Girona ups its Game
The popular series Game of Thrones opens the doors to Catalunya’s second city, in Spain
The most emblematic spot in the walled city of Girona is the cathedral, whose grand nave is the widest Gothic space of its kind in the world. But although its architectural attributes are immediately apparent, there’s another reason why visitors are flocking to its doors: the cathedral’s starring role in Game of Thrones. Fans of the immensely popular HBO series quickly recognize that the 93 stairs leading to the church are the same ones that Jaime Lannister ascended on horeseback. And its facade and bell tower are the ones that, thanks to some fantastic special effects, blew sky high at the end of the sixth season.
“That scene was so emotional for me because it so clearly is Girona,” says official city guide Rosa Duran, a passionate storyteller with unbounded knowledge of the medieval history of the Catalan city that is located about 40 minutes from Barcelona by car or train.
Spain will again serve as a location for Game of Thrones in the seventh season, which debuts July 16 on HBO (See sidebar). And although we can’t expect to see the Girona cathedral in the new episodes, since it was “killed off” with the explosion of the Great Sept of Baelor - the Game of Thrones effect can still be felt in Girona, the medieval jewel that represented the Braavos and King’s Landing worlds in the sixth season.
“Girona is totally recognizable in the series. They didn’t have to change anything,” says Duran, adding that there were “incredible coincidences between Game of Thrones and historic moments in Girona,” even including similarities to the character Cersei Lannister.
“Era Ermesinde of Carcassonne was a countess who rose to the highest power, financed the Girona cathedral, and installed her borther as a bishop,” notes Duran.
The Game's Impact
That story, and many others can be re-lived during a tour of Girona, whose Toursim Office registered 12% more visitors in 2016 than in the previous year, with a rise of 74% during the month of July, just after last season finished airing.
“There are parallels between Game of Thrones and the history of Girona,” concurs Carlos Ribas, Director of Cultural Affairs for the city. “That’s why they found so many locations for the shoot.
“This city lies in what was once called ‘no man’s land’ – between French territories and the kingdom of the Catholic Monarchs. It’s a city that was the site of territorial struggles, and one that was historically involved in battles.” Something like a real-life Game of Thrones.
Ribas reveals that the shooting injected more than three million euros into the local economy. Hundreds of extras were chosen in an open casting call for roles as soldiers, beggars, market sellers and members of a multitude that gathered together in front of the cathedral.
“It was one of the most beautiful shoots I’ve been involved in,” says Peter Welter, the Executive Producer at Fresco Film, based in Málaga, who oversees locations for Game of Thrones in Spain. He and his team spent three months in Girona preparing for the production and enjoying the city; especially its food.
“For me, Girona is the best city in Spain for food and restaurants,” he enthuses. “I think it’s something that had a part in convincing everyone to shoot here.”
Walking Behind the Scenes
Beyond the cathedral and its steps, the filming also took place in the city’s Arab Baths, the Archeological Museum, lwhich is housed in a former monestary, and in the narrow streets of the old Jewish Quarter.
“Here we live medieval history,” Duran says of this unique zone of the city, where from the year 898 until the XIV Century Christians lived together with Jewish neighbors, whose ties with Girona and their tragic fate during the Spanish Inquisition is told in detail at the Jewish History Museum. “It’s living patrimony.”
Incredibly, the monuments and streets that attracted HBO to the city, including the cathedral, were undervalued for centuries. After the Spanish Inquisition, which expelled the Jews in the 15th Century, the neighborhood fell into decay.
“The people with less economic means lived next to the cathedral,” explains Councilwoman Gloria Plana, who heads the Girona Tourism Office. In streets like Bisbe Cartaña where a blind Arya Stark begs for coins in an episode of Game of Thrones, the poor and displaced could also be found in real life.
It was not until the 1980s that the city began to reabilitate the zone with a socially-minded urban plan.
“They wanted to keep this from becoming like an amusement park,” Plana says. “It was important that people from Girona live there. And we try for the tourists to co-exist with Girona’s residents.
“Girona is a lot more than Game of Thrones,” adds Plana, who wants to put emphasis on the calendar of cultural festivals and the offerings for cyclists and other outdoor sports lovers that can be found on the city government’s web site.
Sitting at the Café L’Arc, a bohemian cafe just in front pf the cathedral, Duran takes out her tablet and shows a video of the scene where Lannister rides the horse up the steps. It’s one of some 15 scenes that tourists can see during the Game of Thrones tour (email@example.com). For Duran, the story of the filming of the series has become one more layer of the long and rich history of Girona.
“It’s a key moment for the city,” adds Duran. “We have to talk about Game of Thrones.” American Airlines flies to Barcelona and Madrid
More of Spain is coming
Peter Welter of Fresco Film, responsible for scouting Iberian locations for the series, reveals that a location in Spain will be seen in every episode of the seventh season.
“It’s really clear that the variety of architectural and climatic landscapes can represent many different territories and places in Game of Thrones,” he says. “They can film many worlds, all in Spain.”
Almodóvar del Río Castle
About a 30-minute drive from Córdoba, this spectacular XIV-Century castle was built on the remains of an Arab fortress.
Malpartida de Cáceres
Huge, irregularly-shaped granite boulders create the mystical landscape of Los Barruecos, near the city of Cáceres in Extremadura.
San Juan de Gaztelugache Hermitage
Visitors must climb hundreds of stairs to reach the breathtaking hermitage built on a small rock islet on the Basque coast.
The municipality of Trujillo in Cáceres province, whose castle dates back to the ninth century, is considered one of the most beautiful places in Spain.
Girona, Gourmet City
The Game of Thrones production crew’s favorites include: Brots de Vi, Arros y Peix, La Simfonia, Syrah and Zanpanzar, all in the historic district. At the wine bar Placa de Vi 7, fresh-caught fish and seafood is accompanied by a selection of natural wines. To top it off, the sweet tribute to Jaime Lannister at the Rocambolesc ice cream parlor reproduces the character’s hand –which was violently severed in the series–as a frozen confection made from mango and blood oranges.