Battling the wind on top of the ramparts, the view over Dubrovnik’s terracotta-tiled rooftops is familiar. Perhaps it’s because I’ve seen it in a million travel brochures, but when my guide pulls out a screen shot of King’s Landing, it clicks into place. I can see a CGI-generated giant Sept of Baelor replacing Dubrovnik’s more modest cathedral and the towered Red Keep replaces Fort St. Lawrence (Lovrijenac) on top of the craggy rock, but the houses and some of the smaller churches still play a guest role in bringing Westeros’ capital, King’s Landing, to life.
Taking the Game of Thrones in Dubrovnik and Split Combo tour, I found myself transported to the locations featured in the bloody and scandalous HBO show. If you’re a fan of the series, then follow along as I pay a brief visit to King’s Landing, Qarth and Mereen.
From Split to the Walls of Mereen
The Combo Tour can work in any order, and I chose to begin my journey in Split. My guide picks me up from the entrance to the labyrinthine streets within Diocletian’s Palace at the center and we drive off out of the city. En route she recounts the history of Split and its surroundings interlaced with Game of Thrones filming facts. One minute we drive by a Roman aqueduct that still serves water to part of Split. The next minute, my guide divulges gossip about the first day of filming season 4, supposedly postponed since Croatian food didn’t agree with Emilia Clarke’s (Daenerys) stomach.
I see Fort Klis in the distance. It juts out from an isolated rocky outcrop, and it’s only a few minutes more before the car reaches the base, but you can see that would have been a grueling route, even by horse, back in the day. Hiking up the winding, cobbled path, the stone walls blend in with the white-grey karst mountains in the background, dotted with agave cacti sprouting out from the rock and bordered by cypress trees shading the path. The view rings a bell, but I can’t quite place it until my guide pulls out an image from season 4.
“Do you remember when Dany comes to Mereen and Daario volunteers as her champion?” she asks. I have a vague recollection, but I confess it’s been a while since I watched that episode. She flips to a photo in her folder of a close-up of the crowds on top of the walls. I recognise the nuances of the bricks, down to the greenery growing through the cracks.
“Dany’s scenes were filmed in a quarry behind this mountain,” she points to the opposite hill, “All the scenes with Mereen’s walls were filmed here. They built an Egyptian-looking gate up there,” she points to a simple arched doorway, “and the rest was added by CGI, but if you watch it again, you’ll recognise Fort Klis.”
We wander along the side of the fortress’ outer ring and stop by a wall on the way up. She gestures to flakes of white plaster stuck against the stone.
“They built some steps here,” she says. “I came to the fort when they had days off from filming. I knocked on them, they felt solid, but a few weeks later they were gone. That dustbin over there was covered by a barrel in the shot.” She flips to another image that demonstrates the creativity of the location managers.
After exploring the fortress, we head back to Split to continue our tour in the Game of Thrones-verse.
Split’s story resembles something that George R. R. Martin might have written. Born to a freed slave, Diocletian rose through the ranks and eventually became Emperor of the Roman Empire and became infamous for his persecution of Christians.
The city of Split grew out from Diocletian’s Palace, which was built as his retirement home. Because of the terrain, the palace was built on a foundation that echoed the above structure. In the substructure, we walk through large halls and damp corridors. Not only a marvel of Roman design, but the Game of Thrones producers also found it was the ideal venue to represent Mereen.
In the main hall, the light peers down through the cracks from the plaza above, illuminating the large stone blocks and dusty floor. Although it takes a while to register what the room was used for, since it much was smaller in real life, I realize we’re standing in the dungeon used to contain Daenerys’s dragons. The set used for the underground chamber dates back to the 4th century, but even today archaeologists are unsure what the rooms were used for beyond creating a stable foundation for the palace above. In another corridor by the steps up to the Central Square, a dark hallway also staged one of the scenes, where Grey Worm enticed the slaves of Mereen to fight for their cause.
Above ground, scenes of rebellion spilled into Split’s narrow streets at the heart of Diocletian’s Palace. My guide points out markers in a narrow side street, first to a window above a narrow archway and a wooden cross hanging above a WC sign. Her screen shot from the series shows the street we’re in, with blood scrawled across the wall spelling out “Kill the Masters”; except the window above the cross is closed, and the WC sign has magically disappeared.
Our walk past enigmatic Roman columns and original Egyptian sphinxes set between Venetian houses teaches me a lot about Split and its history. However, our tour in Mereen comes to an end, and it’s off to King’s Landing.
King’s Landing and Qarth in Dubrovnik
Dubrovnik already looks like a relic from the past. The city was devastated in the 1990s conflict, during which it was held under siege, but apart from a few shrapnel scars, you wouldn’t know it to look at it. Since then, the red rooftops have been restored with tiles from France. After HBO chose Dubrovnik as the site for King’s Landing, the walled city experienced a new wave of tourism and public interest.
Even on the top of the city walls, King’s Landing comes up high on the list of places to check in on Facebook. On the second leg of my tour, I meet with my guide in the square just next to Pile Gate and we walk down to a rocky bay linking the city to Fort St. Lawrence. It’s a cloudy day and the foamy sea crashes against the sharp rocks. Despite being my first time in Dubrovnik, I feel a sense of déjà vu. Once my guide tells me this played the part of Blackwater Bay in the series, my imagination paints in the remaining part of the city created by CGI.
Up in Fort St. Lawrence, I also understand the level of detail and innovation that goes into putting the series together. Scenes from the Red Keep took part inside the blustery fortress, combining the old worn stones with computer generated elements, as well as the temporary addition of plants, flown in specially from the US, I’m told. The bloody duel from Joffrey’s name day and the scene where Tyrion slapped Joffrey for the second time both took place inside the fortress. Across the bay, we can see a patch of Gradac Park where the infamous Purple Wedding took place.
All across Dubrovnik, we find familiar street scenes and sets used in the series. Not only that, gossip about the cast also comes out of the woodwork, such as the story of when a group of drunk Australians kidnapped a certain member of the cast one night and left the actor passed out on a sofa in the hostel while intoxicated, which has become an urban legend on Dubrovnik’s streets.
Dubrovnik not only played the role of King’s Landing, but was also double-cast as the city of Qarth as well.
The arched courtyard in the Rector’s Palace set downtown between the Harbour and the Cathedral played home to Qarth-based merchant Xaro Xhoan Daxos, and the Min?eta Tower up on the city walls also played the seemingly never-ending trajectory round the House of the Undying.
It’s not only a little imagination that brings King’s Landing and George R.R. Martin’s work to life here, it’s also the fascinating parallels between the books and the city’s history told by our guide. One story she tells us is how the city of Dubrovnik closed its port at night by stringing up a huge chain between the two towers to stop any ships from coming in, which sounds like a scheme Tyrion would come up with. Other Martin-esque legends include the story of a tunnel running beneath the Franciscan Monastery and the Convent of St. Clare, filled, supposedly, with the bones of children.
We arrive in a side street and my guide shows me the “baby deposit box”. It is here that mothers would leave half a coin with the baby and keep the other half for themselves should they want to reclaim their child. Further down the street we look at a piece of 16th century graffiti.
The story goes that a priest, disgruntled by youngsters constantly playing ball outside his window, carved the words in Latin: “Peace be with you remember that you are mortal, you who play with the ball – 1597”, in a warning eerily reminiscent of “All Men Must Die”. Clearly Dubrovnik is the perfect setting for the world of Game of Thrones.
–Contributed by Jennifer Walker