I HAVE just returned from a Game of Thrones walking tour of Dubrovnik, taking in the many filming locations, sights and sounds with a friendly local guide.
Yes, in lockdown. And yes, at a time when overseas travel is a rarity thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic that has left much of the travel trade in dire straits.
What’s more, it was without leaving my living room here in the UK’s Midlands region – and did I mention that it was for free, although it was so good that I left a tip?
Because this was a virtual walking tour hosted by exciting new British company Virtualtrips, now rebranded as heygo. Not a pre-recorded video but a real-time live amble through Dubrovnik’s beautiful streets with my guide, Nikola.
He’s been a local tour guide since 2006, and clearly knows his stuff. His only regret is that season one of the show was filmed in Malta. He’s a big Sean Bean fan and would love to show you where his character Ned Stark was beheaded.
Members of the tour group chatted with him, and with each other, throughout. If we wanted to look at something particular, he’d stop and show us. If we wanted to get a special shot, he’d tee it up so we could save it as a postcard.
The hour-long tour started at the city’s West Harbour, with views of the pier and of the giant fortresses that stand either side of the storm-tossed sea.
This was the setting for Blackwater Bay in the HBO swords and dragons series. From here we could look up at Lovrijenac Fort, better known to fans as The Red Keep.
It’s amazing what a little CGI can add to a scene…
We called in at Pile Harbour, close to the old city walls, where Cersei waited for Myrcella’s return, and took the path followed by Joffrey’s entourage through the Pile Gate.
Nikola showed us where Joffrey was hit in the face by dung hurled by an angry crowd, and where his guards slaughtered anyone within reach.
From there, we walked along narrow streets on marble paths, eventually reaching the flight of steps which climb to the Baroque Church of St Ignatius.
It was here that one of Game of Thrones’ most sensational scenes was filmed, Cersei’s naked ‘walk of shame’ fuelling headlines around the world.
“Lena Headey didn’t have to walk naked herself,” says Nikola. “It was a double because Lena was pregnant at the time.
“They filmed it very early in the morning while the streets were quiet, and blocked off the square below with screens. People living on the street were sworn to secrecy.
“They were paid crazy amounts of money and had to sign non-disclosure agreements so that the show makers could keep the scene secret.”
There are good-humoured asides throughout our tour. Nikola watched the infamous scene from the screen at the end of the street, he grins.
At each stop he shows us stills from the show, putting each location in its King’s Landing context.
The Game of Thrones phenomenon has been a huge boost for the city, he adds, bringing in as many as 300,000 extra visitors a year, all of them fans of the series.
Financially, it has been a huge boost too. During filming, traders and some of the 1,000 people who still live within the city walls were paid big money to shut up shop during filming.
It wasn’t always like that. Before the show became a worldwide hit, city authorities limited filming to early hours lest it should interfere with day-to-day life, Nikola reveals.
Crews would arrive as dawn broke, hastily erect sets and then had to get shooting done by 8am, he says. Things changed as the series grew and grew, and its benefits became more apparent.
“People used to come off the cruise ships and see the Lannister banners flying on the fortress and ask if it was our national flag,” he smiles. “They thought it was very nice!”
And although Dubrovnik came to know and love many members of the Game of Thrones entourage, there was one person in particular who stole hearts – Tyrion Lannister.
“You’d see members of the cast about town during filming,” says Nikola. “Peter Dinklage might buy you a drink. He’d go into a bar and say ‘The drinks are on me!’.
“We all love him here…”
Nikola’s tour is just one of many operated by Virtualtrips, a UK start-up founded by pals John Tertan and Liam Garrison in lockdown. It’s fast going places – quite literally – and has already attracted a growing worldwide audience.
It’s a travel specific live-streaming platform which allows local guides to share the places they know best with the hope that it can bring people around the world closer together.
“It’s been incredible to see people from places like Wisconsin, Delhi or New Zealand come together for a shared experience, one where they can connect with family, friends and even total strangers across timezones, borders and socio-economic backgrounds,” says Liam.
“The team has been swept away by the energy and enthusiasm of every guide we’ve worked with. Their commitment, unique perspectives and fun personalities have made each tour a special experience.”
More than 200 joined our walking tour of Dubrovnik, judging by the number shown on the live chat column which runs down the side of the screen. Want to do the tour with friends? Simply share the link.
There’s also an expandable map so you can see exactly where you are. Best of all, the trips are free, although there’s the opportunity to leave a tip.
The Virtualtrips calendar is packed with tours all round the world, ranging from Luxor to New York. Want to look round the Plaosan Temple in Yogyakarta? It’s here.
Closer to home are walking tours of London, Birmingham, Oxford and Edinburgh. For film fans, there are more Game of Thrones and Harry Potter-themed walks coming up.
See the full list of trips here. Note that you need to book because some of the tours sell out quickly. And then the world awaits, even in lockdown.