The newest trailer for Game of Thrones season 7 just came out, and I am DYING in anticipation. Seeing so many upcoming scenes set in full-blown winter is especially thrilling because YOU GUYS I have now been North of the Wall.
When you think of Iceland, you probably think of the Blue Lagoon, glaciers, volcanoes, and partying in Reykjavik. As I booked my flash sale ticket on IcelandAir, one of my first thoughts was “How many Game of Thrones filming locations can I see in 7 days?” What can I say--I am who I am. And who I am is the kind of person who will drive 35 minutes out of the way to purchase a long john from the donut shop in the movie Boogie Nights, or has seen live band performances of both Keanu Reeves AND John Corbett, or once stood outside in Chicago in early February wintry conditions for an hour just to wave at the Spice Girls when their tour bus pulled up in front of Planet Hollywood (RIP). What can I say, I worship at the feet of the goddess Media (and you American Gods viewers know I’m talking about Gillian Anderson). This is all to explain why I spent 115 Icelandic Krona on an all-day Game of Thrones bus tour.
Game of Thrones is filmed in multiple countries throughout Europe, including Northern Ireland, Croatia, Morocco, and Spain. While the Castle Black set is located in Northern Ireland, many of the scenes around it and Beyond the Wall are shot in Iceland. I completely geeked out over the idea of exploring the stomping grounds of Jon Snow and Tormund Giantsbane. The morning of our tour, my friends and I headed to the Reykjavik Bus Terminal. A large touring bus awaited with a sign “Game of Thrones Tour” taped onto the front window. It was filled almost to capacity by people of all nationalities and age groups, many of them wearing t-shirts that said “Winter is Coming” or “I Drink and I Know Things.” MY PEOPLE.
Our tour guide was a native Icelander, wearing a Star Wars t-shirt under his jacket (slightly off-brand but at least in the nerd ballpark). We left the city and drove about 30 minutes into the countryside to our first stop: Laxnes Horse Farm. Here, we met the first (and only) actor on the tour who’d actually been featured on Game of Thrones, and it was a brown Icelandic horse AND I WAS NOT DISAPPOINTED. The crowd gathered around to pet his thick mane and furry coat; that horse easily rivaled Kit Harington in the hair department, and was equally short and scrappy. Our tour guide explained to us that Iceland has strict laws in place to keep the Icelandic Horse breed pure; no other horses from any other country are allowed into Iceland. Likewise, once an Icelandic Horse is taken out of the country, it can never be brought back in. Those of us now in the know thanks to our Star Wars enthusiast tour guide can tell by looking at the horses whether a northern scene was shot in Northern Ireland or Iceland. Go forth and impress your friends!
Our next stop was a waterfall called Þórufoss, where a scene from season 4 was filmed in which one of Daenerys’s dragons flies over the crest of the falls and flambés a herd of goats as a horrified farm boy watches.
Our guide held up a large laminated printed screenshot of the scene to show us the exact camera angle and where the actor was sitting. This wasn’t as thrilling as visiting, say Castle Black or Winterfell, but the following inside scoop totally made up for it: the goat who had been set aflame by Drogon was called Casanova and lived on a nearby farm. Not only was Casanova famous for his featured role in the international HBO hit, he also gained local renown when he almost died due to illness, but his life was saved by wearing custom-made Icelandic wool sweaters.
After hearing this story, I turned to my friends and said “This is EXACTLY what I signed up for.”
Our next stop was Þingvellir National Park, a stunningly beautiful place famous for the jutting rocks formed where the North American and European tectonic plates meet. This would be reason enough to visit, but as an added bonus, it also doubles as the Bloody Gate to the Eyrie. There’s also plenty of random waterfalls throughout because Iceland. Our tour guide once again whipped out some laminated photocopies of screenshots (I like to picture him at the Icelandic version of Kinko’s painstakingly creating his tour materials, probably wearing his Star Wars t-shirt) so we could walk the same path as Arya and the Hound. We gaped at the pristine beauty and took tons of photos, trying to crop around all the lollygagging tourists.
A winding road through the park took us past a few more shooting locations, including the site of a wildling camp. As we peered out the bus windows at the mossy rocks, the guide launched into a story about how Iceland was the last place where Tom Holmes and Katie Holmes were photographed together, 2 weeks before their divorce in 2012 (at a Sushi Samba, a fact that I already knew because these are the kinds of dumb things I retain instead of, like, algebra). “On behalf of Iceland, we are sorry to be a part of Tom and Katie’s split, but we hope we can make it up to you by being the place where Kit Harington and Rose Leslie [Ygritte] met and fell in love,” the guide concluded, and I decided I was going to tip him generously at the end of the tour for doing the Lord’s work.
The last stop of the day was a settlement-era Viking lodge in Þjórsárdalur Valley. At the top of a small hill sat a restored historic turfhouse village. Our guide explained (this is an exact quote), “This is the location of the human sacrifice.” The settlement doubled as the village where Olly’s family were killed and eaten by Thenns in season 4. I borrowed his laminated photo so I could take a comparison shot.
After a long day of driving, dodging selfie sticks, and learning about famous goat celebrities, the tour had reached its end. We settled back in for the hour-long ride back to Reykjavik, occasionally getting some additional local commentary from our tour guide (“We’re passing through Selfoss right now, most famous for dairy production and their love of cheesy techno”).
I had been hoping for a tad more insight into what it’s like to film in Iceland’s unpredictable weather, as well as perhaps some fun local gossip about what pubs Davos, Jon Snow, and Tormund tended to frequent on nights off. But at the same time, getting a brief window behind the scene was just enough. When I start watching season 7 in on July 16th (!!!), I don’t want to be thinking about the logistics of camera placement to avoid waterfall spray, or how it must be a pain for the continuity editor to match a shot of Jon Snow riding Beyond the Wall on a different horse than he had at Castle Black. I don’t even want to think about the dissolution of Hollywood marriages in a Sushi Samba. I want to lose myself in the story, to fully believe in the characters I see on screen whose journeys I’ve been following for 6 years now. Because winter is coming, and I bought the t-shirt and everything.