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Step into Games of Thrones in Croatia

The Toronto Star / March 2016

Fans of the series will spot several familiar places on walking tour of Dubrovnik

Since we arrived in this pink-roofed 13th-century walled city, I’ve developed an annoying tourist’s habit. “Do you watch Game of Thrones?” I ask most everyone. When they all say yes, of course, another question: “Are you in it?”

Believe it or not, most are. Our svelte kayaking instructor played a Dothraki slave. Our fashionable tour guide was a costume assistant. And since we’re literally walking around King’s Landing anyhow, this was no time to fight the tourist urge. Without shame or hesitation, and just in time for the April 24 premiere of Season 6, I signed us up on a Game of Thrones walking tour.

Croatia joined the European Union in 2013, in hopes the move would lift the country from recession. It didn’t, but as interest in HBO’s version of George R. R. Martin’s saga swelled, hardcore viewers flocked to the UNESCO heritage site on the Dalmatian Coast for the interactive GOT experience.

Tourism has been up 10 per cent annually ever since, or about $10 million (U.S.) extra tourist dollars. Like Harry Potter and Hunger Games, rumours of a theme park — to be built on the nearby Island of Lokrum, a.k.a. Qarth — have been swirling for seasons.

But until then, fans like us will have to deal with Dubrovnik the old-fashioned way — on foot. We meet Patricia, our tour guide (and one-time HBO costume assistant) at the base of Srd Hill for a rickety 400-metre high cable-car ride and birds-eye view of the medieval city.

Just 3,000 people live in Old Town, that is inside the 2-kilometre walls that surround Dubrovnik proper, jammed with kitschy shops and local restaurants and, if you keep your eyes peeled, some prime Game of Thrones shooting sites.

Back down at sea level, we start at the grand entrance to Dubrovnik’s Old City, called Pile Gate, originally reached via drawbridge and locked every evening. It’s now where local artists showcase their work to pedestrians entering the city. It’s also where King Joffrey gets a face full of dung during a King’s Landing riot.

Inside the old walls and overlooking a pair of familiar jagged rocks, is Sansa’s pier — where Littlefinger offers her an escape plan, as a rightfully suspicious Shae watches. The spot doubles as Blackwater Bay, the gory site where Stannis’ army is nearly butchered via firewater. In this world, the pier’s better used for afternoon sun bathing.

Cersei Lannister’s unfortunate Walk of Atonement, beginning here by the Serbian Orthodox Church of St. Nicholas, is almost as dramatic in real life as it was on screen. St. Nicholas initially refused HBO’s request to film nearby, disapproving of public nudity and immorality — both Game of Thrones staples, of course.

Outside the walls and atop a 37-metre cliff by the Western Gate, Fort Lovrijenac (or Fort of St. Lawrence, or “Dubrovnik’s Gibraltar”) subs in as the Red Keep. Add a little computer-generated imagery, and here’s where Joffrey celebrates his name day tourney via bloody duels.

A stroll through the stone corridors of Fort Lovrijenac will feel all-too-familiar for any Thrones fan. This particular spot is where Cersei’s had just enough of scheming Petyr Baelish’s mind games and declares “power is power.”

Just a three-minute walk from the city gates, colourful ribbons, painted red gravel and an immaculate 6-metre lion’s head transformed this unassuming park into Joffrey’s elaborate and ill-fated royal wedding. Doves for the maybe-poisoned pie were brought in from neighbouring Bosnia.

Trsteno Arboretum, a few kilometres northeast of the city, stands in for King’s Landing garden scenes, starring scantily-clad Margaery and spitfire grandma Olenna eating lemon cakes. For irrigation, the gardens still use an aqueduct built in 1492.

Since the first tour was such a treat, we hop on a day trip to Split—the setting of the slave city of Meereen — to see the spooky basement of Emperor Diocletian’s 4th-century palace. These big old rooms have since served as an art gallery, a nightclub and a home for Daenerys’ dragons.

Get there: Since there are no direct flights from Canada just yet, count on a European stopover. Fly directly to Dubrovnik or into Zagreb (the capital, 600 kilometres from Dubrovnik), which then involves a gorgeous drive along the Adriatic Coast to Dubrovnik.

Stay there: To get to your swank room at the Bellevue, a 5-star luxury boutique hotel just 10 minutes from the Old City, you actually take an elevator down. That’s because the Bellevue is built into a 30-metre cliff overlooking the turquoise Adriatic Sea, and it’s not for anyone with a fear of heights. adriaticluxuryhotels.com/en/hotel-bellevue-dubrovnik

Eat there: When you want more for less, head to Kamenice for a feast of fried fish, calamari and seafood risotto, all traditional and authentic Croatian cuisine. For a romantic evening overlooking the marina, try Poklisar for a fancy Mediterranean pizza.

Tour companies: Kensington Tours (kensingtontours.com) builds personalized adventures around the world. Seven-day Croatia trips start at $2,884 (U.S.) per person and include airport transfers, hotels, breakfasts and private tours. It arranged our Game of Thrones walking tour.

Game of Thrones: In Dubrovnik, you can find various companies offering Game of Thrones walking tours for about three hours and €100 (currently $145 Canadian). Find out more: croatia.hr