ICE AND FIRE
In the age of GPS and Google Maps, there is only one cartographer who can get away with saying: “Here, there be dragons.” He is George RRMartin, author of A Song of Fire and Ice, the medieval fantasy on which the HBO television series Game of Thrones is based.
If the continents of Westeros, Essos and Sothoryos are figments of his imagination, their realisations on screen are usually a little easier to pinpoint. The Causeway Coast of Northern Ireland, Dubrovnik and Malta have all featured in previous series.
Now, in season six, Spain steps forward as the background to sword fights and sorcery. Among the places to feature is the extraordinary landscape in Navarre, in the north, called Las Bardenas Reales. It has become the vast Dothraki Sea, home to wandering hordes of khalasars. Expect it now to be overrun by fans taking selfies.
It wasn’t until January this year that I heard the GoT team had followed many other filmmakers into Las Bardenas. I first came across the place in 2008 in pictures of a sandy-red landscape of pinnacles and canyons and sunburnt cracked clay, a mini Monument Valley on the continent of Europe.
“Yes, that’s the Bardena Blanca, the bit everyone goes to,” Mikel Ollo tells my wife and me when we arrive in Navarre. “They drive in from the west, spend an hour or two there, take some pictures, and move on. They don’t For Game of Thrones’ sixth series, Spain is serving as something of a land of ice and fire.
In addition to Las Bardenas Reales (which also featured in the James Bond film The World Is Not Enough), locations used by the GoT team for filming were: • The 11th-century castle of Santa Florentina in Canet de Mar, on the coast of Catalonia. • The barri vell (old quarter), still partly protected by medieval walls, in Girona. • The warren of alleys and lanes in the fortified promontory of Peniscola, on the Costa del Azahar, north of Valencia. • The Alcazaba (probably the best surviving example of Moorish military fortification) in Almeria, Andalucia. • The castle of Zafra, in Guadalajara (begun in 1437), which was the palace of the Dukes of Feria and is now a parador (heritage hotel).
Game of Thrones season six is shown on Foxtel’s Showcase, at 11am and 7.30pm Mondays.
bother with the rest of the Bardenas.” Mikel, based in Pamplona, is used to people who don’t bother with the rest. Every July he has bookings from tourists intent on running with the bulls. Many stay only one night and, even when they’ve bought a package that includes a guided walking tour, often don’t take it. They don’t bother with Cafe Iruna, a gorgeous remnant of the 19th century (Ernest Hemingway took his coffee there), let alone with the 14th-century cloister of the cathedral, one of the world’s finest examples of Gothic architecture.
Mikel makes sure we see both, and taste plenty of the vegetables for which Navarre is famous. In the hilltop village of Ujue, where his family has a house, he introduces us to Juana at Urrutia restaurant, who insists we eat the early white asparagus her husband has earmarked for himself. Over four nights we see quite a lot not just of the Bardenas but of the region, which is not large but has a history of punching above its weight. It briefly dominated the whole of Christian Spain in the 11th century and still likes to style itself in its tourist literature as Reyno (Kingdom) de Navarra.
But the Bardenas comes first. It lies in the southeast of Navarre, a vast steppe of 42,100ha between the River Aragon, to the north, and the River Ebro (alongside which we walk a stretch of the GR99 nature trail), to the southwest. It divides roughly into three areas. In the north is El Plano, an almost flat, elevated plateau and, in the middle, La Bardena Blanca. In the south, La Negra, the highest part, rises to almost 670m. We spend the best part of a few days exploring all three in Mikel’s 4WD, staying in between at Aire de Bardenas, a hotel just outside the park that has the air of a moon base but isn’t short of mod cons.
The Bardenas are Reales (Royal) because they were once the patrimony of the kings of Navarre, but no source