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‘Game of Thrones’ is ending, but you can still visit Westeros


    A view of Audley’s Castle, on the Castle Ward estate, overlooking Strangford Lough, Northern Ireland, on March 19. Since debuting in 2011, “Game of Thrones” has helped the region build a tourism industry, funneling hundreds of million of dollars into the region, and transforming Belfast’s filmmaking industry into a powerhouse.

CUSHENDUN, Northern Ireland >> The many marvels dotting the dramatic Antrim Coast of Northern Ireland include a cluster of eerily beautiful caves in this tidy village, around 45 miles north of Belfast. Formed by 400 million years of shifting red stone and the surging slate-blue Irish Sea, the caves inspire awed reflection upon the raw power of nature and the irresistible imprint of time, among other musings on the mystic.

A voice whispered into my ear: “That’s where Melisandre gave birth to the shadow monster.”

So it was — I knew it was around there somewhere, as did the dozens of “Game of Thrones” fans surrounding me, feverishly snapping selfies before returning to their tour bus in a nearby parking lot.

The voice belonged to my own guide, Flip Robinson, a 6-foot-8, magnificently bearded man who previously parlayed his stature into a gig as a stand-in for behemoth characters like Hodor and the Mountain. He waved to a colleague as she led her group away as suddenly as it had arrived, and off toward Braavos or the Iron Islands or some other “Thrones” location down the road.

Since debuting as an expensive curiosity in 2011, “Game of Thrones” has gone on to become one of the world’s most influential pop culture franchises, leaving a dragon-size footprint on everything it touches.

Nowhere is that dynamic more visible and tangible than the production’s former home, which, as the series kicks off its final season on HBO on April 14, is poised to serve as the keeper of the “Thrones” flame.

“Game of Thrones” has filmed all over the globe, including in Croatia, Spain, Morocco, Iceland and Malta, and other locations have become synonymous with the show, for better and worse. But as the home of not only the production, in Belfast’s Titanic Studios, but also Westeros itself, Northern Ireland has been transformed in fact and figment. As the series altered the TV landscape, it also altered actual landscapes: For millions of viewers all over the world, this country has been redefined and remade in the show’s image.

In the process, Belfast’s filmmaking industry has gone from a sleepy endeavor to a powerhouse. “‘Game of Thrones’ changed everything,” said Richard Williams, chief executive of Northern Ireland Screen, which promotes film and television production in the country. “We are relevant — it is basically night and day.”

The region has also built a tourism economy on the back of the show, especially on the coast, which provided much of the outdoor scenery. This majestic stretch of landscape and its famously scenic Causeway Coastal Route is now crisscrossed with motor coaches bearing “Thrones” pilgrims. Elsewhere, spots like the Castle Ward estate, near Strangford, site of the original Winterfell, have seen crowds swell with thousands of fans each year.

All told, “Thrones” has funneled hundreds of millions of dollars into the region. But the financial benefit might actually pale compared with a more existential one in a place that for decades was known internationally mostly for sectarian violence.

“Twenty years ago, you would have been here writing about the Troubles, not a TV show,” Gary Hawthorne, one of my drivers, told me during my visit.

Robinson said, “Fake violence has helped bring us back from the real violence.”

PART OF the outsize impact “Thrones” has had on Northern Ireland comes from the size of the production relative to the size of the place, which was a main reason it was such an ideal home base. At 5,460 square miles, the country is a bit larger than Connecticut (with just over half as many residents, at around 1.9 million). But within that area is an astounding array of scenery that is particularly suited to a medieval fantasy saga.

“We had 63 locations in 10 years, every single one of them within and hour and a half of Belfast,” said Robert Boake, the supervising location manager in Northern Ireland.

This became apparent on the afternoon I spent driving with Robinson along the causeway, a twisting roadway that hugs the U-shaped glens of the coast, the Irish Sea on one side and villages and vertiginous green hillsides, strewn with sheep, on the other.

In mere hours, we spanned Westeros and beyond, moving from the Wall and Castle Black (Magheramorne quarry), to the stairs where Arya crawled out of the Braavos canal (Carnlough Harbor) to the rocky shoreline in Pyke (Ballintoy) where the Greyjoys did nutty Greyjoy stuff. We also closed the shadow-baby loop, strolling around the Stormlands meadow (near Murlough Bay) where Renly made camp until Melisandre’s monster got ahold of him. Occasionally we stopped to walk around and by turns get lashed with rain, pummeled by wind and caressed by crystalline sunshine. (“In Northern Ireland, you get four seasons in one day,” Robinson told me, which I eventually came to realize is a national slogan.)

At Fair Head outside Ballycastle, we parked in a muddy lot, dropped a few pounds in the honor box and walked uphill through a horizontal downpour. About 20 minutes later, the rain was gone and the sun dried our faces as gale-force gusts threatened to blow us over the edge of a sheer cliff dropping hundreds of feet to the rocky coast.

We’d arrived at Dragonstone, or the dazzling headland the Targaryen family stronghold was CGI’d upon, anyway. To stand where the impossibly green meadow gives way to gray granite cliffs plummeting toward the sea, as you note the spot where Tyrion and Daenerys argued over strategy, where Jon Snow met Drogon, is to feel the frisson of an epic story meeting an epic landscape.

This reciprocity between project and place extends beyond the countryside. Another reason the marriage between “Thrones” and the region has been happier than any on the show is that the production’s material needs — armor, medieval weapons, elaborate costumes and jewelry — meshed well with the area’s long-standing artisanal traditions. “We’re good at that stuff,” Williams said.

Even when a fight was filmed in a place like Morocco, the spears were almost always built in Belfast. Fans who would like to try on a replica of Cersei’s crown can often do so at Steensons jewelers in Ballymena, because that’s where the original and other Westerosi finery were designed and made. (Though when I stopped in, I was told that the show had commandeered it for Season 8 — spoiler alert, I guess?)

This may be one explanation for the general lack of resentment evident in other locations besieged by “Thrones” tourists, like Dubrovnik, the exterior home of King’s Landing, which has been almost totally overrun.

“There are not many people in this country who haven’t been involved in some direct capacity,” Boake said. “Their brother made something for the show, or their sister was an extra, or their cousin worked on an episode.”

As we drove along the coast, Robinson reminisced about his time as Hodor’s double, dodging White Walker stuntmen in the Three-Eyed Raven’s cave as he dragged Bran’s double toward a green screen, in one of the show’s most famous scenes. “Then Kristian Nairn held the door,” he said. “He did the easy bit.”

Robinson, 52, was a former carpenter laid low by the global financial crisis, working as a tour guide when he applied to be a “Thrones” extra. Soon he was facing off with the likes of Lena Headey and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as a stand-in for the undead Mountain, a stint that became the hook for his Giant Tours, which takes small groups of “Thrones” fans up and down the coast.

“It changed my life around,” he said.

The show has done the same for the region’s movie industry. A few films had been shot in Belfast’s cavernous old ship painting hall, now part of Titanic Studios (so named because it’s near where the doomed ocean liner, the city’s other most famous export, was built). But since “Thrones” took up residence there, it has turbocharged the business, conferring the credibility that comes from hosting the most elaborate TV series in history and training a generation of crew and craftspeople.

Belfast has since added another enormous studio complex, Belfast Harbour Studios, the current home of Syfy’s Superman prequel series “Krypton,” and postproduction houses like Yellowmoon, which worked on “Thrones,” have significantly expanded.

Then there’s the measurable financial impact: Over eight seasons, “Game of Thrones” has spent more than $275 million in the region, according to Northern Ireland Screen.

Of course, two big questions hang over all the success. One involves how Brexit might affect the industry, though Williams notes that for the large-scale productions that are Belfast’s bread and butter, significantly more production spending comes from the United States than the European Union.The other: What happens now that “Thrones” is over? While everyone is cautiously optimistic that the planned “Thrones” prequel will go forward as a series, especially given the interest HBO’s new owner, AT&T, will have in extending such a lucrative franchise, they aren’t reliant upon it. “We’re getting calls every week,” Williams said.

“I’m not in the slightest gloomy about our potential after ‘Game of Thrones,’” he added. “But at the same time, I would never want to diminish how unique a thing ‘Game of Thrones’ is.”

The most common analogy holds that “Thrones” is to Northern Ireland what the “Lord of the Rings” movies were to New Zealand — a pop culture phenomenon that showcased a wondrous land for a global audience. But one difference is that “Thrones” has helped to redefine a city once known as one of the most dangerous places on Earth.

From the late 1960s to the late 1990s, the Troubles, which pit Protestant paramilitary groups loyal to the Crown against Catholic ones in favor of a unified, independent Ireland, claimed some 3,600 lives in bombings, sniper attacks and bloody street battles that ripped Belfast apart.

Old divisions remain and have been infused with new anxiety by Brexit, because its unclear how it will affect the open border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. But the show has helped “continue our peace process,” said Conleth Hill, better known to “Thrones” fans as the cunning Varys. As one of the few actors from Northern Ireland in the cast — he grew up and still lives in Ballycastle — Hill has observed the show’s impact from both inside and out.

“Before the Troubles, there was loads of tourists coming through my town,” he said. “Now they’re coming again.”

THE SWARMS figure to increase when HBO turns several former “Thrones” sets across the region into immersive tourist attractions featuring costumes, weapons and other artifacts from the show. The first, the Game of Thrones Studio Tour at Linen Mill Studios in Banbridge, is slated to open in spring 2020.

Tourism NI has aggressively courted Westeros set-jetters, creating a locations app and outfitting filming sites with information plaques for self-guided pilgrims, while keeping the many different “Thrones” tours from running afoul of HBO’s copyright lawyers. The show generates roughly $60 million per year in tourism income, said John McGrillen, the agency’s chief executive.

The agency also promotes the link between the show and the region’s artisanal heritage with projects like the enormous “Game of Thrones” Tapestry, based on the Bayeux Tapestry in France; it uses Belfast’s world-famous linen-weaving expertise to depict the “Thrones” story.

I saw it at the Ulster Museum, a few floors above an exhibition about the Troubles. The 217-foot-long tapestry recaps the entire tale, from King Robert’s arrival at Winterfell in the pilot to the zombie dragon Viserion demolishing the Wall in the Season 7 finale. (The artists will extend it to add the rest of the story after “Thrones” ends.) Much like the show itself, the tapestry is fundamentally bonkers but astounding in scale and execution, and a tremendous kick to experience.

A still more immersive wallow in “Thrones”-dom awaited me at Castle Ward, about an hour south of the city. Guide William Van der Kells greeted me in full Northern regalia: a black cloak and faux fur collar with a shiny gauntlet on one hand, holding a large sword made of “the finest Valyrian rubber.” A longtime National Trust site, Castle Ward added a “Winterfell tour” after the show shot much of the first season on the property, and promptly brought in more than 25,000 additional visitors a year.

The Stark castle was based around the 1610 tower house, the same one Bran climbed to discover Jaime and Cersei in flagrante twincestus. We shot arrows on the spot in the courtyard the Stark children did in one of the first scenes of the series, a few yards from where Tyrion smacked Joffrey in one of the show’s most GIF-able moments. Then we drove through a driving rain to other locations on the property, like the tree where Robb Stark and Talisa fatefully tied the knot, before taking cover beneath an old castle near the site of Walder Frey’s (digitally projected) one, where it all ended badly. “Around here you get all four seasons in a day,” Van der Kells said.

By then, I was wearing the cloak and snapping my own selfies to send to my daughter. The only shadow monster in evidence was the storm cloud dumping rain on me. But as I peered through the gloom and fog at the choppy Strangford Lough, it occurred to me that while I’d come to see how “Game of Thrones” had redefined Northern Ireland, what struck me most was how Northern Ireland had defined it.

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