Editor’s note: Our contributor Leah Ingram embarked on her epic Game of Thrones journey back in 2017, but the tour experience is still very much alive. (Unlike most of our favorite GoT characters… sigh.)
When I gave birth to my first child, I may have been partially naked, but I wasn’t on a rock, in a cave. I sure as hell wasn’t lit gorgeously, in full makeup, and gasping like I was on the verge of orgasm. Very luckily, though, I also didn’t give birth to a smoke demon like Melisandre did in Season 2 of Game of Thrones.
As I stood, fully dressed, in the cramped cave where they filmed that scene, I wondered how in the world they fit an entire film crew in this space. And did the neighbors mind all the moaning? Maybe they did. That cave sits beside the driveway of a Northern Irish home that’s currently on the market. ($424,000 if you’re a serious GoT nerd.)
I wondered how in the world they fit an entire film crew in the cave for the birth. And did the neighbors mind all the moaning?
I wasn’t there with a realtor when I discovered this. Rather, I was on a daylong Game of Thrones tour with my husband, Bill, and our daughter, Annie, 20, who happens to be interning this summer in Ireland. While we were thrilled to see Annie after so many weeks away, we were maybe equally stoked to learn that much of Game of Thrones is filmed in Northern Ireland—they use locations in Croatia, Spain, and Iceland, too—and that we could go on a fan tour of filming locations. Sign us up. (Price $52 each.)
Game of Thrones Tour: In the Footsteps of Jon Snow
Game of Thrones Tours depart from four Irish cities—Belfast, Derry, Dublin and Tollymore. Each city offers its own GoT itinerary. We chose one out of Belfast called the Iron Islands tour, but we opted for the one without the rope bridge seen on screen—fear of heights and all. The other Belfast tour included the rope bridge. A third focused on more southern destinations, including Castle Ward, the inspiration for Winterfell.
Our guide looked like he’d stepped off the set of GoT—which, in fact, he had.
On tour day, when we queued up outside the TopShop near City Hall, at 7:30 a.m., it was like the weather was going on the tour, too. Even though it was summer, it was a cold, rainy Saturday morning, which was so appropriate since, you know, winter is coming.
Our bearded tour guide, Robbie, had brown hair flowing to the middle of his back. Dressed all in black and with a ruddy face, Robbie looked like he’d stepped off the set of GoT—which, in fact, he had.
Robbie of the Red Shirt
Robbie, an extra picked for his archery skills, explained how he’d been killed on the show seven times. The first time his ship blew up during the Battle of the Blackwater. “Dead,” he deadpanned. Another time he was replaced by a mannequin at the last minute before a rock crushed his head. “Really dead,” he added. The next time an arrow got him in the back. “Dead again.” If Robbie were an extra on Star Trek, he certainly would have been issued a red shirt.
Robbie explained how he’d been killed on the show seven times.
And so it was throughout the day as he regaled us with insider stories from the set. Get this: Unlike his heinous character King Joffrey, actor Jack Gleeson is a genuinely nice guy who liked to rap in between takes. Now I can’t think about Joffrey without imagining Eminem instead.
Almost Like a Dragon Ride
While we didn’t see any mythical creatures, we did experience a ride as terrifying as a trip on one of Dani’s dragons: the Causeway Coastal Route, a narrow Irish road that our 20-person coach barely fit on. It winds along the coasts, sometimes with a sheer cliff on one side, straight down to the Irish Sea. Casually, as if we were on a Sunday spin in a park, Robbie shared bits of local history.
Bill found it fascinating—me, not so much—when we visited the quarry that served as the backdrop for Renly’s Season 2 tournament. Robbie shared how locals had relied for centuries on quarry limestone to grind into mortar used to build their homes. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised later when Bill elbowed me, opened his hand and revealed the piece of limestone he’d pilfered when Robbie wasn’t looking. Not exactly my kind of souvenir.
Between tour stops we watched scenes from GoT. Most featured locations we would be visiting that day, and yes Melisandre’s naked birth scene was played out in all its glory. Tours are for age 18 plus due to the R-rated nature of the show.
Hitting “The Wall”
Along the way, we passed a different quarry, where scenes from Castle Black are shot. In real life “The Wall” is a massive face of rock, hundreds of feet tall; on TV, thanks to computer-generated images (CGI), it’s a sheet of ice.
It was as if he had asked who wanted to fight the Mountain. Not a soul stepped forward.
In the seaside town of Glenarm, Robbie walked us to the steps where Arya emerged from the water in Season 6, after the Waif had stabbed her. Robbie tells us that it’s the only part of that scene filmed there; the rest was done in Spain and then edited together. As we gathered around the steps, snapping pictures, Robbie asked, “Anyone want to jump in and recreate the scene?” When no one answered, he faked like he’s going to grab the nearest person and toss her in. “I don’t blame you,” he said with a laugh, explaining that actress Maisie Williams had to wear a wetsuit under her costume because of the frigid water.
At Ballintoy Harbour, our next stop, where Theon Greyjoy (Season 2) and Euron Greyjoy (Season 6) are baptized, Robbie asked again for a volunteer to step in the ocean. It was as if he had asked who wanted to fight the Mountain. Not a soul stepped forward.
What Would Arya Do?
But, at the same location, when Robbie threw open the trunk (or the boot) of the coach and asked who wants to dress up with robes and swords, you could hear shouts of “Hell, yeah,” as everyone rushed forward.
Annie and I put on Yara Greyjoy “armor.” Bill buttoned up a blue leather and suede cape. We got to spend the next 30 minutes sword fighting and taking pictures on the beach, which also doubled as Slavers Bay and Sir Davos’ rescue point after the Battle of Blackwater.
It wasn’t just obnoxious Americans, but also rabid fans from Australia, Ecuador, and Scotland.
By this point in the day, the cold rain had disappeared, and Northern Ireland was enjoying an unusually hot summer afternoon. Sunbathers nearby eyed us suspiciously.
Considering these GoT tours are stopping here seven days a week, you would think the locals would be used to fans geeking out in costume. And it’s not just obnoxious American fans on these tours. In our group of 20, there were rabid fans from Australia, Ecuador, and Scotland.
Get Me To The Kingsroad
Before heading back to Belfast, we walked through the Dark Hedges, which doubles as the Kingsroad in Season 2. You’d recognize it, with its gnarled tree trunks and the almost pastoral-like setting along the path Arya and Gendry (Robert Baratheon’s bastard) take on the way to Harrenhal. It was hardly pastoral the day we visited. It was jammed with coaches and cars, and people stopping in the middle of the road to take pictures. Damn, tourists, get off the road. You’re ruining all of my photos!
We would seriously consider booking our next vacation in Iceland or Croatia.
While I’ve liked TV shows before—I’ll admit to having a David Cassidy “Partridge Family” poster on my childhood bedroom wall—I’ve never loved one enough to purposefully take a TV show-inspired tour. And you know what? It was awesome. A girl got a bit bored after the dress-up part, but not her parents. In fact, we would seriously consider booking our next vacation in Iceland or Croatia, just to go on another GoT tour. Maybe they’ll have mock dragons we can ride or White Walkers we can take selfies with. That would be an epic Christmas card photo.
A version of this article was originally published in August 2017.