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It’s cold in the north of Iceland in winter. My hat, scarf, four layers of thermals and enormous hiking boots are somewhat inadequate protection against the biting wind and extremely icy ground. One of our party, however, has come dressed for a trip to the pub on a Friday night. Unsurprisingly, he slips on the ice almost as soon as we step off the bus on to the shores of Lake Myvatn on our whistle-stop Game of Thrones location tour.
I don’t laugh (well, only on the inside) and I don’t blame him: I had also somehow imagined that some of the frozen scenery in HBO’s global hit fantasy series – a feast of swords, sex and sorcery set in a brutal medieval world – had been faked for television. Standing here, barely 100km south of the Arctic Circle, I realise that cast and crew were, in fact, freezing cold and trudging along the very same icy path we are now negotiating in single file. I feel extremely hardy and brave. Not to mention star-struck.
“Set-jetting”, visiting the locations where our favourite TV series are filmed, is growing in popularity, helped in part by the emergence of the new breed of long-running, high-budget, television series. It’s a modern iteration of the literary pilgrimage – Stratford-upon-Avon has long thrived on the memory of its most famous dead resident, as has Haworth, the Yorkshire village that was home to the Brontë sisters. And it gives a focus to travel – you can’t see all of a city or country, so why not concentrate on the places that already have meaning for you and like-minded travellers?
Iceland last week reported a dramatic increase in visitor numbers – international arrivals in January were up 40 per cent compared to 2013 – though the tourist authorities say it’s too early to know how much of that was down to any “Game of Thrones effect”. Nor is the country alone in benefiting from the series, which is set in a variety of locales and filmed in Northern Ireland, Morocco and Croatia as well as Iceland. Tourism in Northern Ireland has already been boosted by the connection, with suggested itineraries available on the tourist board website, including a three-day self-drive tour taking in mainly coastal sites such as Ballintoy, seen on screen as the always-wet Iron Islands.
Rather more exotically, a new nine-night Game of Thrones “set-jetting” holiday from luxury tour operator Black Tomato is the first to combine the series’ warmest and coldest locations (missing out the wet parts). Launching in May, it will take fans to Dubrovnik (which doubles as Kings Landing, capital of fictional Westeros) and tour other locations on Croatian islands; then it’s on to Iceland, staying in luxury hotels and visiting several locations in the north and south of the country. The organisers will even lay on an outdoor feast, eaten around a table carved from glacial ice, with guests keeping warm under black cloaks and animal skins similar to those worn by soldiers of the fictional Night’s Watch.
Our tour is led by local guides Jon Thor Benediktsson (who also acted as a guide for the Game of Thrones crew) and Illugi Már Jónsson. It focuses on the area near Akureyri (population 18,000), the largest town in the north of Iceland, where up to 270 cast and crew were based while filming season three of the show. We are visiting some of the locations for scenes that take place in the freezing wastes north of the Wall, a lawless place populated by wild tribes and killer zombies (known as White Walkers).
Our first stop is Godafoss (“waterfall of the gods”), the must-see tourist attraction up here; it’s a spectacular torrent that played a key part in Iceland’s history when, around 1000, an island leader declared his conversion to Christianity by throwing statues of the Norse gods into these falls.
Next, it’s on to vast Lake Myvatn, a desolate place surrounded by lava stacks. It was used for several scenes, notably those leading up to the moment when Jon Snow, black-clad soldier of the Night’s Watch, heads into a cave with feisty local woman Ygritte – and casts aside his vow of celibacy.
Cast and crew, we learn from our guides, arrive in the early morning, well before the (very late) dawn in the Icelandic winter. The equipment is carried from the buses by sledge and everyone rehearses under artificial lights so that they are ready to film as soon as the sun comes up, making the most of the four to five hours of natural daylight.
This is not Alpine scenery, it’s wilder and more open. Benediktsson tells us that just 8 per cent of Iceland is wooded, Vikings having chopped down most of the native trees after settling here from the ninth century onwards. However, there is a replanting programme going on and our guides point out a small wood on the opposite side of the lake that is used in scenes requiring a forest setting.
The Game of Thrones crew also filmed near here last summer – but we aren’t told exactly where. “That’s not on the itinerary yet,” says Benediktsson, tight-lipped. We’ll have to wait until April to see what is revealed when the fourth season airs.
After visiting the extraordinary lava stacks at Dimmuborgir (used to film scenes of Wildling leader Mance Rayder’s camp), we drive to lunch on a working farm near the lake. Its cowshed has a rustic café attached and panoramic windows allow us to watch the cows having their lunch at the same time. Our guides assure us that the café, called Vogafjos, was a firm favourite with the Game of Thrones cast. We eat well – local trout – and everyone gets a warming shot of local schnapps, flavoured with angelica. The woman from the local tourist board gives each of us a tiny piece of obsidian, a rock formed from cooled lava. In the series, these shards are known as Dragonglass and have magical properties – they are the only thing that can stop the zombie White Walkers. I’m very excited to own a little bit of mythology. Everyone else seems more excited by the schnapps.
Our afternoon stop is at the bubbling sulphur pools and steam vents at Hverir. It smells foul, of course, (I am now familiar with the earthy smells of Iceland, having eaten the local delicacy hákarl – rancid fermented shark – the previous evening). Also, it’s even colder than it was by the lake and strange rocks with steam spewing from them are strewn across the otherworldly landscape. I don’t like it much. It feels too weird.
Back on the bus, we learn that geothermal steam vents like the ones we’ve just seen are used in the series to stand in for wind and snowstorms. We are shown a clip of Jon Snow and his lover stripping off and jumping into hot geothermal waters of a lava cave. Unfortunately, the water in the real pools that they had wanted to use was 40C – too hot for people. “Also, the caves can be dangerous as things can fall off the ceiling,” says Benediktsson. The scene was eventually shot in a studio.
We approximate a Game of Thrones bathing experience by ending the day at Myvatn Naturebath, a series of pools filled with naturally heated, bubbling blue waters rich in silica and sulphur and drawn from a borehole that goes down 2,500 metres. “It’s what keeps us looking so young,” says Thor.
We even have our own naked stand-off when the Icelanders in our group remove all their clothes to shower. In Iceland it’s considered very rude not to shower naked before bathing. We Brits look at the floor and shuffle about a bit before ignoring this directive.
Safely in the water, and with cultural differences set aside, we watch the sun set over volcanoes and drink a welcome beer offered by the poolside waiters. It’s zero degrees outside but it feels perfect floating here, just North of the Wall. And not a White Walker in sight.
Season three of ‘Game of Thrones’ is released on Blu-ray and DVD next week (UK, US and most of Europe)
On location: More television tours
Breaking Bad The script set the award-winning series in California but it ended up being filmed in Albuquerque, New Mexico, to take advantage of tax breaks. Its success has drawn thousands of visitors: the city’s website offers a guide to filming locations and there’s an often oversubscribed Breaking Bad trolleybus tour.
Downton Abbey The global hit has been a boon for English tourism. Visitor numbers at Highclere Castle, Berkshire, which doubles as the Abbey, have soared; hotels such as Ellenborough Park have offered breaks including private Highclere visits while numerous bus tours take in Highclere and the Oxfordshire villages also used as locations.
Boardwalk Empire The seaside resort of Atlantic City, New Jersey, was the backdrop for Martin Scorsese’s prohibition epic. Visitors can follow a self-guided route set out on the tourist board website, or take the “Roaring ‘20s” trolleybus tour.
Borgen Visitors can explore Copenhagen’s political scene, fictional and real, on walking tours with guiding company Peter and Ping. Highlights include Christiansborg Palace, whose nickname gives the series its title, and the offices of Ekstra Bladet, the real-life counterpart of Ekspres, the show’s tabloid paper.
Mad Men The Manhattan of Sterling Cooper is revived in the Mad Men Cocktails Experience. Participants (many wearing 1960s dresses or sharp suits) meet at Grand Central Station and tour Madison Avenue, swinging through a sample of Don Draper’s many watering holes.
Isabel Berwick was a guest on the Game of Thrones Iceland: Beyond the Wall tour from Iceland Travel (icelandtravel.is). Four nights, including return flights from Reykjavík and hotels, guides, activities and excursions, cost from €480 per person or from £699 with flights from the UK