A true Game of Thrones fan will recognize this language as High Valyrian meaning “All Men Must Die.”
It’s the underlying theme of pretty much everything that happens in Game of Thrones, HBO’s wildly popular medieval/fantasy television series that has taken the world by storm. For those of you who may not be familiar with the series or books on which it is based, let’s just say that the theme of death is probably one of its lighter subjects. Make no mistake about it, this is a strictly-for-grownups, graphic, sexual, violent and sometimes disturbing form of entertainment – and Henk and I are both completely obsessed with it. So when I was invited to Ireland recently and my itinerary included a chance to indulge in 3 Game of Thrones experiences in Northern Ireland (one of several locations where the series is filmed), I was beyond excited. In a grownup way, of course.
(Spoiler Alert: If you aren’t a Game of Thrones fan, you might not get some of the references in this article, but there are some pretty pictures of Ireland to look at, so stick with me, here!)
Hanging with other Set-Jetters
Although this was my first opportunity to visit a filming location for a popular movie or tv series while travelling, there are plenty of other superfans who make a point of planning their travel specifically around these types of visits. These ‘Set-Jetters’, as they are known, are not to be trifled with, as they bring a good chunk of coin to the countries that they visit, whether it’s on a themed tour package, or just independently. Just ask Iceland or Croatia, two other countries where Game of Thrones is shot and where tourism has spiked due to the wildly popular franchise. But catering to obsessed fans means that any themed experiences need to deliver the perfect balance of fantasy and authenticity.
Riding in an authentic Irish currach and meeting GOT cast – sort of
My first Game of Thrones experience was definitely an authentic one, but decidedly more relaxing than anything that typically occurs in Westeros, the fictional land where all the high-intensity Game of Thrones action takes place: I was treated to a serene ride down a green-canopied waterway in Boyne in an Irish boat known as a currach.
This traditional boat dates back to the 5th century, and is constructed by stretching animal hides over a wooden frame, making for a lightweight vessel that even one man can launch or beach on his own.
Because of its centuries-old design, the currach is the perfect boat to fit in with the ancient Game of Thrones aesthetic, as we learned from Ross Kenny, our steersman and guide who is part of the marine production unit for the series.
Ross works the water-related scenes in the show, and has even acted as a stand-in for some of the cast. Thanks to his behind-the-scenes experiences with the actors, which he shared as we paddled our way up the canal, I now know that Yara Greyjoy is a real hoot in person, Tyrian Lannister is a good guy all ’round and Jon Snow is, well…short.
My currach ride was as non-violent as a Game of Thrones experience could get, the paddle was a great way to enjoy a sunny day in the Irish countryside, and the perfect appetizer before the Game of Thrones main course that followed.
Grownup Dress-up Time at Winterfell
Anyone who knows me knows that I consider Halloween a high holiday, largely for the opportunity to dress in costume. It’s the one time of the year that I get creative with fabric glue and safety pins (read ‘sewing’), assume an adopted identity if only for one evening, and flex a little theatrical muscle or two. So my next Game of Thrones experience visiting the set of Winterfell Castle was like Halloween-come-early, complete with cloak, sword AND acres of gorgeous landscape to act as a backdrop for photos.
The location that doubles as Winterfell Castle is actually the farmyard belonging to Castle Ward, an estate in Northern Ireland that is part of the National Trust, a public organization that acts as custodian for historic properties throughout Britain and Northern Ireland. It took quite a bit of negotiating with this rather stodgy organization to allow for such an irreverent use of one of their properties, but with the permission of both Castle Ward and HBO, the Game of Thrones experience at Winterfell has thrived.
Of course, no Game of Thrones experience would be complete without the proper outfit, so my first stop was getting into character by ‘taking the Black’ and selecting my sword as a member of the Night’s Watch. (girly costumes are for other visitors, not this bad-ass fan-girl – check out Jon Snow’s sword, ‘Long Claw”, that I’m wielding!)
Shooting like a Stark
Next stop was the set of the Archery Range, where in Season 1 the brothers Stark practise their accuracy, shooting at targets set up in the Winterfell courtyard. Like the Stark boys, I was given some serious instruction on the proper technique required to “Knock, Draw, and Loose!” my carbon-fibre arrows.
And just to be clear, these were no rubber-tipped Toys R Us arrows; since we were all grownups here, these were the real deal, and Jamie Mackrell, our instructor, was dead serious about my taking the safety precautions and instructions to heart.
Fully costumed and now somewhat trained, it was time for the archery competition, and our group rose to the challenge, fully aware that it was winner-take-all (meaning the loser’s head). Although I didn’t actually hit the bullseye, my consistency with all 4 of my arrows meant I earned enough points to win the competition (yes!) and had the honour of beheading the loser, Wandering Carol, a fellow writer in our group. Unfortunately for her, Wandering Carol’s arrows had lived up to her name, as not one of them had hit its mark, but Carol was a great sport about it all and took her punishment like a true Crow.
Set-seeing at Winterfell
One of the best parts of the Winterfell experience is the opportunity to walk the Castle Ward property and see where scenes from Game of Thrones were actually shot. Even though many of the scenes are enhanced with computer-generated additions in post production, it’s still exciting to see the actual locations used in the filming.
Plus there are plenty of existing structures that are photo-worthy on their own, not to mention the views out over Strangford Lough, which are pretty impressive.
Sadly, after a couple of hours spent here at Winterfell, I reluctantly turned in my cloak and sword, and returned to reality for my last taste of Game of Thrones in nearby Belfast – this time, with a drink in hand, not a sword.
Going Door-to-Door, Drinking It All In
Although most visitors to Ireland don’t really need much of an excuse to go on a pub crawl, Game of Thrones fans have their own unique way to explore some of Northern Ireland’s most iconic pubs: by hunting down a series of 10 Game of Thrones carved doors, installed around the country close to the locations where the series was filmed.
The idea came about following a storm that battered Northern Ireland in January of 2016, causing damage to one of the most scenic locations in the country, the Dark Hedges.
Famous for the gnarled beech trees that line this road near Ballymoney, and a popular spot for photographers even before Game of Thrones filmed here, the Dark Hedges lost several of its iconic trees when Storm Gertrude swept through. Fortunately, a creative thinker at Tourism Ireland saw this as an opportunity to leverage the Game of Thrones’ connection to the location, and wood from two of the trees was salvaged and made into 10 intricately-carved doors, one for each of the episodes in Season 6.
Beautifully detailed with scenes and symbols from the episode, each door was installed in a pub close to a Game of Thrones filming location, and each door was revealed to the public after its corresponding episode aired. I got to see Door 10 at the Duke of York’s Dark Horse Pub in Belfast, thanks to Deirdre, our guide who is also a huge fan of the show, and who made a point of taking our group to see it.
TIP: Visitors to Northern Ireland can also download a map of all 10 locations, if they want to turn this into a real country-wide pub crawl. Even if you’re not a Game of Thrones fan, this would be a great way to visit some of Northern Ireland’s most interesting pubs, (like Blakes of the Hollow, which is the oldest in Enniskillen and has a connection to Toronto.)
A Storied Location ItselfFounded in legend and myth itself, with thousands of castles, stunning scenery and a storytelling culture that goes back centuries, Ireland was a logical choice as a shooting location for Game of Thrones. Luckily for die-hard fans like myself, the popularity of the series has also inspired some unique grownup experiences, allowing me to immerse myself in the fantasy of Westeros, while still enjoying the reality that is Ireland.
But just like every episode of Game of Thrones, every visit to Ireland always leaves me wanting more.Special thanks to Tourism Ireland, who hosted my visit to the Emerald Isle and allowed me to indulge my Game of Thrones fan girl!