Game of Thrones producer Chris Newman says it’s almost as if author George RR Martin had northern Iceland in mind when he was dreaming up the world behind the hit television show.
Peering out the window of our tour bus as we wind our way through the region’s desolate, snow-covered landscapes, it’s hard to disagree.
“It’s not alpine, it’s forbidding,” says Newman, explaining how the area came to be a prominent filming location for the fantasy series. “It’s almost as though George Martin (writer of the Song of Ice and Fire books, on which the show is based) knew about Iceland when he was writing these scenes.
“Whatever infected his writing, it was very easy for us to put it here.”
I’m en route from Akureyri, the nation’s northern capital, to Lake Myvatn and its surrounds as part of the Game of Thrones Iceland: Beyond the Wall tour. Iceland is one of a host of countries used to film the show and the tour is an example of how local tourism has become a beneficiary.
It is the brainchild of Jon Thor Benediktsson, also our guide and driver, and from humble beginnings he says its popularity is booming on the back of the show’s success. The trip centres around filming locations used to depict the area in the show north of ‘The Wall’, a colossal fortification which guards the Seven Kingdoms from the Wildlings and White Walkers who live beyond.
Benediktsson says the tour is now attracting around 80 visitors a month and they range from Game of Thrones tragics to those who haven’t seen an episode. I sit somewhere in between, closer to the latter, but I quickly realise an extensive knowledge of the series isn’t required to appreciate this region’s raw beauty.
Our first stop is at the spectacular Godafoss Waterfall (waterfall of the Gods), not yet a filming location but one that feels like it would be suited perfectly. I’d seen photos taken in summer but witnessing the powerful horseshoe-shaped falls caked in snow made it even more majestic. It’s cold – almost zero degrees Celsius with a stiff breeze – but Iceland’s climate is not as brutal as I once thought.
We continue on around the perimeter of the shallow Lake Myvatn to Dimmuborgir to see locations used during the filming of the show’s third season. A brief walk through the lumpy terrain is required to reach our destination and I’m thankful I purchased some thermal snow boots a week earlier.
The journey provides me with a great appreciation of the logistics involved in filming at such a remote location, sometimes with a cast and crew exceeding 200. In a picturesque setting amid unusual lava rock formations, we see where characters Jon Snow and Ygritte started their romance and the land they crossed with the Wildlings to reach The Wall.
Continuing on, we pick up another guide who tells about local customs and legends and the geological history of the volcanic landscape. We stop for a memorable lunch at the literally-named Vogafjos Cowshed Cafe and Guesthouse, where the dairy-producing cattle are housed next to the dining room.It is regularly used by the Game of Thrones cast and crew during shooting and I particularly enjoy the local geyser bread.
Next are the spectacular bubbling sulphur pits and steam vents at Hverir and we are told how they have been used for effect during filming. The water here is dangerously hot but we’re able to satisfy our geothermal urges at our final stop for the day, the Myvatn Nature Baths. The water is rich in minerals and around 40C, though it’s cooler in some spots and even hotter in others. With an ale in hand, this feels like the perfect ending to the day.
With the afternoon winter darkness descending we travel back to Akureyri, a charming city featuring many impressive churches and some excellent local eateries. During our first night we ate at the esteemed Strikid restaurant, with harbour views and some Icelandic delicacies including fermented shark and minke whale.
The tour includes several nights to enjoy and explore both Akureyri and Reykjavik, where we return to on an easy 45-minute flight. The city centre of Iceland’s capital is fairly small but interesting with its quirky, colourful houses, and there are plenty of good options for dining and drinking.
Newman says his experience filming two previous projects in Iceland convinced him it would be a perfect fit for Game of Thrones and it’s likely the country will remain an important part of the series’ production. An increasingly popular location for filmmakers, Icelandic tourism operators have reported a spike in interest in the wake of recent projects filmed on the Nordic island, including the Ben Stiller film The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.