The Dark Hedges are not easy to find.
You must follow a serpentine road along a bucolic stretch of Northern Ireland, past sheep and glens and yellow fields of rapeseed until somewhere between the sleepy towns of Ballycastle and Ballymoney — if you keep your eyes peeled and your foot off the gas pedal — you spot a shadowy lane flanked by centuries-old beech trees. These are the Dark Hedges. Their sinewy branches twist toward the sky like the many arms of the Indian goddess Durga. The highest boughs stretch across the lane to the trees on the opposite side, their leaves overlapping, eclipsing the sun. Locals say this place is haunted by a solitary ghost known as the Grey Lady.
But lately she’s had company.
“No one ever used to come here,” said David McAnirn, a tour guide, on a rare balmy June morning. “Now hundreds come each day.”
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The reason for the deluge? It was written on the T-shirts of a handful of tourists snapping photos amid the Hedges: “Game of Thrones.”
Chronicling a war among dynasties for an Iron Throne in the imaginary land of Westeros, the HBO fantasy series is a cult hit suffused with intrigue, sex and moody landscapes. The latter is making Northern Ireland a magnet for fans who want to visit places like the Dark Hedges, which appear in the premiere of Season 2 when Arya Stark, a noble girl masquerading as a boy, flees in a cart from her enemies. Or Cushendun, the rocky beach where, later in that season, the priestess Melisandre gives birth in a cave to a supernatural assassin.
The Northern Ireland Tourist Board has been enticing viewers to visit these and other splendors with a “Game of Thrones” filming locations guide on its blog (“Explore the real world of Westeros”) and promotions for “Game of Thrones” exhibition in the spring at the Ulster Museum and at the Titanic Belfast museum.
After all, a film or television series can raise a country’s profile. New Zealand has “Lord of the Rings.” Sweden has “Wallander” and “Millennium.” But the success of “Game of Thrones,” which begins filming Season 4 this month in Northern Ireland, is particularly welcome and poignant in the capital, Belfast, which for decades had been synonymous with strife.
More than 3,500 people were killed in the sectarian fighting between British loyalists (mainly Protestants) and Irish nationalists (mostly Roman Catholics) between 1969 and the Good Friday peace agreement in 1998. The rest of the world, including people in neighboring Ireland, stayed away.
“For most of my life I was in a film set,” said McAnirn, who was a teenager in Belfast during those years. “And it was a horror movie.”
These days, the city (and beyond) has changed. There’s the year-old Titanic Belfast museum, which tells the story of how Belfast once built the biggest ship in the world; the recently restored S.S. Nomadic, an original tender ship to the Titanic that transported the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Elizabeth Taylor; and the new visitor center at the Giant’s Causeway, a pillar-like seaside rock formation that is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
That’s not to say the past is buried. This is a country of ghosts. And there are still sporadic clashes. In December, violence erupted for weeks when the Belfast council decided to cut back on the flying of the Union Jack, prompting protests from some British loyalists. The fences and walls (some 30 feet tall) that separate Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods outside the city center remain. And gates that allow passage between the neighborhoods are still sealed at certain hours.
Ballintoy to Belfast
Back in the “Game of Thrones” fantasy, one of the most idyllic spots shown in the series is Ballintoy Harbour, built in the 1700s and still a working harbor, located 60 miles north of Belfast. You won’t see obvious vestiges of the show, but this is where in Season 2 Theon Greyjoy returns to the Iron Islands. It is also where he meets the surly crew of his ship, the Sea Bitch.
Even the most dedicated “Game of Thrones” tourist will find that Northern Ireland is more than a film set. Belfast, for instance, was once renowned for shipbuilding and the Titanic was built in the city 100 years ago.
In homage to its shipbuilding prowess, Belfast has spent the last few years erecting an entire quarter dedicated to its maritime history. At the center of it all is Titanic Belfast, billed as “the world’s largest Titanic visitor experience.” That experience includes nine galleries that follow the life of the Titanic from its construction to its sinking in 1912.
“Game of Thrones” uses the nearby Titanic Studios, which consists of Paint Hall studio and two new 24,000-square-foot sound stages used in Season 3. While visitors can’t freely tour them, they can easily see the studios from the Titanic Belfast grounds and imagine the epic “Thrones” clashes.