The ultimate ‘Game of Thrones’ travel guide

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The Castillo de Almodóvar del Río is in Córdoba. (Shutterstock)
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Dimmuborgir crops up in Icelandic folklore.
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Thingvellir National Park is stunning during the winter months.
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Downhill Strand is one of the longest stretches of sand in Northern Ireland.
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San Juan de Gaztelugatxe in Spain boasts incredible views.
Updated 26 August 2017
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The ultimate ‘Game of Thrones’ travel guide

DUBAI: It is fair to assume that many readers will be somewhat familiar with the ultra-popular saga “Game of Thrones.” It just wrapped up its seventh, penultimate, season, which had more than 25 million viewers in the US alone last year. That is not including global viewership, nor the astounding records being broken for pirated downloads, with several outlets reporting it to be the most-torrented TV program around the world.
Based on George R. R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” book series, the hit show has created a fresh crop of stars in a variety of roles, but the real scene-stealing characters are often the epic landscapes, quaint castles and other-wordly towns — all entirely tangible places across Europe and North Africa. Here are three regions from season seven where Game of Thrones super fans can book a ticket and go bend the proverbial knee.
The location: Highgarden
Country: Spain

Farewell, Queen of Thorns. We all loved Olenna Tyrell, all the way until she met her fate at the hands and poisoned chalice of Jaime Lannister. The aged but vivacious Tyrell would do anything for her family but sadly was not able to defend Highgarden, the historic seat of House Tyrell, famed for its complex maze and fertile surroundings.
The castle: Castillo de Almodóvar del Río  
The real-life location, on the banks of the river Guadalquivir in the Andalusian province of Córdoba, is equally impressive. The castle dates date to the 8th century when the Moors ruled the Iberian Peninsula, harking back to an era in Europe that truly reflected the bloody feuds in the “World of Ice and Fire.” The good news is the location is open to the public and you can visit the lofty towers and the castle’s dungeons.
The location: Beyond the Wall
Country: Iceland

Hordes of “Free Folk” were united beyond the wall by Mance Rayder and almost besieged Castle Black in season four but were held at bay by Lord Commander Snow and later overrun by Stannis Baratheon’s forces. More recently, Snow and his fellowship of allies returned to kidnap a zombie “wight” for evidence of the war to end all wars.
Some of the show’s most incredible snowy scenes were shot in Iceland. In fact, the “Game of Thrones effect” has been linked to Iceland’s spike in visitor numbers, from 566,000 in 2011, the year it premiered, to more than one million by 2015 — and there are plenty of dedicated travel packages on offer.
Mance Rayder’s camp: Dimmuborgir
In the real world, the main Wildling camp was just south of the town of Húsavik in a lava field with distinctive rock formations. Dimmuborgir is deeply entwined with Icelandic folklore and was believed to be the home of murderous trolls — somehow fitting for a violent fantasy show.
The cave: Grjótagjá
When Jon Snow first went beyond the wall he shared a memorable moment with his redheaded friend, Ygritte, at Grjótagjá, a natural hot spring. The small lava cave near Lake Mývatn is in northeast Iceland and the spring can reach temperatures of 50°C even during the winter months.
Sweeping landscapes: Thingvellir National Park
When not buried under meters of snow, some of the Icelandic filming locations are popular summertime getaways. Thingvellir is a UNESCO World Heritage Site where the Alþingi (the national parliament of Iceland) was established more than one thousand years ago in 930 AD. Fans can even find real shards of “dragonglass” here — pieces of cooled lava known as obsidian.
The location: Dragonstone
Countries: Northern Ireland and Spain

The birthplace of Daenerys Targaryen has cropped up a few times throughout the show, both as the stronghold of the ill-fated Stannis Baratheon and where the “mother of dragons” sets up base on her return to Westeros. What is potentially confusing is that “Dragonstone” is not only the name of the castle, but also the island itself, which lies at the outer edge of the fictional Blackwater Bay.
The beach: Downhill Strand, Northern Ireland
Stannis “The Mannis” Baratheon and his devout adviser Melisandre burned wooden idols on this beach in County Londonderry. One of the longest stretches of sand in Northern Ireland at 11km, it is overlooked by the tiny Mussenden Temple.
The footbridge: San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, Spain
One of the filming units for season seven set up camp near Bilbao, on the north coast of Spain, to film several scenes on the incredible islet. It is far more secluded and peaceful than the likes of Madrid and Barcelona — for now.


Iraqis turn to budding ecotourism to save marshes

Updated 22 May 2019
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Iraqis turn to budding ecotourism to save marshes

  • The Mesopotamian marshes are a rare aquatic ecosystem in a country nearly half of which is covered in cracked desert
  • Legend has it, they were home to the biblical Garden of Eden

CHIBAYISH, Iraq: Thirty years after Saddam Hussein starved them of water, Iraq’s southern marshes are blossoming once more thanks to a wave of ecotourists picnicking and paddling down their replenished river bends.
A one-room home made of elaborately woven palm reeds floats on the river surface. Near it, a soft plume of smoke curls up from a firepit where carp is being grilled, Iraqi-style.
A few canoes drift by, carrying couples and groups of friends singing to the beat of drums.
“I didn’t think I would find somewhere so beautiful, and such a body of water in Iraq,” said Habib Al-Jurani.
He left Iraq in 1990 for the United States, and was back in his ancestral homeland for a family visit.

Tourists sit in a canoe as they are shown around the marshes of the southern Iraqi district of Chibayish in Dhi Qar province, about 120 kilometers northwest of the southern city of Basra, on March 29, 2019. (AFP)

“Most people don’t know what Iraq is really like — they think it’s the world’s most dangerous place, with nothing but killings and terrorism,” he said.
Looking around the lush marshes, declared in 2016 to be Iraq’s fifth UNESCO World Heritage site, Jurani added: “There are some mesmerizing places.”
Straddling Iraq’s famous Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the Mesopotamian marshes are a rare aquatic ecosystem in a country nearly half of which is covered in cracked desert.
Legend has it, they were home to the biblical Garden of Eden.
But they were also a haven for political opposition to dictator Saddam Hussein, who cut off water to the site in retaliation for the south’s uprising against him in 1991.
Around 90 percent of the once-expansive marshes were drained, and the area’s 250,000 residents dwindled down to just 30,000.

This picture taken on March 29, 2019 shows geese swimming in the marshes of the southern Iraqi district of Chibayish in Dhi Qar province, about 120 kilometers northwest of the southern city of Basra. (AFP)

In the ensuing years, severe droughts and decreased water flows from the twin rivers’ source countries — Turkey and Iran — shrunk the marshes’ surface from some 15,000 square kilometers to less than half that.
It all culminated with a particularly dry winter last year that left the “ahwar,” as they are known in Arabic, painfully parched.
But heavier rains this year have filled more than 80 percent of the marshes’ surface area, according to the United Nations, compared to just 27 percent last year.
That has resurrected the ancient lifestyle that dominated this area for more than 5,000 years.
“The water returned, and with it normal life,” said 35-year-old Mehdi Al-Mayali, who raises water buffalo and sells their milk, used to make rich cream served at Iraqi breakfasts.

Wildlife including the vulnerable smooth-coated otter, Euphrates softshell turtles, and Basra reed warbler have returned to the marshlands — along with the pickiest of all species: tourists.
“Ecotourism has revived the ‘ahwar’. There are Iraqis from different provinces and some foreigners,” Mayali said.
A day in the marshes typically involves hiring a resident to paddle a large reed raft down the river for around $25 — not a cheap fare for Iraq.
Then, lunch in a “mudhif” or guesthouse, also run by locals.
“Ecotourism is an important source of revenue for those native to the marshes,” said Jassim Assadi, who heads Nature Iraq.
The environmental activist group has long advocated for the marshes to be better protected and for authorities to develop a long-term ecotourism plan for the area.

An Iraqi boy pets cattle by the marshes of the southern district of Chibayish in Dhi Qar province, about 120 kilometers northwest of the southern city of Basra, on March 29, 2019. (AFP)

“It’s a much more sustainable activity than the hydrocarbon and petroleum industry,” said Assadi, referring to the dominant industry that provides Iraq with about 90 percent of state revenues.
The numbers have steadily gone up in recent years, according to Assaad Al-Qarghouli, tourism chief in Iraq’s southern province of Dhi Qar.
“We had 10,000 tourists in 2016, then 12,000 in 2017 and 18,000 in 2018,” he told AFP.
But there is virtually no infrastructure to accommodate them.
“There are no tourist centers or hotels, because the state budget was sucked up by war the last few years,” Qarghouli told AFP.
Indeed, the Daesh group overran swathes of Iraq in 2014, prompting the government to direct its full attention — and the bulk of its resources — to fighting it back.

An Iraqi tourist grills fish by the marshes of the southern district of Chibayish in Dhi Qar province, about 120 kilometers northwest of the southern city of Basra, on March 29, 2019. (AFP)

Iraq’s government declared victory in late 2017 and has slowly begun reallocating resources to infrastructure projects.
Qarghouli said the marshes should be a priority, and called on the government to build “a hotel complex and touristic eco-village inside the marshes.”
Peak season for tourists is between September and April, avoiding the summer months of Iraq when temperatures can reach a stifling 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit).
But without a long-term government plan, residents worry that water levels will be hostage to fluctuating yearly rainfalls and shortages caused by Iranian and Turkish dams.
These dynamics have already damaged the marshes’ fragile ecosystem, with high levels of salination last year killing fish and forcing other wildlife to migrate.
Jurani, the returning expatriate, has an idea of the solution.
“Adventurers and nature-lovers,” he said, hopefully.