On location with Game of Thrones, Croatia, BBC Travel
Is there any stopping George R R Martin’s Game of Thrones? Not only has the New Jersey-born author sold more than 20 million copies of his epic fantasy series, A Song of Ice and Fire, but his books have been turned into the most talked about TV show on the planet.
Set in the imaginary continent of Westeros, the interwoven plots of Game of Thrones centre on a power struggle between kings and queens, driven by fractious dynasties, long-held grievances and the lust for power. Thanks to a liberal addition of post-watershed sex and violence from the series’ American producers HBO, the television show has become a fan boy’s dream – making it the most downloaded programme in history.
What has also helped audiences tune-in each week is the variety of locations that the series producers have filmed in. For just as Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy drew thousands of people to New Zealand to follow in the footsteps of Frodo and the Hobbits in The Shire, Rivendell and Mordor, Game of Thrones is having the same effect – particularly in Dubrovnik on the Croatian coast, which doubles as the medieval walled city of King’s Landing, the capital of Westeros, and the Cities Beyond the Jade Sea.
While King’s Landing in the first series was filmed in Malta, a combination of tax breaks and government incentives lured the series producers to the Dalmatian coast for the second, third and now fourth series, which starts shooting this month (August). It is easy to see why, too, because the city’s fortresses and palaces couldn’t have been a better fit for the drama. It’s in the ramparts of Bokar Fortress, in the fantasy drawbridge that leads from Pile Gate, in the Arsenal of cannons that protrude from the city walls and in the otherworldly shape of the cypress pines that fringe the city – Game of Thrones is everywhere.
For any diehard fan, the best place to start is at the 11th century Fort Lovrijenac, where the dramatic opening scene of second series was filmed. Described as Dubrovnik’s Gibraltar, the crumbling fortress has become a backdrop for numerous pivotal moments between some of the main characters, including King Joffrey, Queen Cersei and the dwarf Tyrion Lannister, the show’s most popular character. The fort isn’t a stranger to drama, either: during the annual Dubrovnik Summer Festival (to 25 August) it becomes an open-air Shakespearean-style theatre, attracting such names as Daniel Day Lewis, who once dropped in to play the lead role in Hamlet.
Below the ramparts of the fort, sits Pile Harbour, a crescent-moon shaped bay and pebble beach that consistently appears throughout seasons two and three, in particular for scenes featuring the scheming Littlefinger and Sansa Stark. When filming isn’t taking place, it’s a great spot to go sea kayaking, and tours push off from beneath the city walls to visit caves and quiet beaches along the coast. From the beach, it’s easy to spot the Bokar Fortress, which juts out into the Adriatic from the Old City, and a short walk across the drawbridge that connects the old town to Pile Gate brings you to the Rector’s Palace, used as backdrops for King’s Landing and the wealthy port city of Qarth. Nearby St Dominic Street may also look familiar, having featured in a number of scenes, including the siege of King’s Landing during the Battle of Blackwater Bay.
A 15 minute boat ride from the Old City harbour brings you to Lokrum Island, the city’s own getaway beach resort. During filming the island’s Botanical Gardens and the ruins of the Benedictine Monastery Complex were used as stand-ins for the city of Qarth and the Battery Fort on Glavia Hill, known as Maximilian’s tower, was visited by Daenerys Targaryen, heir to the Westeros throne, and her ward Ser Jorah Mormont. It is well worth the climb for the unparalleled views of the island and the seafront city walls of Dubrovnik, some 600m away.
The local legend says that the Benedictine monks who once owned Lokrum cursed it before they left. It’s a story that may have been long forgotten if it weren’t for the series of remarkable tragedies that followed for the island’s new owner, Croatian king Franz Joseph I. Over the years, misfortune followed misfortune as the monarch’s brother was executed, his wife was murdered and his son and heir to the throne committed suicide. As far as dramatic narratives go, it’s as grisly a story as anything George R R Martin could have come up with for one of his Game of Thrones’ plotlines.
Back on the mainland, and a short ten-minute drive from the Old City, is the Trsteno Arboretum, Europe’s oldest remaining botanical garden. Home to 70 acres of olive groves, Aleppo pines, cypress trees, renaissance pillars, arches and stone walls, it’s not hard to imagine the series producers being easily persuaded to set up their camera dollies. Overlooking the Elaphiti Islands and the crystal blue Adriatic Sea, it’s an immaculate spot, watered by an aqueduct and the beautiful baroque Neptune’s Fountain – used for scenes involving Sansa and Loras Tyrell, the Knight of Flowers. Standing in the shade of the orange and lemon trees, you can see hundreds of exotic plants brought back by Dalmatian sailors from their voyages across the Mediterranean in the early 1500s. Before leaving, check out the former summer residence, discreetly used as a pre-shoot wardrobe for the actors. Come in 2014, when the next season is due to air, and there will be plenty more to discover.