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How Game of Thrones Producers fell in love with Spanish City Tudela
It must be difficult being a Game of Thrones writer. Difficult to find gruesome new ways to maim and kill people. The show’s millions of fans aren’t going to be kept happy with routine beheadings and disembowelments, with a penectomy thrown in for fun. So what’s a writer to do once season six rolls round?
The first five series were filmed in some of Europe’s most spectacular locations, from Iceland and Croatia to Malta and Northern Ireland, creating a tourist boom in many places as fans stalked Jon Snow and co. Perhaps that’s why the producers chose an area near the city of Tudela in the northern Spanish region of Navarra as one of the key new filming locations for the latest season.
The carvings at the Portal of the Last Judgement, one of the entrances to the city’s cathedral, make Game of Thrones look like the Teletubbies. There are images here to inspire even the most jaded of writers. Grinning devils pour boiling oil down the throats of sinners, while children are thrown into vats of oil above roaring fires. I soon lost count of the number of impalings depicted.
Morbid fascination kept me staring for half an hour or so until, suitably terrified by my own probable fate, I entered the 13th-century cathedral itself, which has a particularly beautiful cloister with intricate stone carvings a damn sight less frightening than the portal. The cathedral and the quiet, historic streets of Tudela were fascinating but they weren’t the real reason Game of Thrones came to Navarra.
Just outside town lie the badlands of Bardenas Reales natural park, an extraordinary semi-desert landscape where water and wind has carved canyons, plateaus and fantastical shapes out of the clay, chalk and sandstone. Most arresting are the towers of stone, cabezos, which rear up out of the dry, white plain and scream out to be put on film.
It was a startling, surreal sight made all the more so by the military helicopter that suddenly appeared out of a giant cloud of dust and hovered menacingly above my parked car. Driving off seemed a bit, well, reckless so I sat and waited until it whirred away. Then a string of gleaming BMW motorbikes roared into view, followed by a team of black-clad assistants who quickly set up a photoshoot.
The park encourages the suspension of disbelief; leaked photos from the filming of Game of Thrones here last year reveal principal character Daenerys, memorably titled Breaker of Chains and Mother of Dragons, with her followers (hundreds of local people were recruited as extras – the casting invitation specified fit bodies and no hipster haircuts), and, after a few days in the park, I wouldn’t have been that surprised to see her three angry dragons perched on top of dramatic Cabezo de Castildetierra, right at the heart of the filming location.
Bardenas is about 45km by 24km and crisscrossed by walking, cycling and driving routes which visitors must stick to. The terrain may look tough and barren but it’s a fragile ecosystem that sustains a huge variety of wildlife; it draws birdwatchers from around the world and I spotted a golden eagle riding the thermals above a ridge. There’s an added incentive to follow the rules: a Spanish air force bombing range is plumb in the middle of the park and the shattered remains of tanks lie just a few hundred metres from the road.
Hundreds of wind turbines stand on the hills surrounding the park, powered by the cierzo, a cold, dry wind from the north, and, alongside many acres of solar panels, help to make Navarra one of the greenest places in Europe: around 70% of its electricity needs are met by renewables.
It’s not one of Spain’s best-visited areas and most of the tourists that do make it to Navarra never get beyond Pamplona before heading north to Bilbao and San Sebastián. But there’s lots to love in the south. The Ebro river runs close to the Bardenas park and makes the land by its banks exceptionally fertile – people take their vegetables seriously in these parts. Each spring in Tudela there’s a festival devoted to all things green, red, yellow etc, the Jornadas de Exaltación y Fiestas de la Verdura (running until 1 May).
The counters of bars and restaurants in Tudela are laden with fresh produce, from artichokes to peppers and borrage to pochas (a variety of haricot bean). I propped up the bar at Casa Alberto (Calle Muro 27) and had delicious cogollos de lechuga (baby lettuce hearts) with anchovies, a real local speciality, for a few euros. Trinquete, on Calle Trinquete, (starters from around €6, mains €12) was highly recommended to me for sensational seasonal vegetables from the area but I failed to book a table, missed out and still regret it.
There was no chance I was going to miss out on another product this area prides itself on: wine. Viticulture has history here: the industry grew in the 12th century to meet the demands of thirsty pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago, which passes through Navarra. It was most famous for rosés but most of its vineyards now concentrate on red grape varieties. There is no accommodation in Bardenas, so I booked a room half an hour’s drive away at Pago de Cirsus, handily a hotel and a vineyard. It stands on a hill and its square tower is a landmark, looking like a castle that has dominated the landscape for centuries – the less romantic reality is that it’s a new-build.
I wandered the estate in the late afternoon, passing rows of tempranillo, syrah and merlot before returning to the hotel for a wonderful meal. My room was on the top floor of the tower and the next morning I had a spectacular view out across the vineyard and beyond. Yes, the building was a fake and I wasn’t a member of the Night’s Watch, but that didn’t stop my imagination running a little wild. Weren’t those White Walkers I could see in the distance?
Source: Richard Eilers, The Guardian