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Tracing the Game of Thrones trail in Girona

As the new season of the popular TV show hits screens tonight, we rediscover areas of small-town Spain where the story left off...

brunch Updated: Jul 15, 2017 21:50 IST
Karishma Upadhyay
Karishma Upadhyay
Hindustan Times
Game of Thrones,Girona,Winter is Here
These emblematic steps inside the walled city of Girona made their debut as the imposing facade of The Great Sept of Baelor in King’s Landing(Karishma Upadhyay)

“Shame! Shame! Shame!” two teenage girls chant, before they collapse into a fit of giggles on the steps of the La Catedral de Girona. In season six of HBO’s megahit TV show Game of Thrones, these emblematic steps inside the walled city of Girona made their debut as the imposing façade of The Great Sept of Baelor in King’s Landing.

This is where Jaime Lannister, along with Lord Tyrell, shows up ready to battle the Faith Militant. While a bloodthirsty crowd of thousands waits for Queen Margaery Tyrell’s Walk of Shame, Ser Jaime rides his horse up the stairs of the cathedral to rescue the Queen from the Sparrows. A secret alliance between King Tommen and the wily High Sparrow saves Margaery from the humiliating fate that befell Cersei Lannister in the previous season. Later in the season, the same facade and the bell tower are blown sky high.

Lord of flies

The reflection of vibrant narrow art deco houses and the red Eiffel Bridge in the water of river Onyar in Girona, Spain, makes a picture-perfect sight ( Shutterstock )

On a crisp winter morning last November, when I visited the Catalan city, the atmosphere was a lot less dramatic. But Girona, a pretty 40-minute drive or train journey from Barcelona through rolling green hills of the Ampurdan farm country and the craggy Costa Brava, is just as spectacular as it is on the show. And stunning views is not all that the town has in common with the world George RR Martin created in his fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire. Its strategic position on the Via Augusta – the ancient road that connected Rome to Cadiz in southwestern Spain – mean that Girona was repeatedly attacked, earning it the nickname ‘the city of a thousand sieges’. Through its 2,000-year-old history, the city has been home to the Iberians, Romans, Arabs, Jews and Carolingians.

Much of the historic city’s beguiling charm lies in its cathedrals, winding alleyways and red-tiled roofs that have remained miraculously intact for centuries. It’s no wonder that the makers of Game of Thrones (GoT) used different parts of the city as locations for the library in the city of Old Town, King’s Landing and Braavos in the previous season. The ‘destruction’ of the Sept and Arya leaving Braavos means that it’s unlikely that GoT makers will shoot again in Girona. But Thronies (as Game of Thrones’ superfans like to call themselves) have come pouring in to the previously overlooked city.

I strolled uphill through nondescript streets from the train station to one of the many pretty bridges over the Riu Onyar. Narrow art deco houses flank the river in shades of ochre, gold and vermillion that are reflected in the water. Gustave Eiffel built one of the bridges, and its red iron lattice resembles his tower in Paris. Once in the walled city, I retraced the route taken by Ser Jamie and his troops on Pujada del Rei Marti, under the archway, before entering Girona’s famous square.

First stop on my self-guided Game of Thrones tour was the imposing Baroque façade of the 18th century La Catedral de Girona that dominates Girona’s skyline. The church’s interior is equally magnificent and houses over a dozen baroque chapels, including one that tells the story of Saint Narcis (Narcissus), the patron saint of Girona. Legend has it that when the French invaded, they tore open Narcissus’ tomb, whereupon a swarm of flies drove the marauders from Girona. This explains why fly-shaped chocolates (mosques de Girona), available at most traditional confectionaries, are a must-buy local product.

Located within the Forca Vella, the Jewish Quarter is a labyrinth of narrow streets ( Karishma Upadhyay )

The views from the top of the Cathedral steps are postcard perfect. My view, though, is different from what Queen Margaery saw on the show. The plaza is boxed in with sand-hued buildings, but in the show, the hill slopes towards a (CGI) turquoise sea in the distance. In reality, though, the nearest beach is a 30-minute drive away.

This is a rare instance when GoT makers had to rely so heavily on special effects to re-create a part of the Seven Kingdoms. “Unlike other locations where a lot of special effects were used to create Westeros, Girona is very recognisable in Game of Thrones. They didn’t have to change much,” bragged Gloria, our waiter at Café L’Arc, where I stopped for a late breakfast.

As I dug into a portion of pa amb tomaquet (bread rubbed with tomato, a Catalan specialty) and a plate of jamón (the famous Iberian Ham) and local cheese, Gloria shared some more GoT trivia. Apparently, it took actor Nikolaj Coster-Waldau’s (who plays Ser Jaime) stunt double several days to train the horse to climb the cathedral steps.

Intrigue in the air

Behind La Catedral de Girona, this is the spot where The Waif dished out a brutal training session to Arya Stark. ( Karishma Upadhyay )

Breakfast done, it was time to explore the warren of steps and little roads that doubled up as Braavos, the richest and most powerful among the nine Free Cities of Essos. This is where a blind Arya Stark transformed into the ‘girl with no name’. Just off the cathedral is the Carrer de la Forca where, in episode one, The Waif dished out a brutal training session to Arya. This was before Arya and The Waif became sworn enemies. Carly Ann, a fellow Thronies from Texas, pointed out that the whole stick fight scene was shot in one spot. “Only the position of the camera keeps changing so you see the cathedral or the frame of a door leading into a garden,” she explained, while watching the fight sequence on a loop on her phone.

The makers of GoT used CGI to remove these buildings opposite the Cathedral and added a turquoise sea in the distance ( Karishma Upadhyay )

Carly suggested a quick pit stop at local favourite El Vermutet for a shot of vermut (vermouth). After all, it was ‘a la hora del vermut’ (at the hour of vermouth), alias just a little past noon. Vermouth is in the midst of a spirited revival across Spain, but the Catalans love their pre-lunch aperitif.

Back on the cobbled streets of the Jewish Quarter, I traced Arya’s panicked footsteps during her epic showdown chase with The Waif. I started at the Carrer del Bisbe Josep Cartaña, a street near the French Gardens behind the Cathedral, went down to Plaça Sant Domènec, a leafy terrace at the foot of the convent of Sant Domènec before ending up at Pujada Sant Domènec, the long medieval staircase where Arya upends a barrow of oranges.

My last stop was the 12th-century Banys Arabs (Arab Baths) that were brought back to life during the fight sequence between Arya and The Waif. This is the only GoT location in the quaint city that lived up to its small screen avatar. I don’t know if it was the low light or the shadows cast on the still water by colonnades, but there was intrigue in the air. And I was instantly transported to Westeros.

The Brunch insider’s view
  • Gourmet food lovers must make reservations at the award-winning triple-Michelin-starred restaurant El Celler de Can Roca, way in advance. (Source: Lonely Planet)
  • Centrally located Hotel Nord 1901 is an ideal hotel for those travelling with family. (Source: TripAdvisor)
  • Among some of the things to take back home from Girona are ceramics, leather goods or some wine, sherry or nougat. (Source: Conde Nast Traveller)

From HT Brunch, July 16, 2017

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First Published: Jul 15, 2017 21:49 IST

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