Ballintoy Harbour preens under northern ireland’s summer sun in hues of blue, brown and green, but it hasn’t quite shed its foreboding on-screen avatar as Lordsport Harbour in Pyke, one of the Iron Islands in the fictional world of Westeros.
It made its debut in season two of HBO’s cult series, Game of Thrones, an adaptation of American author George RR Martin’s long-running fantasy saga A Song of Fire and Ice. And what a chillingly breathtaking debut: It’s a gun-metal grey day when one of the characters, Theon Greyjoy, pulls into Pyke after an absence of nearly a decade. Lordsport is as bleak as the sky above. Cold, unforgiving and stunning.
Today, however, Ballintoy Harbour in Ballintoy village, County Antrim, is at its sunny best. It’s overrun by families and tourists who throng to a nearby cafe, Roark’s Kitchen, to soak in the atmosphere and relive the scene when Theon tries to seduce Yara, not realising that she is his sister. “When the HBO crew descends on the village to begin shooting, one of the first things they do is start removing any signs of modernity. Every little thing from streetlights to the slates on the roof of Roark’s Kitchen is removed. When they finish at the end of the season, they put everything back in place,” says Philip McComb, the enthusiastic tour guide of McComb’s Travels, which runs Game of Thrones tours from Belfast in Northern Ireland. (He is not the owner of the tour company even though he shares his second name with it.)
For the uninitiated, Game of Thrones or GoT chronicles the political intrigue and power struggle of family dynasties and clans who want to control the Iron Throne and rule the turmoil-ridden continent of Westeros (Seven Kingdoms). The show is arguably the largest fantasy filmmaking effort since director Peter Jackson’s adaption of the JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. With over 18.4 million viewers in Season four, GoT has officially become HBO’s biggest hit surpassing The Sopranos. According to Semetric, a company that tracks media consumption, GoT remains the most pirated show for the second consecutive year, averaging three million downloads per day. The Season Four finale was downloaded two million times in just 24 hours.
The show has spawned a thriving tourist industry which allows fans to visit some of the most remote and beautiful locations in the world—Northern Ireland, Morocco, and Iceland, to name a few—where the series is being shot. Few things make Thronies—a moniker that GoT super-fans have embraced—happier than a chance to trek through Westeros. And Northern Ireland is the hub: While the classic interior scenes are shot at Titanic Studios in Belfast (the Red Keep’s Great Hall with the Iron Throne and The Eyrie, with its terrifying Moon Door), outdoor locations north of Belfast are stand-ins for various parts of the Seven Kingdoms.
The tour I’ve signed up for is a day long and limited to the north coast in County Antrim. Apart from Ballintoy Harbour (Iron Isles), the itinerary includes Cushendun Caves (in GoT it’s The Stormlands), the Dark Hedges (Kingsroad) and Larrybane Chalk Quarry (a camp in Stormlands).
From Ballintoy, a short trek up a steep hill onto the other side of the harbour takes me to a sandy beach where Stannis Baratheon watches his priestess Melisandre of Asshai or the Red Woman burn loyal supporters of the old gods at the stake. The purple-grey sky is lit by the burning stakes as the priestess chants, “For the night is dark and full of terror.”
I get back onto the tour bus where the title track of the show rises above the murmurs of my fellow Thronies. Philip, who has a store of trivia and behind-the-scene stories, is the ultimate GoT fan. He’s growing a beard to play an extra in Season 5. “Extras with real beards get used upfront in battle scenes,” he says. He can’t decide if he wants his character to die a horrible death so that he can get more screen time, but his fate will rest in the hands of the directors. Just over six feet, 30-something Philip is a little too lanky to pull off a brawny solider, but stranger things have happened on the show.
He draws my attention to the view outside and the jaw-dropping landscape. We’re on the famous Causeway Coastal Route, an almost 200-km stretch along Northern Ireland’s coast from Belfast to Londonderry. Antrim, which falls on the way, has nine glens: Undulating valleys with patchworks of small green fields fenced in by dry stone walls and craggy green cliffs that rise sharply out of the North Channel strait’s choppy waters. “[English novelist] William Makepeace Thackeray called the Glens of Antrim a miniature Switzerland,” says Philip.
The bus slows down as we drive past a massive disused limestone quarry at the hamlet, Magheramorne, in County Antrim. In GoT, it is the setting for Castle Black—the fortress of the Night’s Watch, a military unit that protects Westeros from the monsters of the North. Shooting for Season 5 has started, and there’s a lot of activity around the quarry. “But you can’t stop there because trespassers are immediately arrested,” warns Philip as we move towards the small coastal village of Cushendun, which is rich in ancient and medieval lore.
According to its website, Cushendun has been “a landing place and ferry point between Scotland and Ireland since man first settled on the North coast some 9,000 years ago”. At the harbour, I can see the bronze statue of Johann the Goat by artist Deborah Brown. Johann was the last animal to be culled during the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak in the spring of 2001.
With its golden beach and Cornish-styled white-washed bungalows, Cushendun hardly seems like the background for one of the most eerie and mystical scenes of GoT when Davos Seaworth rows Melisandre ashore. In Westeros, it’s in the Stormlands, the stronghold of Renly Baratheon, one of many to lay claim to the Iron Throne. The nearby caves is the place where Melisandre gives birth to the shadow assassin who kills Renly. With the wind whistling through Cushendun Caves, believed to be more than 400 million years old, I’m transported back to Martin’s dark world, one that is submerged in intrigue, sex and death.
It’s a feeling that stays with me as the tour bus drives past a hilltop near Cairncastle, a small village at the edge of Antrim Plateau. This is where Ned Stark beheads a Night’s Watch deserter as his children look on. It takes place in the very first episode, a baptism of blood and death, and a harbinger of extreme violence in seasons to come.
The tour continues inland towards the steep and rugged Slemish Mountain where St Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, spent six years as a slave before escaping to England. “St Patrick is the inspiration for one of GRR Martin’s characters in A Song of Fire and Ice. Any guesses?” asks Philip. The Thronies throw up every Stark character they can think of, Ned, Brandon, Arya. “No, it’s Khaleesi. Like St Paddy, she comes to a strange land and brings freedom to its people,” says Philip.
Kwang, a Thronie from Korea, chimes in. “Did St Paddy also have fire-breathing dragons?” he asks. “Nah… but St Paddy did rid Ireland of snakes. We don’t have a single snake on the island,” the tour guide replies.
The debate about Khaleesi and St Patrick continues as the bus drives through the Shillanavogy Valley below the Slemish Mountain. The valley, which serves as the backdrop to the Dothraki grasslands, is home to the warlord Khal Drogo who marries Daenerys Targaryen Stormborn. It’s where she learns what it means to be Khaleesi. With white-gold hair and her pursuit of justice and freedom for all, not to mention her dragons, she has a loyal army of followers in the real world. Miguel, an 18-year-old college student from Brazil, starts chanting, “Khaleesi is my Queen.” The 20 tourists join in, much to Philip’s amusement.
The next stop is another disused chalk quarry in Larrybane, close to Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge, which is about 30 metres above the sea and connects the mainland to the tiny island of Carrick-a-Rede. Most tourists queue up for hours to walk through the clouds, but we Thronies are more interested in a car park. “Welcome to Renly Baratheon’s camp [in the Stormlands],” Philip announces as the bus pulls into an empty quarry flanked by white chalk cliffs on three sides and the North Channel strait on the fourth. It looks nothing like the grand amphitheatre-type space where Brienne of Tarth beat Ser Loras Tyrell in a duel in Season 2. I walk up a steep path to the top of the cliff to take in the sheer white walls and the blindingly blue of the North Channel.
On the journey from the quarry to Giant’s Causeway, a Unesco World Heritage site, Philip regales us with snippets of cast gossip: Where Sean Bean (Ned Stark) stayed during the shoot, and how he’s heard that Maisie Williams (Arya Stark) and Jack Gleeson (Joffrey Baratheon) are great fun to be around. I’m told that Michelle Fairley (who plays Catelyn Stark) and Conleth Hill (the eunuch spymaster, Lord Varys) grew up in the small coastal town of Ballycastle. And when shooting in the area, they can be spotted at their local pub (Central Wine Bar) on weekends.Image: Corbis
Spectacular sight: The Giant’s Causeway does not have any connection with Game of Thrones, but it is one of Northern Ireland’s most famous attraction
Giant’s Causeway doesn’t have any GoT connection, but it would be foolish to drive around Antrim and not visit one of Northern Ireland’s most famous attractions. A 15-minute walk from the parking lot takes me to lines of polygonal-shaped basalt columns extending from the cliffs into the North Channel. The 40,000-odd interlocking black columns are the result of an ancient volcanic eruption, but the Irish have their own story. According to folklore, a giant named Fionn mac Cumhaill or, in English, Finn McCool, built a causeway by throwing rocks into the sea, so that he could cross from Ireland to Scotland without getting his feet wet.
The last stop of the day is The Dark Hedges, a stretch of Beech trees somewhere between Ballycastle and Ballymoney. It doubles up as Kingsroad in Season two, and is used by Arya Stark to escape from King’s Landing. The ethereal tunnel of trees with shadow and light playing through the entwined branches is spectacular. It’s otherworldly. The trees were planted in the 1700s by a local family called the Stuarts, and have intertwined with each other over the centuries. “The Dark Hedges were used on the show for barely eight seconds but it’s the most requested location on our tour,” says Philip.
After a long day, I clamber back onto the bus to return to Belfast. Thronies never suffer from GoT overload, and everyone is still dissecting GRR’s books and pumping Philip for more information about the cast. As we enter Belfast, I recall Sansa Stark’s bleak outlook: “There are no heroes… in life, the monsters win,” she says when she sees Joffrey for the monster that he is. And in the world that is the Game of Thrones, monsters are born in the most idyllic locations.
(This story appears in the Sept-Oct 2014 issue of ForbesLife India. To visit our Archives, click here.)