As I descend the stone staircase into the cellar below the fourth-century Diocletian’s Palace in Split, Croatia, I can swear I hear the rumble of a dragon. After all, I am in the Catacombs of Meereen, where Daenerys, the Mother of Dragons, keeps her three pets: a triumvirate of plus-sized fire-breathing winged beasts that are only loyal to her. Have I just walked straight into Game of Thrones in Croatia?
History fiends know this palace as the retirement home of Roman emperor Diocletian. One of the best-preserved monuments of Roman architecture, it’s more of a city than a palace, with a maze of streets revealing restaurants, shops and bars around every bend. But to Game of Thrones aficionados, this cavernous room in the palace basement is Daenerys’s lair, with high arched ceilings and white limestone columns that may or may not be hiding dragons in their shadows.
I’m in the midst of a DIY tour of Game of Thrones, the hit HBO series that depicts the civil war between nine noble families vying for the Iron Throne and control over Westeros. Parts of Split and Dubrovnik moonlight as mythical Westeros. And, despite the show’s dragons and direwolves, I’m fast approaching the realization that reality and fantasy easily marry in Croatia.
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Dungeons and dragons of Meereen
There’s one more site I have to see in Meer…, uh, I mean, Split. We drive 20 minutes north to Klis Fortress, which witnessed many bloody battles in its centuries-old history and stands as a symbol of the Dalmatians’ resistance against the Ottomans. But as soon as we turn the corner and the stone structure comes into view on the hilltop, it immediately transforms into the Game of Thrones city of Meereen, overlooking the Bay of Dragons.
I hop out of the car and ascend the stairs. Out of breath, I recover enough to yell out, “Injustice with justice!” just as Daenerys had done when she conquered the city. Beneath me, a horde of supporters roars in appreciation.
Then I open my eyes, and there’s just a gaggle of perplexed tourists looking up at me.
On the scenic drive down to Dubrovnik, we stop at the gardens of the Red Keep. Sticklers of reality know them as the Trsteno Arboretum, one of the oldest in this part of Europe. But as I stroll around the verdant gardens by the sea, I spy two people sitting under a gazebo. Is that Lady Olenna and Lord Varys discussing the fate of Sansa? I unsquint my eyes. No, it’s just a couple taking in the view of the shimmering Adriatic Sea. I sigh and stroll back to the car.
Kings and queens
We arrive at King’s Landing. Or, as it’s called in real life, Dubrovnik. I reach the elegant Baroque staircase known as the “Jesuit Stairs.” Most people use it to get from the intimate Gundulic Square to the 18th-century church of St. Ignatius of Loyola. But in Game of Thrones, Queen Cersei staggers down these steps in her walk of shame.
I stand at the bottom of the staircase, hoping a queen will suddenly emerge and descend the limestone steps toward me. Unfortunately, not today.
I head to Fort Lovrijenac outside the city walls. Perched atop a hill, this 16th-century fortress was built to protect Dubrovnik from invading fleets. The view of King’s Landing is spectacular from here. But my attention is pulled away by the sound of clashing metal. Could it be the epic sword fight in honour of King Joffrey? I look into the stone courtyard hoping to see the Mountain battle Oberyn. But alas, nothing.
That’s when it hits me: the best spot to be fully absorbed in a Game of Thrones reality. Thirty minutes later, I’m hopping off a boat on Lokrum Island, which doubles as the city of Qarth in the show. The uninhabited island boasts a fantastical history, with a popular legend involving a curse by Benedictine monks. But I’m here for one reason.
Walking into a small museum, and there it is, the Iron Throne itself, constructed of swords, in all its glory. I take a seat, my posture straight like a stack of gold dragon coins. I am the ruler of King’s Landing. Just me, my imagination and the ghosts of Game of Thrones.
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Cover photo pictures: Dubrovnik Tourist Board