Text by Oliver Robinson
The year is 2013. The city is Split on Croatia’s Adriatic coastline. It seems like just another sunny September day, and in many respects it is. Until the soldiers march in.
The locals have been anticipating the invasion for some time, but nothing could prepare them for the moment when the army breaches the city walls. Especially since this particular army consists entirely of muscled eunuchs who fight for a dragon-wielding queen.
It’s day 72 of the shoot on the season four of hit HBO series Game of Thrones, which is set to eclipse the success of The Sopranos for the channel. The warrior eunuchs (better known as the Unsullied) have congregated around the (real) former palace of Roman Emperor Diocletian. Their queen, Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), is also on set, but, somewhat disappointingly, her pet dragons are not. After filming a scene in the palace cellars, the Unsullied grab a coffee and bite to eat before marching on Žrnovnica (a quarry outside the city), where they’ll prepare for battle in front of a huge green screen.
“There was a lot of excitement during filming, since many locals wanted to be part of the show,” says city tour guide Vjeran Mlačić. But the run-in to this month’s season premiere has been shrouded in secrecy, and everyone associated with the show has been tight-lipped as to which parts of the series’ Seven Kingdoms setting will be represented by different locations.
This kind of information matters for people like Mlačić, who plans to start a Game of Thrones tour once season four begins, when he’s convinced Split is due an influx of visitors. He’s already roughly mapped out the route his tour will take (see right), though he concedes he’ll have to watch a few episodes before he can iron out the finer details. “Ultimately, I hope the filming of Game of Thrones will finally open people’s eyes to landmarks like the Klis Fortress, where the Croats defeated Turkish invaders. I don’t think the fortress has ever got the appreciation it deserves.”
Just over 40 leagues south-east of Split – that’s a day’s journey by horse, with the wind on your back, or 200km and a five-hour car journey away – lies King’s Landing, the capital of the Seven Kingdoms, otherwise known as Dubrovnik. Here tour guide Tomislav Matrana has also found the series helps tourists discover previously little-known parts of her home city. “I view the Game of Thrones tour as an interesting way to refresh the standard tours offered in Dubrovnik,” Matrana says. “The tour attracts travellers who wouldn’t usually book a walking tour – especially younger people.”
The city is a UNESCO World Heritage site and was an ideal replacement for original location Mdina, in Malta, but locals are a little more leery of the show’s continued presence after three years. Most of Dubrovnik’s museums, attractions, bars, restaurants and hotels are in the medieval Old Town, so filming can upset everyday life, even though filming moves around every few days to minimise disruption. “In fact, I believe the Game of Thrones crew and the locals have developed a healthy symbiosis that brings mutual benefits,” says Matrana.
Dubrovnik took over from Mdina as King’s Landing in season two, although the Maltan city was quick to take advantage of its moment in the limelight: a recent Malta Tourism Authority survey revealed that 3.5 per cent of people who visited the island in 2012 (around 50,000 tourists), claimed that one of the reasons for visiting was having seen Malta in a TV programme.
This is backed up by Patricia O’Connell of Malta Tourism Authority: “We’ve noticed that following the release of a film or TV series filmed in Malta – including Game of Thrones – there’s always a surge of interest in visiting the places seen on screen,” she says. “Game of Thrones showcased some of Malta’s most amazing places, both cultural and natural.”
The Seven Kingdoms span inhospitable icy landscapes, arid deserts, dense forests and craggy cliff tops – a diverse and fantastical world that calls for more locations than even Croatia and Malta can provide. Game of Thrones, based on George RR Martin’s book series A Song of Fire and Ice, owes its distinct aesthetic to scenery and ancient architecture from across Europe and North Africa – from Northern Ireland to Morocco and Iceland. And all these destinations have benefitted from the show’s global popularity. Production for season three involved six directing teams, nearly 260 cast and more than 700 crew.
Morocco is no stranger to big-budget film and television productions: Ridley Scott directed both Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven here, and the country has hosted Game of Thrones since the show’s first season. Tellingly, LateRooms.com reported a 100 per cent increase in hotel bookings in Ouarzazate, a principal location, since Game of Thrones first aired.
And the number of people visiting Iceland has increased by 20 per cent year on year, according to Líney Inga Arnórsdóttir, tourism and creative industries project manager for Promote Iceland. While she can’t say for certain that is directly linked with Game of Thrones, Líney concedes it’s very likely. “Game of Thrones is definitely one of the factors that draws visitors to the north of the country,” she says.
“We are seeing a new type of traveller visiting the sites. Before, people would often come in groups, but now many individuals are booking trips to visit film locations. It truly adds to our mystique and reaches an audience we hadn’t tapped into before.”
Game of Thrones’ producers David Benioff and DB Weiss have talked about making at least another four seasons, which means the series’ impact can yet grow. So we can no doubt expect to see more cities across the world invaded by hordes of warrior eunuchs, wolves and Winter Walkers. And, of course, the army of camera-toting tourists following in their wake.
Norwegian flies to Dubrovnik, Split, Malta, Marrakech and Reykjavik. Book flights, a hotel and a rental car at norwegian.com