Channel Cersei or Khaleesi…
Calgary Herald, July 15, 2017
I’m stuffing myself with castrated rooster, a dish locally known as capon or kopun, served on a plate emblazoned with the Lannister sigil, a lion. The old adage, When in Rome, comes to mind, except in my case we can sub in King’s Landing.
With a great view of the steps where Cersei Lannister began her walk of shame in Season 5 of Game of Thrones, I’m just digging in to typical Westerosi fare, as interpreted by Kopun Restaurant owner Petar Bitanga. His Game of Thrones menu is a big hit with visiting GoT fans, who make the pilgrimage to Dubrovnik because the city has been the real-life set for King’s Landing, starting in Season 2 and continuing through Season 7, which premiers July 16 on HBO.
Like me, most “set-jetters” join a Game of Thrones tour to visit the filming locations around town. In addition to retracing Cersei’s now famous steps of repentance, they want to see Blackwater Bay, the city of Qarth, the arena where The Mountain felled Prince Oberyn, and the garden in which Joffrey Baratheon sputtered his last vile breath. My guide, Tomislav Matana, has been leading GoT tours in Dubrovnik and on nearby Lokrum Island (a.k.a. Qarth) since 2012 through his company Tour the Game of Thrones. He’s seen an increase in bookings as the show’s popularity has gone off the charts.
“There are far more Americans in the city, Canadians, Australians and Southeast Asians as well. Apparently, Game of Thrones is very popular in the Philippines,” he says. “Croatia is a hot destination right now — we’re getting more tourists every year.”
In fact, the country as a whole draws ever more visitors to its shores annually than wildling women to Jon Snow — the Croatian National Tourist Board has reported a 14 per cent increase in tourist arrivals for the first five months of 2017, compared to the previous year. There’s little doubt that GoT filming has had a huge impact and helped raise the country’s profile as a bucket list destination.
If we’re being honest, it’s partially why my husband Blake and I have chosen Croatia. After watching scene after scene of Dubrovnik’s impressive walls CGI-enhanced with extra towers and the Red Keep, we simply have to see King’s Landing in person.
True, the show has also been shot at locations in Ireland, Iceland, Morocco, Spain and possibly Alberta (Maisie Williams, who plays Arya Stark, was in Banff in February, leading to speculation she was there to film scenes with a wolf for Season 7). But it’s Croatia’s walled cities, clear Adriatic waters, Mediterranean climate and food, and fascinating history as part of the Roman, Venetian and Hapsburg empires, as well as the former Yugoslavia, that tip the scales for us. We can’t resist travelling to its sights and sets.
In Dubrovnik, whose pedestrian-only Old Town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, we base ourselves at the Hilton Imperial Dubrovnik. The hotel was built in 1895 and symbolizes the beginning of tourism in the city. Though it sustained damage during the Croatian War of Independence, when the city was under siege in 1991, it’s been restored to the point of being fit for a queen. In fact, Lena Headey, who plays Cersei Lannister (self-proclaimed Queen of the Andals and Protector of the Seven Kingdoms), along with the actors who play Jaime Lannister and Gregor Clegane, were hotel guests in December.
“They stayed here for filming because of our location close to the Old Town,” says front desk employee Mato Miloslavic.
Miloslavic isn’t sure exactly where in the city the scenes for Season 7 were shot, and neither is my guide.
“They filmed maybe only three or four days in Dubrovnik this season,” Matana says.
What he can reveal is that the crew brought in snow for filming: “I can tell you winter is here.”
Beyond geeking out every time Matana holds up an enlarged, laminated screen grab to show Tyrion and Varys plotting above “Blackwater Bay”, or Cersei and The Mountain inside the “Red Keep” — in the exact spot where we’re standing! — the tour is a great way to absorb some of the city’s history.
Dubrovnik existed as a free, independent city-state for centuries, starting in the 1300s. It was a trading and ship building centre, a sort of Singapore of the Middle Ages, until Napoleon finally conquered it in 1808. Ships sailing from Dubrovnik often flew whatever flag it took to stay free (Venetian, Ottoman), earning the city the derisive nickname, “Town of Seven Flags.”
The impressive stone walls that still surround the city — and protected it from invaders — are thought to be one of the greatest fortifications of medieval times. One morning Blake and I walk the walls, which encircle the city entirely via a nearly-two-kilometre-long path of stairs and walkways, and marvel at their height and size, and the steep drop-offs to the Adriatic below. As grand as King’s Landing appears on the small screen, Dubrovnik is even prettier in person; its red tiled roofs and polished limestone streets glow in the morning sun while sea birds pirouette in the sky and church bells toll.
Though Dubrovnik is Croatia’s gem, we’re almost equally smitten with Split, another picturesque walled city along Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast. Being superfans, we join another Game of Thrones tour, to see some of the filming locations that became Meereen, the slaver city where Danerys Targaryen set up her base in Essos, and where the Sons of the Harpy battled with her Unsullied soldiers.
Vjeran Mlacic, our guide with Split Urban Adventures, begins the tour with a short history lesson.
Split’s Old Town walls are actually the perimeter walls of a palace built by Roman emperor Diocletian in 305 A.D., he explains. Centuries after Diocletian died, peasants from the surrounding countryside moved into his crumbling palace to escape barbarians attacking from the north and east. Inside the ruined palace, the squatters essentially built a new city, which is now a charming mish-mash of Roman walls and arches, columns and sphinx statues pillaged from Egypt, twisting cobbled alleyways, Venetian buildings and boutique properties like the Hotel Vestibul Palace where we’re staying (formerly part of the emperor’s inner sanctum).
Mlacic leads us into the palace’s cellars, which became the Meereen dungeons that housed Danerys’s dragons in Seasons 4 and 5. The chambers smell of stagnant water and mildew, and I can totally picture her beasts languishing here.
“I’m impressed how they scouted locations, and how they trick us — they make things look real,” says Mlacic. The crew built a staircase that led into the cellars and made it look like stone, for example.
Some of the best cinematic trickery happens just outside of Split at the Fortress of Klis, which was the seat of many Croatian kings and a medieval stronghold that kept the Ottomans at bay. On Game of Thrones it’s transformed into Meereen as seen from the outside, when Danerys crucifies the city’s slave masters. A placard inside the interpretive centre shows Danerys walking up a stone pathway flanked by Jorah Mormont and Ser Barristan and in the distance are multiple pyramids and mountains, courtesy of some spot-on CGI.
But on this warm spring morning, the real scenery behind the crumbling fortress walls — a bare hillside blooming with yellow Spanish broom flowers, with the blue Adriatic Sea behind — is even more stunning.
Later, back in Split, Blake and I talk about set jetting in Croatia. While it’s a thrill to tour “King’s Landing” and “Meereen” we both agree that Dubrovnik’s and Split’s real history and ancient sights are better than any episode of Game of Thrones.
If you go:
· Stay: The Hilton Imperial Dubrovnik offers comfortable guest rooms mere steps from Old Town’s Pile Gate. Enjoy an ample buffet breakfast every morning and a gorgeous Art Deco-style swimming pool to escape to when tourists throng the sites between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m.
· Tour: Tomislav Matana, a knowledgeable guide and part-time historian, was the first to offer GoT tours in Dubrovnik. He’s also a fan of the show and will not only give you the scoop on filming locations, but dig deep into the plot to discuss perennial questions like, who had the best claim to the throne — Stanis, Joffrey or Renley?
· Stay: Hotel Vestibul Palace is a Small Luxury Hotels of the World property that’s located inside the Roman ruins of Diocletian’s Palace in Split. The intimate boutique hotel has seven rooms and includes a lovely breakfast.
· Tour: Split Urban Adventures hires only the best local guides to tour you through the dungeons where Danerys chained up her dragons, and the alleyways where Sons of the Harpy fought the Unsullied (and Ser Barristan died) in the streets of Meereen.