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.


Saudi Arabia, on Sweden Island, in Dubai

Updated 15 August 2018
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Saudi Arabia, on Sweden Island, in Dubai

  • Yes, you heard that correctly. The World archipelago is taking shape off Dubai
  • Saudis are the most prominent buyers of its first residences in the Heart of Europe, including the world’s first floating underwater villas

SWEDEN ISLAND, THE WORLD, Dubai: Billionaire investors from Saudi Arabia are reportedly snapping up a slice of Europe — minutes from Dubai’s coast — as development on a luxurious man-made archipelago gathers pace.

On the emirate’s “The World” archipelago, the Heart of Europe project provides a series of island destinations, made up of opulent palaces, island villas and 13 luxury hotels on six small islands. Each offers a different aspect of European life and aims to bring European hospitality “with a Maldivian twist” to the Middle East’s Arabian Sea.

According to its developer, Joseph Kleindienst, chairman of the Dubai property developer Kleindienst Group, wealthy investors across the Kingdom are among the most prominent buyers of the multimillion-dirham properties being developed on the island, with nearly a quarter of all investments (23 percent) to date being made by Saudi nationals.

“We have a very, very good interest from Saudis in the Heart of Europe project,” said Kleindienst, speaking to Arab News during a private tour of Sweden Island. “Here in Sweden Island, soon you will find very, very famous Saudi names. It is not for us to disclose these names, but later on, as the development grows, you will meet very interesting Saudis here.”

The Heart of Europe is the first big project to go ahead as part of The World project, a 60-square-kilometer archipelago of more than 200 islands laid out in the shape of a world map, which was created from millions of tons of sand and rock. Currently, Lebanon Island is the only one open to the public; it operates The World Island Beach Club.

Construction of the Heart of Europe project was due to begin in November 2008 but was delayed by the global financial crisis. Development finally began in 2014. The project’s value has grown from an initial Dh1.5 billion ($408 million) equity undertaking by Kleindienst Group to Dh5 billion ($1.36 billion) after sales.

 

On Monday thousands of workers at Heart of Europe were busy across the islands striving to get the project ready in time for the completion deadline of 2020, ahead of Dubai’s Expo; with an initial focus on Germany Island and Sweden Island.

The Heart of Europe has 10 beach palaces on Sweden, 32 beach villas on Germany and 131 “Floating Seahorse” villas, marketed as the world’s “first luxury underwater living experience.” 

Kleindienst expects that all of the homes for sale across the Heart of Europe project will be handed over by the end of this year. 

In total there are 4,000 residential and hotel units that will eventually be available across the project, about 1,000 of which have already been bought by investors, Kleindienst revealed. 

Besides handing over residences to owners by the end of the year, The Heart of Europe is slated to have the first of its planned hotel “soft openings,” at the Portofino Hotel in Italy, in December this year.

Lying about five kilometers (3.1 miles) off mainland Dubai, the Heart of Europe will feature classic Italian, Spanish, Swedish, Swiss and German architecture as well as landscaped gardens and streets that will, in some cases, feature artificial snow, due to advanced climate control technology. And, for those that miss the drizzly temperatures of Europe in the winter, some streets will also feature artificial rain. 

Sweden will feature 10 Scandinavian-style villas and, this week, the Kleindienst Group unveiled the first completed six-floor Sweden Beach Palace, which Arab News got a first look at.

With a price tag of Dh100million, the majestic villa comes fitted out Bentley Home interiors, equipped with seven plush bedrooms, a full gym and fitness center, an underground “snow room” that can be set as low as minus –5C, a Swedish massage room, an entertaining room and an observation deck — designed to mimic the upturned hull of a Viking boat — which provides 360-degree views of the Arabian Gulf.

Sweden will feature 10 villas in a Scandinavian style and, this week, the Kleindienst Group unveiled the first completed six-floor Sweden Beach Palace, which Arab News got a first look at.

With a price tag of Dh100million, the majestic villa comes fitted out Bentley Home interiors, equipped with seven plush bedrooms, a full gym and fitness centre, an underground “snow room” that can be set as low as minus –5C, a Swedish massage room, an entertaining room and an observation deck – designed to mimic the upturned hull of a Viking boat– which provides 360-degree views of the sprawling Arabian Gulf.

Each property has its own private section of beach. Uniquely the palaces fully-own a piece of the marine area plot, including a private coral reef.

Of the 10 that are for sale, three have already been bought by investors based in Saudi Arabia, said Kleindienst.

Saudis, along with other wealthy Middle Eastern residents, represent an important segment of the investors the Kleindienst Group are hoping to attract, he said. 

“Saudi Arabia is a very important market for us,” he said. “It is an excellent product for investors from Saudi Arabia because we are selling this ‘second-home’ concept here in the Heart of Europe. 

“People from Saudi Arabia can travel to Dubai and enjoy their time in the Heart of Europe. And when they are not here, we hope they can rent their homes out and produce an income from the property.”

Heart of Europe properties, Kleindienst stressed, are not for people to live in 365 days a year, but for the uber rich looking to snap up a second home in the Middle East, with a unique setting for the region.

He said that the project is Dubai’s first purpose-built luxury area in which UAE residents can own a holiday property in their own country, he said, rather than in the Maldives, Mauritius or the Seychelles. 

“The second-home market is a new concept for Dubai,” he said, adding that while New York has places such as The Hamptons and multiple cities in Europe have countryside and seaside getaways, Dubai has lacked a luxury weekender destination.

“The Heart of Europe is a unique and ambitious project aiming to develop Dubai’s luxury freehold second-home market in an idyllic island location,” he said. “Our journey to date has taken us to the unveiling of the Sweden Beach Palaces, one of the most luxurious freehold second homes in the UAE. Our vision is turning into reality as we make real progress on our project.”

Aside from Sweden Island, Saudis are also snapping up the Floating Seahorse vessels, which come with a slightly less eye-watering price tag of Dh16million, said Kleindienst. Of the 131 for sale, 60 have already been purchased, he said. Figures from April show that about 40 percent of the buyers are from the Kingdom.

On the tour, Arab News saw a completed prototype. The bespoke one, two or three-bed floating homes have below sea-level bathrooms and bedrooms so owners have just a pane of glass separating them from hundreds of fish and an abundance of coral and marine life as they sleep and bathe. 

Kleindienst hopes the Heart of Europe project will be the catalyst for world-breaking firsts — including a record he aims to break this year. 

The last quarter of 2018, he said, will see the soft opening of the 488-room Portofino Hotel, located on the Main Europe Island, despite only breaking ground on the construction site this year. 

“No one has broken ground on a hotel then completed it the same year,” he said. “We want to show that it is possible. That anything is possible. That there is the ability to build a hotel in a year on an island.”