If you would have told me before that it was possible to step out of the real world and into the fantasy land of Westeros, I probably wouldn’t have believed you. But that’s exactly where I have been during the past weekend!
With two weeks before the exciting return of the Game of Thrones long-waited season 7, I took part in the ultimate GoT fan experience, a press trip to Northern Ireland to discover some of the filming locations of the series.
But this was not just any press trip. Oh no, this was fantasy from the beginning until the end and it started straight from the airport, where Will, the mightily Lord of Winterfell, was waiting to pick us up with his dragon (a minibus but hey, we can let out imagination go wild, right?). The soundtrack of our journey was, as you might have guessed already, the opening song of the series.
Soon enough, we hopped on the back of the dragon and headed towards Winterfell, where Lord Will prepared a royal banquet for us, with wild boar Baratheon sandwiches, Castle Black vegetable soup and Lady Sansa’s favourite lemon cake (in the form of apple pie 😊), accompanied by jugs of wine. The entire feast took place in a large ball tent, with an open fire in the middle, recreating very well a medieval atmosphere.
A surprise was waiting for us at Winterfell, we were about to meet some of the cast from Game of Thrones. We were very excited about it, trying to guess who might be hiding behind the castle doors: could it be Jon Snow? Maybe Arya Stark? What if it was Cersei? It was none of them though, it was much better! We got to meet two of the direwolves belonging to the Stark children: Odin (who played Summer, Bran’s direwolf) and Thor (who played Grey Wind, Rob’s direwolf). Odin and Thor are Northern Inuit Dogs, the closest breed resembling a wolf. They were simply adorable, very playful and searching for attention, which of course we offered without any hesitation.
Walk around Winterfell
Castle Ward, 40 minutes away from Belfast, is the real location where Winterfell was filmed. Even without the CGI, as soon as you enter the main gate you can feel that you have taken an imaginary step into the movie. Looking right I could easily imagine Bran struggling with his archery skills, teased by Arya with her perfect target and encouraged by Ned: “And which one of you was a marksman at 10?”.
Once we changed from our 20th century clothes into the real costumes from the movie, with our long black cloaks, we emerged into the medieval world of Winterfell. Even the weather contributed to the atmosphere of the series, rainy with low cloudy skies. It wouldn’t have been the same if it would have been sunny.
With the swords in our hands we headed on a walk around the grounds of Castle Ward, where many other scenes of the series were filmed. Our first stop was at the 15th century tower-house of Audley’s Castle, overlooking the Strangford Lough, where Will thought us how to fight like on the movie set, the same way the actors would learn the moves. He also told us that even with the computer manipulated scenes (like the Twin towers and the bridge owned by Lord Walder Frey), the HBO filming crew was helpless and they had to stop every time the modern local boat pulled into Portaferry, the town nearby.
Walking down the path from the tower-house, alongside the water, we’ve stumbled upon the tree where Brienne of Tarth and Jamie Lannister found the corpses of three women hanged and she fights their killers. Of course, we recreated the scene where Brienne kills the last men: “Two quick deaths….”.
Back at Winterfell castle we entered the courtyard and prepared for our first archery lesson. I have to admit that with my clumsiness I was sure I was going to poke my eye out but I managed to actually hit the target by following Will’s instructions. It was actually not that difficult, especially that the bows are easy to use, with marks on where to put the arrow and where to hold your fingers.
There are plenty of things to do at Castle Ward, the home of 20 filming locations. The best way to go around is by mountain bike, which you can rent from the castle. All the paths are marked and by booking the self-guided tour you will receive a location map and an iPad digital guide to help you recall and recreate the scenes from the movie.
You can even spend the night at Winterfell, in one of the glamping pods in the forest nearby. You can book the entire Game of Thrones experience with the self-guided bike tour, the archery movie set experience and the one night in the glamping pod for just £199/couple, which I believe it’s a bargain. However, the demand is quite high so make sure you book in advance for this kind of experience. You can find out more details by visiting the Winterfell Tours website.
Game of Thrones tour
The next morning, after a good night sleep at Hotel Europa, we started our journey up North, following the Causeway Coastal Route. Brian, our guide, met us in the lobby of the hotel and we made friends straight away. Himself was part of the secondary cast of Game of Thrones during 5 seasons and told us many stories from behind the scenes. It was fascinating to listen to him.
As soon as we left Belfast we got the chance to see the first major filming location which unfortunately it is not open to the public: “Castle Black and The Wall”, filmed at Magheramorne Quarry. There are signs everywhere to continue your journey, do not stop or slow down so we could only catch glimpses of it. Even so though, it was still amazing to start our trip with such an important sight!
The Doors of Game of Thrones
In 2016, during storm Gertrude, the Dark Hedges – the filming location for King’s Road, have lost a few of the iconic trees. Two of these trees have been carved into 10 beautiful pub doors, each of them telling a story of an episode from the 6th season. Each door has been installed in a pub close by a filming location and there is even a passport in which you can get stamps each time you visit one of the 10 selected pubs. I would actually love to return to Northern Ireland and do the trail of the doors.
The first door we have seen was the one in Ballygally castle, a beautiful building overlooking the sea, home of one of the most famous ghosts in County Antrim. Lady Isobel Shaw has been locked in the tower of the castle and starved by her husband. She jumped to her death from the tiny window of the tower and since then she is haunting the castle by knocking on doors and then disappearing. You can visit her room and try on the black cloak (and definitely scare someone with it). The castle is now a hotel but the ghost room is not available to guests for booking.
The Game of Thrones door from Ballygally castle is the entrance to the garden restaurant and it represents the famous Battle of the Bastards from episode 9, with the symbols of the Stark and Bolton families, Bolton’s dogs, an aggressive direwolf and the Winterfell Castle.
In the first episode of Game of Thrones we meet Ned Stark, the Lord of Winterfell, carrying out the execution of the Night’s watcher deserter, under the eyes of Bran Stark, Jon Snow and Theon Greyjoy. I still remember Jon’s words towards Bran: “Don’t look away, father will know if you do”. The scenery surrounding them is green, peaceful, and maybe that’s what gives the scene its shocking factor, as you wouldn’t expect the execution to really take place. I find this moment to be a defining one for the series, from now on you will know what to expect if you continue watching.
This place is Cairncastle, in the hills of County Antrim, the first place where I met closely the green of Ireland. We were surrounded by green and the only sounds breaking the silence around us were the sheep “baa”-ing and the powerful wind.
We stopped at Carnlough for a quick cream tea with scones at The Londonderry Arms, where we received a presentation from Steenson’s jeweller, the ones who created most of the pieces worn by the characters of Game of Thrones, including Joffrey’s crown. They are not allowed to sell the original jewelleries from the series but they do have their own inspired GOT collection which you can buy by sending them an email.
After we’ve put on our Westeros costumes, equipped ourselves with swords and shields, real swords and shields, we headed down to Carnlough harbour, the location where Arya emerges from the water and crawls on the steps after she has been stabbed by Waif, in season 6. It was quite funny to walk on the side of the street dressed up, especially when a bus full of tourists passed by. Nevertheless, we got to be involved in a very long photoshoot in front of the hotel, by their guests (I assume).
Of course, as soon as we reached the harbour we jumped down the stairs and recreated the scene.
Probably one of the most unexpected scenes from Game of Thrones for me was the birth of the Shadow baby who ended up killing Renly, in the second season. Ser Davos Seaworth sails with Melisandre towards the cave, where, under dim lights, she gives birth to the Shadow under his terrified look. It is one of those scenes which you can’t really forget.
After driving through the beautiful Northern Irish countryside, surrounded by green hills overlooking the sea, we passed by Mirriam, the local goat, and stopped at Cushendun Caves, the filming location of the above scene. From the parking lot we walked down the narrow path, through the natural formed boulders guarding the entrance to the cave. Now, there are two caves and many people don’t really know which one is the real filming location. Brian, our guide, told us that he analysed the topography of both caves and the filming location is actually the smaller one, on the left side. After stepping on stones and trying to avoid falling into the watery mud underneath, we reached the end of the cave which surprisingly, opened into a beautiful rocky bay. Brian enthusiastically explained to us how the crew managed to film the scene using such a small and uneven space.
Back to Cushendun (meaning the Foot of the Dun river), we didn’t miss the occasion to visit the second door on our way, at Mary McBride’s, also home of one of the smallest bars in Ireland. This door represents the eight episode of season 6 and depicts the events happening in Braavos. On the middle of the door you can find two of the most known greetings from the city, “Valar Morghulis” (all men must die) and “Valar Dohaeris” (all men must serve). On top of the door you can see carved the entrance to Braavos, the giant statue guarding the harbour.
Pyke, in the Iron Islands, is the home of Theon Greyjoy. Growing up with the Stark family, he is sent by Robb Stark to ask for help in his rebellion against House Lannister. Upon arrival at Pyke, Theon is looking for a ride to his father’s castle. A woman, who he later finds out that’s his sister, Yara Greyjoy, offers to take him to the castle.
I easily recognized Ballintoy Harbour as the location where this scene was filmed. The harbour didn’t need a lot of “make-up” to recreate a medieval atmosphere, with the 17th century buildings on the shore and the stone brick walls enclosing the bay.
On the beach next to Ballintoy Harbour we stepped into our characters and while holding tight to our swords and shields, we have recreated what I would call one of a kind battle, pretending we are in the land of Westeros. The dramatic scenery behind us and the sky filled with low clouds helped creating the atmosphere of the series. Brian thought us how to create movement action shots that don’t look staged, which was pretty cool! I would say that this was definitely the highlight of the day!
Larrybane and the Rope Bridge
The Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge is a famous landmark in Northern Island and an inspiration for the rope bridges at the House of Greyjoy castle in Pyke. It takes about 20 minutes to hike to the bridge but the views are stunning on each direction. You are walking on the cliffs, hearing the waves smashing powerfully into the rocks below and watching the stone walls going high up on the other side. The bridge stands 30 meters high above the angry sea and when we visited, the powerful wind of 24 miles per hour made it move quite a lot. The walkaway is only 18 inches wide. I told myself that I can do it, I can cross the bridge but as soon as I took a few steps in, a powerful gust of wind moved it and my knees went soft. I looked down… and that was it, I had to go back. I was however relieved to find out that I wasn’t the only one who came back, that there are many people who are defeated by fear, so I didn’t feel as embarrassed.
The Dark Hedges
Our last stop of the day was at the Dark Hedges, an avenue of beech trees planted by the Stuart family in the eighteenth century, used as the King’s Road in season 2 of Game of Thrones when Arya is escaping King’s Landing disguised as a boy. This iconic place is one of the most photographed natural sights in Northern Ireland because of the natural tunnel the branches of the trees create. Arriving quite late, we were lucky to have skipped the bus tours and find only a handful of people walking on the road. I can imagine that with many people and buses around, the experience of the Dark Hedges can be spoiled and I would recommend you to either visit early morning or late in the afternoon. It was so beautiful walking underneath the trees undisturbed, enjoying the nature’s beauty without other souls around.
Before arriving to the Dark Hedges we stopped at the nearby Gracehill House, where the 7th Game of Thrones door is, depicting a three eyed raven and the Stark family crest. The lovely people from Gracehill House waited for us with a delicious buffet of BBQ ribs and chicken wings.
Probably the most famous touristic site of Northern Ireland and on the Causeway Coast, the Giant’s Causeway was not featured in the Game of Thrones but we couldn’t pass by and not visit. However, the series is not over yet and we ca never know, maybe it will be featured as a location in season 7 or 8. The legend says that the causeway was built by Finn McCool, a giant who wanted to fight the Scottish giant Benandonner. He built the causeway and walked to Scotland, only to find that Benandonner was much bigger than him. He returned home scared, thinking that Benandonner will follow him, which is exactly what happened. But Finn’s wife, Sadhbh had an idea and disguised her husband as a baby. When Benandonner came and saw Finn disguised as a baby got scared as well, thinking that if babies are so big, Finn McCool must be huge. As he ran back to Scotland he tore up the bridge behind him, so that Fin can’t follow him.
The real story however of how the Giant’s Causeway formed is due to the volcanic activity of over 60 million years ago.
From the first glimpses, The Giant’s Causeway looks magnificent and Fin McCool’s story seems that it can be real. The over 40,000 pillars look like they have been put by someone one next to another, in a majestic architectural project. Jumping from one stone to another we reached the tallest columns, of over 12 meters high.
Dunluce Castle is one of those places that you look at and you don’t really believe it is real. It is the location for the House of Greyjoy, dramatically built on the edge of the cliff, with towers connected to each other through rope bridges. Even if there is a lot of CGI in the series, the real Dunluce Castle is connected to the mainland through a bridge and it is built on the side of a cliff. Unfortunately, due to the erosion of the rocks underneath it, needs to be consolidated each year.
A legend says that during the 16th century, the kitchen with its entire staff collapsed in the sea, killing everyone expect a little boy. After this happened, the wife of the owner refused to live in the castle anymore.
Downhill Beach and Mussenden Temple
“The Night is Dark and Full of Terrors”, Melisandre says, while conducting the ceremony of burning the Seven Idols of Westeros at Dragonstone, an island in Blackwater Bay. Due to the very cold and rainy weather we didn’t spend a lot of time on the open beach but we did enjoy the beautiful and serene scenery overlooking the Atlantic Ocean.
Downhill Beach stretches on 7 miles, from the rocks beneath Mussenden Temple all the way to the most western point of the Causeway Coast. Now this is where your imagination comes in, because Mussenden Temple is completely rebuilt as Dragonstone Castle in post-production, using the CGI.
We ended out tour in Derry, after two days of exploring the beauty of Northern Ireland. No wonder that Game of Thrones chose it as their main filming locations. Sure, they have filmed in Malta, Croatia, Iceland and Spain as well, but did you know that over 80% of the movie is filmed in Northern Ireland? All the special effects scenes are created in the Titanic studios from Belfast. You can book this fantastic Game of Thrones tour from either Belfast (£40) or Dublin (60 euros).
Thank you so much to Tourism Ireland for this amazing trip into the land of Westeros.