What I did on my (last ever?) summer vacation

One year ago to the day tomorrow, I was in a small Volkswagen driving from Galway, Ireland to Belfast, Northern Ireland for the last few days of my family’s vacation driving around the aptly named “Emerald Isle.” After stopping in Derry for lunch, visiting the Giant’s Causeway, and the remains of my family’s castle (note: it was never my family’s castle), we made it to the handsome city of Belfast in time for my birthday dinner.

We spent most of the trip in Airbnbs, but in Belfast we opted to stay in a hotel, the Titanic Hotel, which is the actual office building of White Star Line, the company that built the Titanic. Across the street from the hotel is the newly built Titanic museum, and across a large parking lot from the hotel: the shipyard where the Titanic was built.

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The bar at the Titanic Hotel, the museum can be seen through the windows.

For whatever reason, it did not occur to me until we arrived that the shipyard where the Titanic was built, the shipyard across the parking lot from our hotel, is currently being repurposed: it is now Titanic Studios.

You know, where they filmed Game of Thrones.

you know nothing jon snow game of thrones

Now, this was late June of last year, so the series finale had aired a month earlier — meaning, I wasn’t going to catch a glimpse of Kit Harington or anyone else. But! They were in the middle of filming the now scrapped prequel, and, in fact, they were filming while we were there. Unfortunately, I did not bring my binoculars because, again, it did not occur to me until we arrived that the studio would be in my actual backyard.

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View of the studio from my hotel.

I did, however, obviously know that Game of Thrones filmed in the area, and despite the bitter taste still lingering in my mouth from that terrible series finale, I informed my family that for my birthday, all I wanted to do was go on an all-day Game of Thrones tour of locations. IT’S MY BIRTHDAY, WE DO WHAT I WANT.

And so, the next morning we got up, ate breakfast, and as my husband and sons lingered in the lobby, I went out to get a cab to take us into downtown where we were to catch our bus. The nice man who called the cab asked where we were going and when I explained we were going on a Game of Thrones tour, he replied, “you don’t need a cab — it’s right across the street.”

You guys. It turns out that not at Titanic Studios itself, but across the street from it is a convention hall that happened to be hosting “The Game of Thrones Experience,” a huge interactive exhibit of actual Game of Thrones props and costumes. I begged the man to NOT TELL MY FAMILY knowing that they would kill me with their bare hands if they found out I made them spend 8 hours on a bus tour when we could have spent 60, maybe 90 minutes at a museum exhibit instead.

SHHH.

So, we go downtown, and find our tour: There are many Game of Thrones tours in Northern Ireland, I opted for the Direwolf Tour, which is run by a family whose family pets were used as some of the show’s dire wolves, and which concludes with a chance to meet said dire wolves, believing that petting some dogs dire wolves might placate my sons.

It turns out, the Game of Thrones tours in Northern Ireland are often — if not always — lead by people who were on the show as extras. Our tour guide was Remi, who served as Grey Worm’s body double. He’s very cute. And, it turns out, he was all of 15 years old when Game of Thrones began filming right outside his smallish Northern Ireland town, Downpatrick.

The first location we went to was Inch Abbey, where they filmed the scenes in which Robb and Cat Stark learn that SPOILER ALERT! Ned was dead, and where Robb was named King in the North. It was during the filming of these scenes that a 15-year-old Remi stumbled onto the shoot while walking his dog and found himself thoroughly unimpressed, and unaware that what he was witnessing an event that was going to change his life and all of Northern Ireland.

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rob king in the north

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My large son wishing very much he was not there.

Oh, and there were crows EVERYWHERE. In fact, our tour bus hit a crow on the drive to Inch Abbey, which at the time felt very much like a bad omen, but ANOTHER SPOILER ALERT: no one lost their head on the trip.

Our next stop took us to Tollymore Forest Park, a stunningly beautiful park that reportedly inspired Narnia.

Tollymore Forest

It was here that the very first scene of Game of Thrones was shot — when the Night’s Watch find the village of wildings that has been slaughtered by the wights:

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game of thrones winter is coming wildings dead

And you’ll remember the small child that is found hanging from a tree? The one that turns into a wight?

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Her?

Here’s the hole in the tree from which they suspended her:

the tree hole game of thrones

Another fun fact: that actress was 18.

I KNOW.

And here’s the bridge and log where the Starks find the direwolf pups and their dead momma:

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game of thrones winter is coming direwolf pups

After some lunch where my large son expressed irritation at being forced into the house of Clegane …

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Did I mention the part where my son refuses to watch ‘Game of Thrones’ and had no idea what any of this meant?

… we visited Castle Ward, which served as one of the main filming locations.

It served as Winterfell in the first episode, including the tower where Cersei and Jaime had their tryst and threw Bran out the window:

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the things i do for love

There is also a stunning tower on the grounds that served as the Twins:

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game of thrones the twins

Also, at Old Castle Ward, my smaller son met an extremely friendly goat. I do not believe he was featured on the show, but I can’t be entirely certain.

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And then we finally met Thor and Odin, the stars of the show:

As you can clearly see, they could not have been less impressed to meet us.

Thor and Odin are Northern Inuit Dogs, a breed that was designed in the 1980s to be as genetically close as possible to wolves, while still being dogs. Right after the owners bought them from a breeder, they were contacted by the Game of Thrones production folks, asking if they could train and use their pups for the show. Odin played Summer, Bran’s direwolf, and Thor was GreyWind, Robb’s direwolf, although I believe they told us that Summer also occasionally played Ghost in the first season. Sadly, Odin passed away in March, at 10 years old.

Interestingly, the brothers who had adopted the dogs managed to turn Game of Thrones into the family business. They both starred as extras as wildings, one got a job in the casting department (and in fact, Remi is one of their childhood friends), their father was cast as a Dothraki chieftain, the show used one of their homemade Viking boats in the Hardhome scene, and then they monetized their dogs turning them into a tourist attraction.

And their story wasn’t an uncommon one in Northern Ireland — it very much seemed as though the country, having finally emerged from the Troubles in the last years of the 20th Century, embraced the project that became Game of Thrones with both hands. In fact, filming of the show and the tourism industry that has sprung up around it accounted for a full 17% of the country’s economy by some measures.

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A stained glass window in downtown Belfast honoring the series.

Which is wonderful! And when we were there, as I mentioned, they were filming the prequel series at Titanic Studios and in various locations across the county, with every intention to turn it into a new series.

And then Brexit was confirmed with the election of Boris Johnson.

Because Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom, the decision for the U.K. to leave the European Union has made Northern Ireland a much more risky bet for big productions like a Game of Thrones series — especially one that might be in production for ten years or more. I don’t know for a fact that this is one of the reasons HBO chose to not move forward with the prequel that was filming while we were there, but I will note that they have announced that the other prequel they did decide to move forward with will not be filming in Northern Ireland. I can’t help but imagine part of the thinking is that there is just too much economic uncertainty at this time.

But back to Game of Thrones stuff. After the tour, I revealed to my poor family that there was a museum exhibit across the street from our hotel, hahaha, and they received this news with a decent sense of humor.

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The remains of a burnt King’s Landing.

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So, the next morning (which was the day we were to leave Belfast) I got up early and went with my younger son to the exhibit, arriving the moment it opened, to beat the crowds. As it turned out, I needn’t have worried, as Henry and I were 2/3rds of the entire crowd.

I’ll just post the photos of the junk I saw — there’s not a whole lot of explaining to be done, honestly:

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It was also a fun interactive experience that allowed you to pose with replicas:

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Scale The Wall:

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Add your face to the Hall of Faces:

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And of course, sit on the Iron Throne:

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Honestly, the kid looks alarmingly comfortable there.

It is known.

WATCH THIS

FRIDAY

The 47th Daytime Emmy Awards: It took a global pandemic and for the television industry to shut down, but these awards are back on TV! 7 p.m., CBS

Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of the Fire Saga: Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams star in this parody of the almost unparodyable Eurovision Song Contest. But OK. Netflix

Pose: Pose-a-Thon for Pride: This is a virtual event with the cast and crew of Pose in celebration of Pride Month, which is terrific! But I saw “Pose-a-Thon” and I was hoping for, you know, some actual vogueing. 9 p.m., FX & Freeform

SATURDAY

Doctor Sleep: Ewan MacGregor stars as the all-grown-up Danny Torrance in this sequel to The Shining. 7 p.m., HBO

Global Goal: Unite for Our Future Concert: “A musical celebration of scientists, innovators, health workers, activists and organizations working to develop and distribute COVID-19 tests, treatments and vaccines.” Because singing at the virus will do something. SORRY, I’M JUST FEELING REALLY CYNICAL RIGHT NOW. 7 p.m., NBC

The Wrong House Sitter: In this Lifetime movie, a guy hires a house sitter who then decides to just move herself in. Wasn’t this the plot of that Steve Martin/Queen Latifah movie, Bringing Down the House? 7 p.m., Lifetime

SUNDAY

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: This six-part documentary follows the true-crime book of the same name by true-crime blogger Michelle MacNamara, and her pursuit of and obsession with The Golden State Killer. 9 p.m., HBO

Black Monday: It’s back. Mid-season premiere. 7 p.m., Showtime

2020 BET Awards: It’s the 20th annual awards show but the first time it will be held virtually. 7 p.m., BET

Penny Dreadful: City of Angels: The Vega family gathers for a Day of the Dead celebration in the season finale. 9 p.m., Showtime

Late Night:

  • Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon (Friday): Pierce Brosnan, Nicole Richie, Blackpink

 

FRI. 7:00 7:30 8:00 8:30 9:00 9:30
ABC Shark Tank
(repeat)
20/20
CBS The 47th Daytime Emmy Awards
(live)
Blue Bloods
(repeat)
CW Masters of Illusion
(new)
Masters of Illusion
(repeat)
Whose Line is it Anyway?
(repeat)
Whose Line is it Anyway?
(repeat)
Local
FOX Friday Night Smackdown Local
NBC World of Dance
(repeat)
The Wall
(repeat)
Dateline

SAT. 7:00 7:30 8:00 8:30 9:00 9:30 10:00 10:30 11:00 11:30
ABC AFV: America This is You!
(repeat)
Shark Tank
(repeat)
The Good Doctor
(repeat)
News/Local
CBS MacGyver
(repeat)
Magnum P.I.
(repeat)
48 Hours News/Local
FOX Gordon Ramsay’s 24 Hours to Hell and Back
(repeat)
LEGO Masters
(repeat)
News/Local
NBC Global Goal: Unite for Our Future Concert Saturday Night Live
(repeat)
News/
Local
Saturday Night Live
(repeat)

SUN. 6:00 6:30 7:00 7:30 8:00 8:30 9:00 9:30
ABC America’s Funniest Home Videos
(repeat)
Celebrity Family Feud
(new)
Press Your Luck
(new)
Match Game
(new)
CBS 60 Minutes 2020 BET Awards
(live)
The CW Local Stargirl
(repeat)
Penn & Teller: Fool Us
(repeat)
Local
FOX Last Man Standing
(repeat)
Duncan-ville
(repeat)
The Simp-sons
(repeat)
Bless the Harts
(repeat)
Bob’s Burgers
(repeat)
Family Guy
(repeat)
Local/News
NBC Hollywood Game Night
(new)
The Titan Games
(new)
America’s Got Talent
(repeat)
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