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Croatia has more in common with Game of Thrones than just its breathtaking locations



CROATIANS call this cold gusty wind Bora. It lashes us as we climb stone steps, higher and higher along towering walls. On this savage slice of mountain is the Fortress of Klis, regarded as the “Key of Dalmatia”, for any army that could breach it would rule the land below.

The significance of this place is palpable. Few can resist touching the walls that have held Turkish, Venetian and Roman warriors at bay. In the shadow of such history, it’s perhaps bizarre to be here in the pursuit of fantasy.

We stop in a sheltered spot and our guide shows us a picture. It’s a screen shot from Game of Thrones; specifically, the fictional slave-trading land of Meereen in Season 4, where – to avoid spoilers – we’ll just say that Daenerys, the Targaryen queen, answers “injustice with justice”. It was filmed exactly where we are standing.

The crucifixion scene was filmed at the Fortress of Klis.

As a fan of the show and a tour guide, Vjeren Mlacic knows every spot in which the cameras have rolled. Chances are he also knows something of Game of Throne’s much-anticipated

next season. It’s due to air in April, but the tantalising secrets of Season 5 are firmly under wraps.

Both the town of Klis and its fortress are off the beaten track. We are the only visitors today and there are few obvious signs of tourism – no hand railings; no fenced-off areas. Exploring the Key of Dalmatia, for the moment, is a blissfully unencumbered, refreshing experience.

Game of Thrones-themed tourism is booming in all the major countries where the hit HBO series is filmed: Iceland, Morocco, Northern Ireland and here in Croatia. With two more seasons confirmed, fans are expected to make more pilgrimages to the exotic locations masquerading as the seven kingdoms of Westeros and the fictitious lands of Essos beyond.

At the top of the fort is a location used by HBO but not yet screened, a tiny detail that intrigues the hardened fans among us.

Terrace at the ancient Fortress of Klis, where scenes of HBO hit show Game of Thrones have been filmed.

At some point in Season 5 we will see this place as a market in Meereen, presumably filled with extras – a veritable invasion of cast and crew. We pause to take in the view. On one side the forest stretches to neighbouring Bosnia Herzegovina. Ahead, is the glittering Croatian port city of Split.

This is where we’re headed, to the waterfront cafes and bars of Split. They stretch along a wall, catching the afternoon sun holiday-making flair. But this is a camouflage of sorts, for it is the structure rising behind them that brings us here – a beautifully preserved ruin of the Roman Empire.

Diocletian’s Palace dates from about 300AD and unlike the Fortress of Klis it is a World Heritage site protected by UNESCO. Diocletian was unique among Roman emperors, the only one to retire from leadership.

The careers of other emperors had more sudden ends. He didn’t scrimp on his retire-ment home here, adding Egyptian granite columns and four black sphinxes – one remains intact today, some 3500 years old.

We descend to the palace cellars, excavated in the 1950s and where tourists shiver under domed ceilings and arches. It’s a perfect place to store wine and, if you happen to be “The Mother of Dragons”, it’s not bad for keeping unruly pets, either. For those who have seen the episode, this location is easy to recognise.

Tourists visit a stream used in HBO hit show Game of Thrones for a famous ‘bathing scene’ in Split, Dubrovnik.

Harder to find is the location of a memorable nude bathing scene, which was filmed in a town called Zrnovanica. Though it’s just 20 minutes’ drive from Split, it feels like another place in time. There’s wood smoke in the air and an old-fashioned mill (still working) beside the stream.

A man we pass on the main street calls to us, pointing to the mural on a shop wall. “Tito,” he yells, proudly.

Marshal Josip Tito, still revered for uniting Yugoslavia, died in 1980. But 11 years later the Yugoslav wars began, devastating Bosnia Herzegovina and Croatia in particular. The latter has been independent since 1996 and Croatians are proud of their resilience and recovery.

There is, however, an awkward quirk. Travelling between the cities of Split and Dubrovnik in crescent-shaped Croatia necessitates a drive through Bosnia Herzegovina. Croatia joined the European Union, but its neighbour hasn’t yet.

Passports ready, please, for the highway checkpoints.

‘WELCOME to King’s Landing,” says Ivana Racic, our tour guide in Dubrovnik. “I hope you are ready,” she warns, “there are plenty of steps.”

But first, a test. We must name our favourite Game of Thrones character, “and you can’t say Tyrion,” she teases, referring to the popular dwarf character. Only once, she says, has anyone chosen Joffrey, the cruel young king, and “the others just looked at him and moved away a little bit”.

Trsteno Arbortem Botanical Gardens. Peter Dinkladge as Tyrion Lannister and Sophie Turner as Sansa Stark. Picture: HBO

The ancient city of Dubrovnik adorns the southern tip of Croatia like a jewel. It was once a republic in its own right, protected by high walls and delicate diplomacy.

“Dubrovnik was the perfect port,” says Racic, an archeologist who calls the 1000-year-old city her home. We approach the Old Town via Lovrijenac Fort, which sits atop 37m of solid rock – the perfect fort for the perfect port, and a symbol of the city’s survival. The Latin inscription above the gate translates as “You shall not sell your freedom for all the gold in the world”.

Without an army of its own, Dubrovnik depended heavily on its relationships, taking care to stay neutral.

“The Venetians called us the land of seven flags, because we dealt with seven rulers,” Racic says. “Of Venice we would just say: They are sinking. We are not!”

Dubrovnik is the epitome of a maritime city, enclosed by walls and just as King’s Landing is depicted in Game of Thrones. After Season 2, HBO declared it to be the permanent home of the powerful Lannister family, a commitment that allows producers to include many more exotic exterior shots, such as the ones we see today. Lovrijenac Fort doubles as the Red Keep and the water below served for the pivotal battle of Blackwater Bay.

The producers mixed and matched portions of the city, adding a wall here, a grove there. We can confirm the orange trees of King’s Landing are, however, quite real. The orange is the symbol of Dubrovnik, and candied peel seems to come with every meal.

An elevated view of the Lovrijenac fortress and Pile area of the town. Picture: Alamy

Just 20 minutes’ drive away is the botanic garden at Trsteno, its entrance marked by 500-year-old Himalayan sycamores. There’s a chapel (haunted, of course), shady pathways (for plotting and scheming) and a gorgeous villa open to the sea. Fans are shocked by revelations filmed here but not as horrified as the German tourists today who find plastic bougainvillea among the living species.

Little anecdotes like these delight “Thronies”. It’s a bonus that Racic has been an extra. “I could pretend that I don’t know where I am, but I suspect every extra knows the exact minute their bum passes by the camera,” she smiles.

We hear about 40C days in heavy costume. We learn that the crowd shown cheering for the enormous warrior called The Mountain really wanted to cheer for Prince Oberyn instead. What happens in Season 5, however, remains a secret and even the spies of old would not dare mess with HBO’s confidentiality agreements, lest they meet the kind of fate reserved for kings.

Locals have been waiting several seasons to see Dubrovnik’s most famous stairway on screen. A baroque staircase from the Jesuit Church of St Ignatious leads to Gundulic Square. “Take lots of pictures,” Racic tells us, as we’ll see plenty of this area on screen. The marketplace was closed for a week, which is no small feat during high season when the surrounding shops would otherwise be full of trinket-buying tourists. The businesses were compensated, but other locals were in a flap, quite literally. “The pigeons are fed every day at noon,” Racic says, and this official daily ritual was disrupted by the filming of Game of Thrones. The pigeons, as Racic recalls, were not pleased. “They were looking at the extras with hungry eyes. I’ve seen (Hitchcock’s movie) The Birds, I know what happens.”

The cellars of Diocletian’s Palace — the world’s most complete Roman palace ruins.

Dubrovnik came under attack in 1991 and the siege lasted for eight months. The bombardments were extensive, but amazingly most of the damage has since been repaired. In fact, the only ruins we see are much older, preserved from the devastating earthquake of 1667.

Nowadays, Dubrovnik shudders under the crush of tourists. Croatia’s economy depends almost entirely on tourism, cruising particularly. It’s extraordinary, then, that HBO is allowed to film in the city in high season, though the boost in employment has been worth the disruption. There are local bodyguards, costume makers and make-up artists, and scores of young men (nicknamed “sherpas”) are paid to cart about everything from camera equipment to bottles of water in the car-free zone of the Old Town.

Stradun is the main street and a popular open air location for cultural activities in Dubrovnik.

Those up to date with Season 4 will recall the extravagance of the Purple Wedding. The ceremony was filmed in Belfast, but the decadent reception party was filmed in Dubrovnik. Our tour reaches Gradac Park and the pretty terrace on which the wedding party was filmed. Of all episodes aired thus far, these scenes were the biggest, with 23 characters and 218 extras, and the results are arguably the most satisfying scenes of the entire series.

These old walls are almost a character in themselves, for centuries protecting a city facing treachery, war and earthquake. Dubrovnik is more than just a setting of Westeros. Those who visit will know in their hearts Dubrovnik isKing’s Landing.

The writer was a guest of HBO Home Entertainment, Croatia Airlines and Croatian National Tourist Board.

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