Game of Thrones: Real-Life Legends & Lore Behind the Filming Locations

the-eyrie-game-of-thrones (Image: HBO via Game of Thrones Wiki)

The Game of Thrones phenomenon has taken the world by absolute storm, and it’s showing no signs of slowing down – in spite of running out of official material. It’s one of the largest production television shows in the world, and it shoots across a handful of different countries in a plethora of varied and stunning locations. Each of those places is truly amazing, with centuries upon centuries of history dating back to long before the books were ever dreamed of. In this article, we delve into the history, myths, legends and lore that make these locations incredible – not just as film sets and backdrops for one of the most successful shows in recent memory, but as must-visit destinations in their own right.

10. Grey Lady of the Dark Hedges, Northern Ireland (The Kingsroad)

In 1998, the tourist board of Northern Ireland began using photos of The Dark Hedges from Game of Thrones to promote the strange, surreal beauty of the country – and it worked.

dark-hedges-of-armoy (Image: horslips5, cc-4.0)

The stretch of road that had once simply been used by locals was now on desktops, screen-savers and motivational posters all over the world. Glimpses of it are seen as the Kingsroad of Westeros – the widest, longest, most well-maintained road in the kingdom. It’s also the most dangerous, no matter whose banners you’re flying.

dark-hedges-of-armoy-2 (Image: Gareth James, cc-sa-4.0)

In the real world, its beech trees were originally planted in 1750 by the Stuart family in the grounds of Gracehill House, creating the haunting effect which features prominently in the show. John Stuart, who named the property after his wife, Grace, wanted to create an epic approach to his home. And the result is spectacular, especially considering the avenue of twisted trees stands amid Northern Ireland’s unpredictable weather.

And, of course, there are tales attached to the eerily beautiful stretch of road, and given how the trees seem to have a reaching, grasping sort of life of their own, it can be rather chilling, even if you don’t believe in ghosts. Paranormal stories aside, it’s one of those places that simply has an unmistakable aura of age about it.

dark-hedges-of-armoy-3 (Image: horslips5, cc-4.0)

Photographers, locals and tourists alike tell stories about a Grey Lady. It’s thought that she walks along the strip of road at night, either the ghost of a maid from the Stuart mansion, or, in other versions, the restless spirit of a young girl buried in the nearby graveyard. On Halloween, those who are buried beside her are said to walk with her. Others guess that she’s the daughter of John Stuart, who was always referred to in family history and genealogy not by her given name Margaret, but instead, as “Cross Peggy”. No one is sure why.

9. Meteora, Greece (The Eyrie)

The Eyrie is one of the most dizzying locations in Westeros – and it’s absolutely real. While most of the scenes were actually filmed in studios with the terrifying heights added afterwards, those heights are real, and they come from composites assembled from the scenery around Meteora, Greece.

meteora-the-eyrie-game-of-thrones (Image: Paul Stephenson, cc-4.0)

Literally meaning “suspended in the air”, Meteora is a series of 24 monasteries, each built on the top of nearly inaccessible sandstone pillars. The earliest habitation came in the 11th century, when it was decided that there were no better places for monastic retreat and silence than the 60 million year old pillars, formed by earthquakes and sculpted by the wind and water.

meteora-the-eyrie-game-of-thrones-2 (Image: Natty Dread, cc-sa-4.0)

In the 12th century, the first church was built at the foot of what were called the “heavenly columns”, and at the time, there were already monks living at the top. Most of the monasteries were built throughout the 14th and 15th centuries, in what would be an incredible feat of construction and engineering even today. There are no real roads and the entire area is heavily forested – from the top of the pillars, the view looks out over river valleys and the town that’s grown up around the base.

meteora-the-eyrie-game-of-thrones-3 (Image: Paul Stephenson, cc-4.0)

The monasteries were active through the 17th century, and there are still four today which remain working homes for religious communities. They’re open to welcoming visitors as well (as long as you’re properly dressed), although most tourists still manage to miss this incredible place. Meanwhile, alongside the monasteries are other amazing sights – hermit caves excavated from the sides of the mountains, abandoned farms, and burial chambers.

8. Tollymore Forest, Northern Ireland (North of the Wall, The North)

Tollymore Forest Park is an intriguing place, and one that’s seen as the forest north of the wall where the White Walkers first show their faces. It’s also where the Starks find their direwolf pups. Heavily wooded, it was the source of the wood for the Titanic and other grand White Star ocean liners, and it’s also home to a large group of follies.

tollymore-forest-game-of-thrones (Image: Eskling, cc-nd-4.0)

Designer Thomas Wright was contracted by the 18th century owner of the property, Lord Clanbrassil, to create something epic – and he did. Impressive Gothic gates lead into the property. Once there, hikers will find a barn designed to look like a church, a Tudor Revival lodge house and a fountain with a lion’s head. Farther in are even more bizarre structures. There’s one that looks like a church – but isn’t – a few round towers, and several single-span bridges.

tollymore-forest-game-of-thrones-2 (Image: Eskling, cc-nd-4.0)

Most of the follies are strategically placed, designed to draw attention to something else, while some were placed on property boundaries. There was originally a house on the property, and while that’s long gone, the follies are still there. So is the oldest tree in any Irish arboretum, a slow-growing spruce that was planted in 1750.

7. Essaouria, Morocco (Astapor)

Before dragons roamed Astapor, the Portuguese came to Essaouria, the port city that opened up Morocco to the world.

Essaouira-Morocco-Game-of-Thrones (Image: Antony Stanley, cc-sa-4.0)

Built in the 18th century, it’s a strange cultural and architectural mix. There had been a town on the site before (the Portugese had built a fortress there in the 15th century, which is still crumbling away to ruins), but it was only with the help from the French that the walled city was built as it stands today. Built to European standards but laid out in a more traditional North African plan and context, it is perhaps better known by it’s other name – Timbuktu.

Essaouira-Morocco-Game-of-Thrones-2 (Image: Game of Thrones Wiki)

Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, it was the place to be and to trade. Products – and slaves – were brought here from the heart of Africa, while Europeans would come to do business in the commercial centre of the city: the Mellah.

Essaouira now has a sort of bizarre claim to fame, and it’s one that they’ve largely invented on their own. In 1969, Jimi Hendrix spent 11 days in Morocco – and according to the local lore of Essaouira, their city was the inspiration for countless songs – especially “Castles Made of Sand”.

Essaouira-Morocco-Game-of-Thrones-3 (Image: Charles Wardell, cc-nc-nd-4.0)

Never mind that it came out two years before his visit – the facts shouldn’t get in the way of a great story. Locals revel in the idea that he wanted to move there, live there, buy land there; they tell tales of hotels he stayed in, restaurants he ate at, people he stayed with and guitars he played.

Essaouira-Morocco-Game-of-Thrones-4 (Image: Charles Wardell, cc-nc-nd-4.0)

Pretty much none of it is true, but there’s a large amount of psychedelic celebration going on in the town, with centuries-old buildings brightly painted in true ’60s style. Guide books allow visitors to retrace his footsteps, and locals love the idea that their ancient city was part of a music scene that was blossoming halfway across the world.

6. Lake Myvatn, Iceland (North of the Wall)

When it comes to sheer scale, there are some epic locations in Westeros. When Jon Snow heads North of the Wall, it’s into a bleak, cold, hostile land, that goes on forever. It’s also in Iceland, and the surreal landscape is absolutely real.

Lake-Myvatn-Iceland-Game-of-Thrones (Image: Javier Losa, cc-4.0)

Lake Myvatn is the site of the most powerful waterfall in all of Europe, along with vast, twisted lava fields, lava pillars that rise out of the water itself, sulphur springs that turn the ground yellow, and calderas that have since been filled with water. Viti Maar, affectionately called The Crater of Hell, is a stunning teal blue lake surrounded by an active lava field.

Lake-Myvatn-Iceland-Game-of-Thrones-2 (Image: Andrea Schaffer, cc-4.0)

Twisted rock towers, scorched lava fields, green pastures and smoky air – if there was ever a fantasy setting on earth, Lake Myvatn would be a great contender. According to Icelandic lore, the lake and the lava bed nearby, called Dimmuborgir, are home to a troll name Gryla. She is, of course, absolutely insane, and she’s used to threaten naughty children with. Bizarrely, she also lives with her sons, who are an odd part of Icelandic lore, too. They’re the Yule Lads, trolls that leave their lava fields every Christmas to distribute presents (and rotting potatoes) to Iceland’s nice and naughty children. There are 13 Christmas trolls, each with their own names and personalities – they’re mischievous but, fortunately, not as murderous as their mother.

Lake-Myvatn-Iceland-Game-of-Thrones-3 (Image: Stephen, cc-nd-4.0)

The troll home has one more member – a pet cat. After Christmas, the cat goes out on the prowl, and will eat any child who didn’t get some new clothes for Christmas. It’s a fun story that gives those Christmas socks and sweaters a whole new, life-saving meaning.

5. Castle Ward, Northern Ireland (Winterfell)

Standing in for the northern stronghold of the Starks, only parts of Castle Ward were used for filming. That’s partially because it’s an incredibly odd property, and one that the Cowles History Group calls a “schizophrenic structure”.

winterfell-castle-ward-game-of-thrones (Image: Game of Thrones Wiki)

In 1747, Bernard Ward married Lady Anne Magill, and they began work on designing their home. It would stand on the property that he had inherited from his father, and would be funded in part by her very large dowry. The problem was that they couldn’t agree on what to build. Bernard had always had his heart set on a classical English manor house, while Anne was just as set on something in the Gothic style that was in fashion at the time.

winterfell-castle-ward-game-of-thrones-2 (Image: Ardfern, cc-sa-3.0)

The story goes that plans were drawn up, presented, rejected, drawn up again and rejected again – time and time again. The architects and the builders were getting to the point where they’d just about given up on the idea that they might get to the point where they could actually build something, when someone suggested – jokingly – that they should just split the house in half and be done with it. So that’s what they did.

winterfell-castle-ward-game-of-thrones-3 (Image: Ardfern, cc-sa-3.0)

The southwest side of the home is done in a mid-Georgian, classical design, while the other half is Gothic, complete with battlements and other decorations. The interior of the house is divided, too; walking from one side of the house to the other means you’re going through practical, sensible Georgian furnishings one moment, then stepping into fanciful Gothic chambers the next. The division of the home sadly represented the incompatibility of the couple that lived there, and they were ultimately separated.

As a final fitting footnote, Bernard left the property to two of his three sons when he died. The oldest of the three was certifiably insane, and not fit to inherit; the two that did inherit the property promptly divided it between them.

4. Cushendun, Northern Ireland (The Stormlands)

The beaches of Cushendun were used for the Stormlands but there had already been many a dark deed done throughout the little village’s long history.

Cushendun-Northern-Ireland-Stormlands (Image: Ardfern, cc-sa-3.0)

As of 2001, there’s only about 138 people living in the village. Famous for its caves, the beaches are also the landing spot for Carra Castle. Built sometime before the middle of the 16th century, the early history of the castle that now sits in ruins is shrouded in mystery. We do know, though, that by 1565 it was the home of the O’Neill family. The family had long been at odds with another nearby clan, the MacDonnells, in an odd feud that had been fueled in part by the alternating favour of Elizabeth I.

Cushendun-Northern-Ireland-Stormlands-2 (Image: Ardfern, cc-sa-3.0)

Carra Castle was once a prison for one of the heads of the MacDonnell clan, and Shane O’Neill was killed in a skirmish with the MacDonnells at an old church nearby. It’s not known where his body was buried, but his head was sent to Dublin for public display.

The McDonnell clan, in the meantime, held their seat at another Game of Thrones filming location – Pyke.

3. Dunluce Castle, Northern Ireland (The Iron Islands/Pyke)

Dunluce Castle lies in ruins now, but that made it perfect for the rugged Iron Islands, and the seat of the House Greyjoy.

Dunluce-Castle-Pyke-Iron-Islands (Image: Dave Wilcox, cc-sa-4.0)

During the 1500s, it was the home of Sorley Boy MacDonnell – a Scottish chieftain who had briefly been imprisoned in Carra Castle. After a skirmish with English forces, he made the very clear statement by flying one of the banners that he’d seized from English troops; this was during his period of falling-out with Elizabeth I, who sent the Lord Deputy of Ireland to lay siege to the castle. The castle fell to the English, but Sorley escaped, re-taking possession of his castle a year later, after the English had left.

Dunluce-Castle-Pyke-Iron-Islands-2 (Image: Stuart Caie, cc-4.0)

It’s said that even though MacDonnell fled the castle, his captain remained behind. The man’s fate was understandably grisly, as he was hanged by the English soldiers. Supposedly, his is one of the ghosts that still walks the castle ruins. There are others, too, if rumours are to be believed. According to legend, part of the castle slid onto the rocks and the ocean below, no longer able to withstand the brutal elements… or the curse of the gypsy woman who had been refused hospitality by the family who lived there. Seven (or nine, depending on which version of the tale you read) of the staff were taken to their deaths with it, and it’s said they still haunt the area.

Dunluce-Castle-Pyke-Iron-Islands-4 (Image: Jennifer Boyer, cc-4.0; The Mermaid’s Cave)

There’s a young girl there, too, named Maeve Roe. The only daughter of her family, she fell in love with the son of a rival clan. But her father had other plans for her, and she and her beloved attempted to flee the castle. The day after they escaped, his body was found, washed up on the rocks below. While hers was never recovered, it’s said that her ghost still haunts the ruins she had tried so hard to escape in life.

Dunluce-Castle-Pyke-Iron-Islands-3 (Image: Alex McGregor, cc-sa-4.0)

Dunluce Castle has been abandoned since the death of its last occupant, Randal McDonnell, in 1682. After being the site of local conflict and war, along with legal disputes over who it actually belonged to, the neglected castle was in such poor condition that attempting to restore it seemed pointless.

2. Ballintoy Harbor, Northern Ireland (The Iron Islands)

Ballintoy Harbour on the Antrim Coast was also used for parts of the Iron Islands, but there’s a bizarre, partially finished structure that absolutely didn’t make it into the show.

Ballintoy-Harbour-Game-of-Thrones (Image: horslips5, cc-4.0)

Bendu House is unmistakable, standing on the cliffs that overlook the harbour. It’s a weird house, seemingly little more than random cubes stuck together in a vaguely house-like shape. It’s the work of a Cornish artist named Newton Penprase, who built it in spite of the fact that the locals absolutely hated it.

Ballintoy-Harbour-Game-of-Thrones-2 (Image: Dr Neil Clifton, cc-sa-4.0)

He began his labour of love when he was 47-years-old, and spent more than four decades working on it. He never saw it completed, either, only getting through the ground floor. It’s not entirely surprising, considering that he was not only building it in his spare time, but needed someone drive him up to the site (or take a bus) from his home in Belfast in order to work on it.

bendu-house-ireland (Image: Eric Jones, cc-sa-4.0; above: Bendhu House)

The eccentric Penprase wasn’t just bumming a ride for himself, either – he was usually carrying whatever materials he was going to use for that day’s building. Since the whole house is made of concrete, he usually had a bag slung over his shoulder on the ride up.

It took several more owners to finally finish the house, which is now complete. The third owner finished the house and painted the concrete building bright white, contrasting with the cliff face even more than it had done previously. Bendhu House is private property now, an unmistakable testament to a single, very determined artist with a vision.

1. Dubrovnik, Croatia (King’s Landing and Qarth)

King’s Landing, home of the coveted Iron Throne is, of course, Dubrovnik, in Croatia. An incredibly beautiful city – of the sort that seems so unlikely to exist in real life – Dubovnik was originally a Roman colony called Epidaurum. It wasn’t until the 7th century that Slavic migrants settled into the city that had been abandoned by the Romans, and by the 9th century, it had become so well-fortified that it withstood a 15-month siege by the Saracens.

dubrovnik-game-of-thrones-location-2 (Image: Michael Caven, cc-4.0)

And, like King’s Landing, it’s not only seen its share of bloodshed, but it also has some epic stories attached to it – like the Lokrum Curse.

In 1023, a devastating fire started in the city. Terrified residents began to pray, and they promised Saint Benedict that, if he spared the city, they would build a monastery in his name. According to the legend, the fire stopped, and the residents, keeping their word, built a church and monastery on the nearby island of Lokrum.

dubrovnik-game-of-thrones-location (Image: JSB, cc-sa-3.0)

There’s at least some truth to this part of the story. The fire was real, and it consumed Dubrovnik; it also happened on the day of Saint Benedict. The monastery dedicated to him was also founded in 1023, so that much is absolutely true.

dubrovnik-game-of-thrones-location-6 (Image: Morton1905, cc-nc-sa-4.0)

Over the next 200 years or so, Lokrum became the center of Benedictine activity in the area, with other monasteries passing to the control of those stationed on Lokrum. The legend of the curse began with the seizure of Lokrum island by a French general and a handful of noble families. Even though the monks fought the orders, they were eventually forced to hold one last Mass on the island. At the Mass, they slowly walked around the entire island three times, candles turned upside-down, dripping wax. They cursed Lokrum, damning the souls of anyone who tried to use the island for personal reasons, profit or gain. The monks never went back, but the curse remained.

dubrovnik-game-of-thrones-location-5 (Image: Dennis Jarvis, cc-sa-4.0)

The heads of the families involved in seizing the island met grisly ends – one was killed by a servant, one committed suicide, and the other drowned. Lokrum’s next owner went bankrupt and, after that, it was bought by a man who first set foot on the island after his ship had sunk off the coast. He bought the island and turned it into his own personal manor; everything soon bore his initials, but it wasn’t long before he was sent to Mexico, taken prisoner in a rebellion, and executed.

dubrovnik-game-of-thrones-location-3 (Image: Michael Caven, cc-4.0)

A handful of other families have attempted to hold the island – and there have been more bankruptcies, more drownings, and even a tragic, ill-fated love affair that ended in a double suicide. Lokrum island was later passed to the Habsburgs, when family member after family member fell to violent deaths – including, of course, the Archduke Ferdinand, killed in 1914.

dubrovnik-game-of-thrones-location-4 (Image: Michael Caven, cc-4.0)

There’s another curse, too, surrounding the coral divers off the coast. Tradition said that the divers continued to dive in the hopes of finding an untouched, underwater cavern, filled with exquisite corals that would make them rich. They did find the cavern, but there was only a single coral in it – and they cursed anyone who wore a necklace made from that coral.

Related – 10 of the Greatest Fictional Cities of Film and Literature


About the author: Debra Kelly




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