There is something inexplicably attractive about old walls.
Take any random town, surround it with an old wall, and the place will suddenly become exponentially more appealing to visitors. A rule that seems to holds true even if the wall in question is a dilapidated ruin, although the more complete it is, the greater the sex-appeal. Places as far-flung as Jerusalem in Israel, Cartagena in Colombia, and Xi’an in China prove how an old wall can be the ultimate tourist aphrodisiac.
And then there is Dubrovnik, the “pearl of the Adriatic”, which is widely touted as having the most spectacular old wall of them all. Placing that city near the top of most serious travelers’ bucket lists; one of those “essential destinations I absolutely must get round to seeing one day”.
All of which in turn explains why, whilst working in rainy London not so long ago, I got very excited by an uninvited pop-up ad on my computer screen. It came to me courtesy of a U.K. budget airline, offering a flight from London to Dubrovnik for the princely sum of 24 pounds.
Meaning I could travel to Dubrovnik for a weekend, see its famed Old Town, walk the wall that surrounds it, and still have change from the price of a steak at a fairly average London restaurant.
Sometimes, it really does feel like the travel Gods are looking out for me.
Dubrovnik is located on the Adriatic coast, in the eastern Mediterranean, part of the modern-day country of Croatia. It is a place with some serious history though, first established in the 7th century as a Byzantine trading outpost.
Although Dubrovnik’s heyday was from the 12th to 18th centuries, when it was an independent city-state more usually known as Ragusa. It was in those days a great maritime power, on a par with Venice and Genoa, with a sizable fleet of trading ships. They sailed to most parts of the then known world, carrying all manner of goods, connecting people, and in the process bringing Dubrovnik fame and riches.
As with many other city states back then, defensive walls were built to keep out enemies. Dubrovnik’s walls were initially small and made of wood, but over the years they were gradually extended, strengthened and improved. And, after many centuries, they came to completely encircle the town, an architectural marvel at 1,940 meters long, made entirely of stone, for the most part massively thick (up to 12 feet in places), and often comprising a double line of fortifications as high as 25 meters.
Thus making the Walls of Dubrovnik one of the most extensive sets of medieval city fortifications to be found anywhere in Europe. Not to mention the most eye-catching, built as they are along scenic coastline, over clifftops, and around rocky headlands. Plus, dotting the perimeter of the walls are a whole fairy-tales worth of towers, keeps, bastions, turrets, and fierce-looking fortresses from which armed cannons once pointed out to sea. Dubrovnik is, quite simply, an incredible sight to behold, and fully deserving of its spot on the UNESCO World Heritage list.
More than being nice to look at though, Dubrovnik’s walls have also proved to be incredibly effective at doing exactly what they were built to do. Time and again many have tried to conquer the city, often laying siege to it for months, if not years on end. But most have eventually had to pack up their tents and head back home. From the Saracens in 866, to the Venetians in 948, to the Russians in 1806, few have ever succeeded in breaching Dubrovnik’s formidable old walls.
And lest you think the military effectiveness of city walls is a historical artifact, no longer relevant in an age of aircraft and artillery, think again.
In 1991-1992 – that is, in my own lifetime – while the war for Croatian Independence raged, the Yugoslav People’s Army laid siege to Dubrovnik. For seven months mortar and bombs rained down on the city. Almost 70% of the buildings in the Old Town suffered damage from this bombardment. And during that time Dubrovnik was cut off from the rest of Croatia, and the world at large, thanks to a watertight land and naval blockade.
But despite this, a few hundred determined fighters were able to hold Dubrovnik, never mind that they were facing a much larger, better equipped adversary. The city stubbornly refused to fall, in no small part due to the protective barrier of its walls. They proved as effective in the modern era at keeping out would-be conquistadors as they did centuries ago.
Which, if you ask me, is pretty incredible. I mean, I doubt too many of the things we humans have built in the last 50 years will still be there in 1,000 years. Much less still fulfilling the function they were originally designed for.
In any case, all of this information was learned in a matter of hours on our first morning in Dubrovnik, when we did the obligatory city walking tour. A super informative and really interesting introduction to Dubrovnik’s rich and varied history, extraordinary architecture, and wonderfully preserved Old Town.
And after that we walked the length of the pathway that runs along the top of the walls, making a complete circuit of the Old Town. An amazing, awe-inspiring, and incredibly scenic thing to do; all first class tourist stuff that completely lived up to expectation, and then some….
That said, let’s put all of the good historical stuff to one side, because no matter how fascinating history may be, it is still just history. And as such, it simply can’t match the mass market appeal of pop culture, movies, and computer generated imagery.
I am, of course, talking about Game of Thrones, the multi-award winning TV series based on the George R.R. Martin fantasy novels, A Song of Ice and Fire. The show has a massive global cult following, with tens of millions of people in 170 different countries religiously tuning in for each new episode’s dose of inter-familial warfare, blood, sex, nudity and violence.
A hallmark of Game of Thrones is its lavish international production, where a fantastical medieval world it meticulously brought to life in amazing locations, all around the world. Little surprise then that in 2011, when the producers were searching for a fortified medieval city to be King’s Landing (one of the show’s principal locations), they happened on Dubrovnik, and decided to appropriate the entire city to the task.
Since then, over six record-breaking seasons of the show, every nook and cranny of Dubrovnik’s Old Town has appeared in Game of Thrones. And the Walls of Dubrovnik have enjoyed a near starring role, serving as backdrop to so many memorable battles, spirited confrontations, furtive conversations, and “oh my God I didn’t see that coming” grand reveals.
Predictably, a whole tourism eco-system has sprung up on the back of this Game of Thrones notoriety. Dubrovnik souvenir shops now sell everything from GOT t-shirts to mugs to fridge magnets. Some, in fact, some sell nothing but.
There are also GOT walking maps to be had, guidebooks, memorabilia, and even GOT exhibits set up at various spots around town. Such as a life-size replica of the Iron Throne at one of the local museums, free for all to sit on and indulge their inner Stark (or Lannister or Targaryen, depending on allegiance). And tour operators in Dubrovnik have jumped on the bandwagon too, offering various Game of Thrones themed excursions and activities.
Now, having come to the GOT party quite late, I am far from being a hard-core fanatic. But just about everyone else I know is, and therefore, almost as if by osmosis, I too am now eternally waiting for winter. It thus felt like visiting Dubrovnik without doing something GOT-oriented would be kind of incomplete, if not downright wrong. So on my final day in Dubrovnik, I joined a Game of Thrones walking tour.
Evidently, quite a few people felt the same way, because there were about twenty people in my group (I was the oldest by a margin of at least 10 years), and ours was but one of five similar sized groups heading out at the same time. And this, according to our guide, apparently happens every few hours, all day every day.
Indeed, so the guide told me, among younger folk GOT tours are now more popular than regular tours. For a whole cadre of visitors to Dubrovnik, GOT is not a fantasy sideshow, but has become the reason for their visit, and the primary lens through which they see the city.
Or to put it another way: being an ancient place with fabulous walls on the UNESCO World Heritage list is a good thing. But in today’s world, being an imaginary place on a hit HBO TV show is off-the-charts fucking brilliant.
The tour format was simple. We followed our guide around like a pack of eager puppies, and at various spots around town he would pause, point out a building or street, and then hold up a printed picture showing what the same place had looked like on Game of Thrones. We would all then squint hard, and try to mentally connect the real life location in front of us with the TV scene on paper in front of us.
At one point our guide mentioned he had appeared as an extra on a few episodes of the show. Some of the people in my group practically swooned at hearing this – I doubt they could have been more excited had they been granted a private audience with Superman. I think our guide knew it, too, because he proceeded to mention his fleeting involvement in GOT about another 300 times in the course of the next few hours.
Anyway, for the record, here are five “fun but completely irrelevant to the real world we live in” things I learned on my Game of Thrones walking tour of Dubrovnik. Things I am sure die-hard fans of the show will thank me for sharing. And things that perhaps the other two of you might like to know anyway.
- Authenticity matters.
The Game of Thrones producers are apparently quite big on the notion of production authenticity. Hence, for example, when characters are required to appear in armor, it is the real thing. Not painted plastic, but 40 kilo of real chainmail. Good for authenticity, I suppose, but not so good for the actors who have to stand about for nine hours straight, in the scorching heat of a Dubrovnik summer.
Another example: our guide mentioned that extras are often told not to bathe or wash for a few days prior to filming, so that they have a patina of real grime and dirt on their faces. Or my personal favorite: for a scene set in the King’s Landing market, piles of fish were apparently left out for a day before, to rot in the sun. So that when it came time to film, even the smell of the medieval marketplace was real.
- GOT is a big, big, big production. No expense spared.
Speaking of weather, filming of Games of Thrones in Dubrovnik mainly takes place in the summertime, when the temperature matches the production “vision” of King’s Landing. Which is great, apart from one minor problem: summer is peak season in Dubrovnik, when most of the city’s four million annual visitors show up. They jam up every street in the Old Town in a way that makes taking a simple uncrowded photo near impossible, much less filming of anything.
Nevertheless, GOT’s producers routinely apply to have entire streets shut down for filming, and despite the massive disruption this causes, no-one ever objects. Why? Because GOT goes to every restaurant, guesthouse and store on the affected street, and pays them an amount equal to that business’ average daily peak season profit. Provided they agree to stay shut for the duration of filming.
Or, as my guide (who, like every other local in tourist-centric Dubrovnik, also occasionally works as a waiter) explained: “So when the street got closed for filming, I got paid by Game of Thrones, to do nothing! Who ever heard of a three-day paid holiday at the peak of the tourist season? They can shut the street down anytime they like…”
I guess this explains why GOT is the most expensive TV show in history, costing a reported US$10 million per episode to make.
- Seriously, GOT is a big, big, big production. So no leaks tolerated.
During filming, security guards are deployed to various vantage points all around Dubrovnik. But this is not to protect the stars of the show. Rather, they are sent out to maintain secrecy; to make sure that no snippets of what’s going on get recorded by tourists on cameras or mobile phones, for subsequent internet upload to a global audience clamoring for even the tiniest sneak preview of what is to come.
Apparently, oftentimes even the cast and crew isn’t told how a particular storyline is going to turn out. And Game of Thrones aficionados spend huge amounts of time discussing, analyzing and debating the labyrinthine plot, which is a huge part of the show’s appeal. So any unauthorized leak, no matter how small, could really screw things up for the producers.
- It ain’t all real. D’uh.
Despite the abundance of scenic filming spots around Dubrovnik’s Old Town, it seems there aren’t nearly enough to meet the voracious needs of the world’s biggest TV show. Although that an easy one to fix: just manufacture new ones.
At its most obvious, this involves extensive CGI additions to scenes in post-production – for example, adding of whole made-up buildings on top of shots of the real walls.
But there are other, more inventive techniques, too. Such as filming half a scene in one place, and then filming the other half someplace else entirely. Like one GOT location our guide showed us, half of which was shot in Dubrovnik, and the other half of which was shot in Northern Ireland. The two halves had been meshed together seamlessly, with a few tall (and very real) conifer trees planted in the background of both, to trick us into thinking that the locations were one and the same.
Though even that seemed way too complex when compared to what I might describe as the cinematic equivalent of using a mirror. Thus, standing in front of a real-life section of the city walls, our guide showed us a still from one GOT scene, in which that bit of the wall was clearly featured. And then he showed us another still, from a different scene, in a whole different season of the show. It too featured the exact same bit of wall, only now the wall was on the left side of the frame, rather than the right. Meaning that those crafty producers had simply flipped the background around and voila – a whole different place had been created. Pretty smart, no?
- Even when it’s real, it ain’t all real.
A climactic scene from the final episode of GOT Season 5 was “The Walk of Shame”, in which Lena Headey’s character Cersei is paraded down a crowded street in the nude, to be shouted at and abused by a hostile King’s Landing crowd.
Toward the end of our tour we stopped on the exact street where it had all happened. This also just happened to be one of the main thoroughfares of the Old Town, which our guide told us had been totally shut down for three days while filming took place. Something that seemed almost unbelievable given the street in question was so jam-packed with tourists it was like being in the crowd at the start of a marathon, and almost impossible to move (but refer point 2 above: GOT is a big, big production).
When our guide held up a still photo from the Walk of Shame, one of the younger ladies in the group took issue with it, pointing out that the images had clearly been Photoshop-ed. Because, so she hypothesized, the actress in question had probably not been completely naked during filming.
A look of pain crossed our guide’s face, and after explaining to this bothersome know-it-all that Game of Thrones uses stuff a bit more sophisticated than Photoshop, he told us that in fact the nudity was 100% real. For good measure he then proceeded to verify it with a quick Google search on his mobile phone. So that we knew for sure the main character had been completely in the buff, in front of a massive crew and a crowd of almost 500 extras.
But – and here’s the twist – the naked body on-screen was that of a body double, with Lena Headey’s face superimposed onto it in post-production. Specifically, the body of an American actress, who along with over 1,000 other hopefuls had auditioned for the chance to stand-in as nude Cersei Lannister. And have chamber pots of real excrement thrown at them over three long, hot days of filming (refer point 1 above: Authenticity matters).
I may have already mentioned that they take things pretty seriously in the world of Game of Thrones…
So that was my experience of Dubrovnik and its extraordinary city walls – both in the real world, and in the imaginary one of Game of Thrones.
Begging the question: which was better?
Well, if truth be told, I found my Game of Thrones walking tour to be infinitely more enjoyable than the regular one: much more entertaining and way, way cooler.
Sure, there was no real history, and there were no real facts. There was no discussion of Croatian culture, or of life in Dubrovnik’s Old Town, or of architecture, or of what makes Dubrovnik’s ancient walls so incredible and unique.
There was, in fact, no real life anything. Rather, we spoke at length about stuff like dragons, the wickedness of the High Sparrow, how everyone misses Joffrey, and the resurrection of Jon Snow.
In short, it was an unadulterated, unapologetic exercise in make-believe. And I just loved it. Even if I am a little bit ashamed to admit it.
As if to hammer home the point, heading back to my guesthouse after the Game of Thrones tour I was walking in the very shadow of Dubrovnik’s amazing city walls when I passed a group of young adults. I think they were from Scandinavia somewhere – mostly tall and blonde, although one of the girls in the group had blue hair. Most were sporting piercings and tattoos.
I could see a few of the group were wearing GOT t-shirts. And they were all humming a tune that was unmistakable – the theme music from the opening credits of the show. So as I went past them, I hummed a few bars too, loud enough for them to here.
The group of youngsters all turned to look at me. There was a brief pause, they all smiled at me, and I smiled back. Then they hummed louder as they walked away.
The sign might have said Dubrovnik, but we were in King’s Landing, and we all knew it.