SUNDAY TIMES - Swords and sorcery in Spain
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Sunday Times Travel By Michael Kerr , 2016-06-19 00:00:00.0

Swords and sorcery in Spain

Emilia Clarke as Daenerys Targaryen in the semi-desert landscape of Bardenas Reales, Spain.
Image: Supplied

Michael Kerr visits a key filming location for this season's 'Game of Thrones' is in the other-worldly landscapes of Navarre

In the age of GPS and Google Maps, there is only one cartographer who can get away with saying "Here, there be dragons". He is George RR Martin, author of A Song of Fire and Ice, the medieval fantasy on which the HBO television series Game of Thrones is based.

If the continents of Westeros, Essos and Sothoryos are figments of his imagination, their realisations on screen are usually a little easier to pinpoint. The Causeway Coast of Northern Ireland, Dubrovnik and Malta have all featured in previous series. In the sixth series, currently on our screens, Spain is the background to sword fights and sorcery.

Among the places featured are an extraordinary landscape in Navarre, in the north, called Las Bardenas Reales. If I were you I would head there as soon as possible. Very soon, it is going to be overrun by fans taking selfies on the very spot where the Mother of Dragons unleashes her charges to .

But I don't want to spoil the plot, so let's stick to the place. It wasn't until January this year that I heard that the GoT team had followed many other filmmakers into Las Bardenas. I first came across the place in 2008 on the pages of a travel magazine; pictures of a sandy-red landscape of pinnacles and canyons and sunburnt cracked clay.

"Yes, that's the Bardena Blanca, the bit everyone goes to," Mikel Ollo told my wife and me when we arrived in Navarre. "They drive in from the west, spend an hour or two there, take some pictures, and move on. They don't bother with the rest of the Bardenas."

Mikel, based in Pamplona, is used to people who don't bother with the rest. Every July he has bookings from tourists intent on one thing: running with the bulls.

Many stay only one night and, even when they've bought a package that includes a guided walking tour, don't take it. They don't bother with the Café Irua, a gorgeous remnant of the 19th century (Hemingway took his coffee there), let alone with the 14th-century cloister of the cathedral, one of the world's finest examples of Gothic architecture.

Mikel made sure we saw both, and tasted plenty of the vegetables for which Navarre is famous. In the hilltop village of Ujué, where his family has a house, he introduced us to Juana in the Urrutia restaurant, who insisted we eat the early white asparagus her husband had earmarked for himself.

Over four nights we saw quite a lot not just of the Bardenas but of the region, which is about half the size of Wales but has a history of punching above its weight. It briefly dominated the whole of Christian Spain in the 11th century and still likes to style itself on its tourist literature as "Reyno" (Kingdom) de Navarra.

The Castildetierra ("Castle of the earth") is a natural formation in the Bardenas Reales Natural Park, Biosphere Reserve, Navarre. Image: GETTY

But the Bardenas came first. It lies in the southeast of Navarre, a vast steppe of 42000ha between the River Aragón, to the north, and the River Ebro (alongside which we walked a stretch of the GR99 nature trail), to the southwest.

It divides roughly into three areas: in the north, El Plano, an almost flat, elevated plateau; in the middle, La Bardena Blanca; and in the south, La Negra, the highest part, which rises to nearly 670m.

We spent the best part of a few days exploring all three in Mikel's 4x4, staying in between in the Aire de Bardenas, a hotel just outside the park that has the air of a moon base but isn't short of mod cons.

The Bardenas are Reales - royal - because they were once the patrimony of the kings of Navarre, but no one (certainly not my Oxford Spanish Dictionary) could tell me what Bardenas means. Though the land is uninhabited, shepherds have overwintered sheep there since the Middle Ages, farmers have been growing wheat there since the end of the 19th century - and air forces have been firing missiles at it since 1951.

Yes, the Bardenas Reales may be a Natural Park and a Unesco Biosphere Reserve, but right in the middle of it, fenced off behind warning notices, is the biggest military zone in western Europe. As a Spanish hikers' website puts it, "It's very advisable to respect the area if you don't want to die for a shot of any aeroplane.

It even has its own form of tumbleweed, the western filmmaker's favourite symbol of a godforsaken land

"Fighter planes roared in from the left and broke the sound barrier to our right as we walked one of the paths in El Plano, the red clay, dampened by a recent shower, sucking at our boots. The Bardenas may be summed up as a badland - and Mikel's forefathers found it a hellish place to try to make a living - but it's far from a desert. Wind muscled through fields of winter wheat. Outside those fields were thyme and rosemary and gorse, and a wild orchid, purple as a bruise, about to burst into flower.

La Blanca - true to those pictures in which I'd first seen it - was an altogether more desolate place: dried out, salt-dusted and dazzling under the sun. The wind, acting with rare but torrential rain, has sculpted canyons with which you can have photographic fun. Frame one on its own, and it could be hundreds of feet deep; pose someone on the edge, legs dangling over, and the hundreds shrink to tens.

It feels as much like a desert as anything in Arizona or Mexico. Its foxes - we spooked one - are as wily and wary as coyotes. It even has its own form of tumbleweed, the western filmmaker's favourite symbol of a godforsaken land. Mikel held up a clump of it, black, long dead, and the wind lifted it, dropped it, and then bowled it along the ground. Cue the soundtrack from The Good, The Bad and The Ugly .

We could only see from a distance the areas where Game of Thrones had been filmed because (GoT fans be warned) large areas of the park are off limits from March to September so birds can nest undisturbed.

Girona in the northeast is known for its medieval architecture and walled Old Quarter. Image: iSTOCK

Among them are Egyptian vultures, which a couple of young rangers invited us to look at through a telescope trained on a clifftop. It was late afternoon, and the rangers told us we were the first tourists they had seen all day.

Visitors are fewer still in La Negra, the southernmost zone. "It must be 10 years since I've been here," Mikel said. "Nobody asks to see it." To the right of the road we followed were huge fields of wheat; to the left, groves of Aleppo pine which provide shade and give La Negra (The Black) its name. We stopped at the Santuario de Sancho Abarca, a mirador (viewpoint) where a former monastery guesthouse has been turned into a two-star hotel. There were wonderful views from here over the valley of the River Ebro, and we had them to ourselves. When we went into the bar for coffee, the barman looked startled to see us.

The park authorities say the Bardenas drew 12,0000 visitors in 2015. The majority were Spanish, most from Navarre and the Basque Country; only 1368 people were from the United Kingdom.

Game of Thrones might add some more. Mikel mentioned the show in the tourist office in the medieval town of Olite, to the north of the park, and two staff, both fans, had a race to call up on their computers a picture of the British actress Emilia Clarke, who plays Daenerys Targaryen, the Mother of Dragons.

It was posted on Instagram last year when the cast were being discouraged from revealing where they were, let alone what they were filming. It shows her outside a bar, La Cava, right in front of a pedestrian crossing, that can only be in Olite.

Rumour has it that she stayed in the Parador, a hotel with corridors grand enough to make a full-sized suit of armour look like the party outfit of a toddler. Next to the hotel is the church of Santa María la Real, where a team of restorers - all female - is working on the façade to reveal features and colour hidden by centuries of weathering and grime.

Visitors, in hard hats, are allowed to climb the scaffolding and watch - but only at weekends, and we were there on a Thursday. Mikel, who could talk his way through any closed door, got permission for us to have a look.

The restorers, pausing from their cleaning with ultrasound and lasers, showed us what most visitors, craning their necks from the ground, never see. Among the images of saints and shepherds and Herod's butchers are beautiful details of oak leaves, of vines and grapes - and of dragons.

More Spanish spots in 'GoT'

In addition to Las Bardenas Reales , locations used by the GoT team for filming this latest season are:

• The 11th-century Castle of Santa Florentina in Canet de Mar, on the coast of Catalonia, features as Horn Hill, Samwell Tarly's family home and the site of that utterly awkward family dinner, when he takes his "wildling" girlfriend home.

Girona - Its Barri Vell (Old Quarter), still partly protected by medieval walls, plays the streets of Braavos, where the blinded Arya Stark plays a beggar; and its 11th-century cathedral appears as the Great Sept in King's Landing.

• The warren of alleys and lanes in the fortified promontory of Peniscola , north of Valencia, star as Meereen, the city conquered by Daenerys Targaryen in Slaver's Bay.

• The Alcazaba of Almería in Andalusia stars as Sunspear, the capital of Dorne;

• The Castle of Zafra , in Guadalajara (begun in 1437), once the palace of the Dukes of Feria and now a parador, was used as the Tower of Joy.

-The Daily Telegraph