Pairs of people start congregating beside a TopShop in downtown Belfast before it’s even 7:30am. “Game of Thrones?” They ask each other as they arrive, “yes, you’re our people” we exclaim. You’ve never seen a more orderly of a queue than a bunch of nerds waiting for their coach to show up to take them on a day tour to obsess about their common love, Game of Thrones. 32 of us, plus driver + guide depart, on our way to an “Iron Islands Adventure”…
Our guide was an absolute delight. Andrew, who has been an extra in several seasons and worked in the costume department, is arguably one of the biggest fans himself. He is a wealth of knowledge, answering any questions we throw at him, with the exception of anything pertaining to the 7th season because, thankfully, he’s signed a contract that says he can’t discuss anything until the full season airs. (Perfect, because while on vacation I am missing all the new episodes and am desperately trying to avoid spoilers.)
As we approach the filming locations throughout the day, Andrew plays the scene via DVD on the bus and describes some behind-the-scenes details as he was there when they were filmed. He was first featured on the show as part of House Baratheon, in Stannis’ brood. Now, he is proudly part of House Stark, which is fitting because you’ll never meet anyone prouder to wear the sigil, trust me. When we get off the bus and walk down to each filming location, Andrew brings screenshots/stillshots and production photos and after describing how scenes were created, directed and set-up, he holds up the stillshots in front of the real-life filming location. When we get back on the bus we see a secondary video that shows the CGI manipulation of that scene too. It was brilliant!
We couldn’t stop but drove by the quarry where they film Castle Black footage (in fact, we could see the Castle Black set from the road), the shoreline of episode Hardhome with the White Walker attack, and various other sets that are built and used.
The first filming location we visited was the Braavosi canal that Arya climbs out of after being stabbed. Braavos scenes are normally filmed in Spain but after the sequence was shot without showing Arya getting out of the water, the director decided it was needed so it was shot in Northern Ireland.
The second filming location we ended up climbing through were the caves that Lady Melisandre gives birth to a Renly-killing shadow. We went through the case to see the exact spot where she and Davos arrive via boat and then the caves they climb into and where production built in the bars they shot through.
Next, we went to the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge, which isn’t quite a filming location per say. While we see a scene in Game of Thrones where Balon and Euron come to blows on a Pike bridge, it wasn’t filmed on Carrick-a-Rede. However, footage taken from the bridge, looking down, was used to superimpose into the fall of the lesser Iron Island brother. The views taken from the hike to and from the bridge were amazing – the cliffs, ocean, beaches – the views blew me away.
It was actually the bridge area parking lot and land nearby that served as the next filming location. While it may have been hard to imagine with all the cars, the full parking lot was the exact spot where Renly Baratheon’s camp is set-up when Brienne of Tarth defeats Loras Tyrell in battle. The wall of rock on one side is what is pictured behind where Renly and Margaery are sitting and the ocean and rocks to the other side are what you see behind the crowds and behind Catelyn Stark when she arrives to ask Renly to join the Starks against the Lannisters.
We went for lunch at the tavern that Alfie Allen (Theon Greyjoy) stayed at while he was filming. This tidbit is the reason why the pub was selected as one of the few locations in Northern Ireland to receive a “Game of Thrones Door” (I’ll bring this up again later….) but the door itself was stunning and featured Drogon.
After lunch we headed to the Iron Islands themselves and visited the beach where Theon is re-baptized. Our group dressed up in Greyjoy garb, armed with swords, shields, axes, and banners while we walked to and from several nearby filming locations. We also visited the harbour and docks where Theon attempts to claim his crew for the first time.
Dunlace Castle was next on our trip and particularly interesting. On the bus, Andrew told us the full fictional history of Harenhall Castle from its inception to its downfall. Dunlace itself is completely in ruins, with much of the castle having fallen into the ocean having been built on the edge of a cliff. Game of Thrones used image mapping to gauge the size, depth, and construction of Dunlace so they could decipher what the castle would have looked like in its original glory. So, while they didn’t film directly inside the real castle ruins, the set they built was a recreation of what it would’ve looked like.
The last stop on the trip were the Dark Hedges. These rows of beech trees were originally 150 in total when they were planted as part of a private driveway. When the owner when bankrupt the lands were sold and while farmers bought up the fields, the government bought the roadway and it became a public roadway. Now only 80-90 trees stand, with the road to be closed down shortly. This is due to the direct traffic the road receives as the weight and shockwaves from the traffic is what is unhinging the tree roots and causing them to fall over in addition to storms that sweep through the are. A few years ago when some trees came down after a storm the show claimed the wood and created series of Game of Thrones doors. Businesses across Northern Ireland were able to apply for a door all in the name of promoting tourism.
For the show itself, this scene was only used once when Arya and Gendry were fleeing King’s Landing down the King’s Road. You see the scene in the show for 9 seconds but it took 2 whole weeks to film due to being unable to use CGI and needing to completely lay down an old road over the pavement and dress the area.
With an hour left to drive back into Belfast, Andrew picked an episode at random and so we watched Season 1, Episode 6 on our way back – leaving me with the yearning to rewatch the series when I get home.