sank on its maiden voyage.
In the same massive building where the Titanic was painted now sits the Iron Throne. Known as the Paint Hall, Titanic Studios is the biggest in Europe. Many if not most indoor scenes from Season 1 all the way to the current season were filmed there.
Not much can be gleaned from beyond the fences, as props were well hidden in sheds and covered with tarps. A big sign by the gate forbade photographs from being taken. It was a bit disappointing not to catch a glimpse of a Westerosi carriage or a Dornish ship. Then again, any self-respecting fan would steer clear of anything that could spoil or worse, incorrectly misinterpret, the upcoming season’s plot twists.
Another area cloaked with privacy was an active filming location is Magheramorne Quarry in County Antrim. Sets for Castle Black and The Wall were up and running when our bus whisked by it, too fast for me to take a decent shot. It had also been used for the Battle of Blackwater Bay and the Wildling village of Hardhome.
While active sets were off limits to the public, the past filming locations were open and fair game. Not wanting to miss a thing, I took two different Game of Thrones tours in Northern Ireland. The first one was with Game of Thrones Tour Belfast. Our guide Thorn was a mountain of a man who has worked as a member of the Night’s Watch. Our route included stops at places that fans will recognize as Winterfell and the woods where the direwolves were found.
A fun treat for the group was meeting two Northern Inuit dogs who played direwolves on the show. Not to be outdone, their human family has also appeared on screen as Wildlings.
The second tour was with Derrick of Mccombs Coach Travel. He took our group on the scenic Causeway Coastal Route through the pictureseque glens of County Antrim north of Belfast. The rugged Northern Ireland coastline provided scenic backdrops that lent well to the scenes that featured the birth of Melisandre’s Shadow Assassin and Theon Greyjoy’s return to the Iron Islands through Pyke Harbour. A quiet country road has also gained worldwide recognition as the King’s Road where Arya and Gendry escaped King’s Landing.
The Jon Snow Encounter
At the end of the tour, I asked to be dropped off in the city center. Since the time I arrived in Belfast, I had been hoping and praying for a sighting or chance encounter with a cast member. The luck of the Irish did not let me down.
I was walking by the entrance of a hotel when I spotted him. I doubted what I saw until I noticed Alfie Allen (Theon Greyjoy/Reek) with his blonde hair and pale skin standing there as well. It was then that I finally believed that the guy in front of me was no other than Kit Harrington, the British actor popularly known as the darkly charismatic member of the Night’s Watch and everyone’s favorite bastard Jon Snow.
What transpired next could have totally been a dream if it weren’t for the physical evidence that the encounter produced. As part of his contract and due to the perplexing way his character closed the last scene of Season 5, Kit has not been agreeing to posing for any photos. Not wanting to invade his privacy with sneaky paparazzi shots, I channeled the sort of cunning that I hope would make Tyrion Lannister proud.
After I steeled myself with a half-pint of Guinness, I called the waiter over and told him that I wanted to order food to be sent to Kit’s table: Bang Bang Chicken and Vegetable Tempura, to cover preference or dietary restriction. I ordered Baby Burgers too but decided to keep it for myself, as I didn’t want to be overkill. I also asked the server to pass along a note I wrote on the back of my Game of Thrones tour ticket. On it, I thanked Kit, Alfie and Ben Crompton, another actor from the show who had later joined their group, for their work on the show.
While waiting for the food to be served, I mindlessly leafed through a Northern Ireland tourism booklet. A few minutes later, out of the corner of my eye on the right, I saw a figure in black approaching me.
Kit: “Excuse me, where you the one who sent the food over?”
Tessa: “Yes, that was me. I didn’t want to bother you but wanted to send a little token of appreciation for the work that you do.”
Kit (smiling): “Thank you! You must have read my mind, because I was hungry!”
Then Ben came up and said his thanks too.
Like the diligently informed fan that I was, I told Kit that I understood that I couldn’t take a photo with him, and that I wasn’t going to ask him any filming questions.
“I can sign something for you,” he offered.
I handed him a blank postcard. He asked for my name and scribbled on the postcard.
“So you did the Game of Thrones tour, eh?” he asked as he wrote.
I told him I enjoyed both tours I took. I also briefly mentioned how I’ve traveled to all the other countries where they had shot the series.
Kit handed me the postcard. I told him one more time that I knew I can’t take pictures with him, but instead asked for a shoe shot.
Kit: “A shoe shot?” he asked, in the same Jon Snow voice and tone that I’ve come to know and love.
Kit and Ben looked puzzled. Nevertheless, Kit started dusting off the tip of his brown leather boot then stuck his right foot down. I put my hiking boot beside his and told Ben to step in as well.
When the plan became evident, Kit smiled and said that he’s never done it before.
Kit: “I like this.”
I took the Shoe-fie and thanked them. I wished them luck on filming Season 6 and told them I was looking forward to it. They thanked me again for the food and returned to their table.
And just like that, Kit Harington/Jon Snow walked out of my life as quickly as he walked into it.
I sat around for another hour and a half, slowly munching on my baby burgers, digesting the meal and the events that just transpired. It was the perfect ending to my Game of Thrones world tour.
Tessa Mendoza Cruz is currently obsessed with HBO’s hit series Game of Thrones. Over the last three years, she has combined her love for the show and her passion for traveling, with the most spectacular ending. She is the founder of the travel blog Viajera Filipina (www.viajerafilipina.com) where she seeks to inspire Filipinas (and everyone else) to get out and see the world.