Northern Iceland: Where Winter Is Always Coming

Northern Iceland: Where Winter Is Always Coming

Sightseeing in North Iceland via the 'Game of Thrones' tour

Photos by
Nanna Dís

Sightseeing in North Iceland via the 'Game of Thrones' tour

The guy from New York has seen all three seasons of the television series ‘Game Of Thrones,’ “at least five times,” he says. He, a couple from Colorado, a father and son from New Zealand and South Korea, Nanna (our Icelandic photographer) and I are in a van in sub-arctic temps, north or west or both from the airport in Akureyri we flew into. We’re being driven around by Jón Þór Benediktsson, ‘The Travelling Viking,’ on his tour of film sites from the ‘Game Of Thrones.’

In that tactical way someone poses a question they already know the answer to, the guy from New York asks Jón if the ‘Game Of Thrones’ television series was filmed in Iceland, because the book series it is based on is called ‘A Song Of Fire And Ice’ and we are, of course, in the ‘land of fire and ice.’

Jón is more patient than me, which is why he has the wherewithal to lead tours and I have only the cynicism and petty mockery to address ‘Game Of Thrones’ enthusiasts as if I’m not one of them, as if I didn’t binge on all three seasons in a single weeklong stretch. (At 55 minutes an episode, 10 episodes a season and three seasons, I lost—or gained, depending on how you look at it—27.5 hours of that week to the show.)

Game Of Thrones For Dummies

A quick debriefing of what you’d experience in that 27.5 hours of fantasy-drama TV is several noble families vying for the ‘Iron Throne,’ with which they can control the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros. Westeros is kind of like a continent. The threat belying their threats and fights with one another is the return of the ‘Long Night’ (an endless winter), when the ‘White Walkers’ (like zombies), who are supposed to be buried beneath the icy tundra of the ‘Land Beyond The Wall’ or ‘The North,’ get past the 1,126-kilometer-long, 213-metre-tall structure of ice called ‘The Wall’ that separates them from Westeros.

The ‘Land Beyond The Wall’ is also the free range of the ‘Wildlings,’ burly nomads who want nothing to do with the bureaucracy and politics of the noble families and of Westeros. However, this does not mean they lack inter-conflicts that add more murder to the already murder-packed show. There is an average of 14 deaths per episode. Imagine France, the UK, Germany, the Nordics and Spain fighting for the domination of Europe, and meanwhile the threat of climate change looms overhead with the potential to send humanity into a never-ending Icelandic December. And zombies are coming over from Greenland.

Winterfell And Fell And Fell

We’re driving through a snow-covered lava field while Jón pensively mulls over New York’s question. “Yes, well the books are very much inspired by the sagas too. The landscapes are similar and they are written from above, about one character at a time.” By this point we know New York has read all five of the books (two more will be published soon). He’s flexing his G.O.T. muscles. We already nerded out on who our favourite characters were and weeded out instantly the ones on our tour who had never actually seen ‘Game Of Thrones.’ Our father-son duo would later comment at several of the stops that they will, “really need to check out the show sometime.”

En route, Jón gives us a tour that was about one-third Game Of Thrones anecdotes, one-third troll-banter and one-third Icelandic history and topography. To his credit, his monologue (in a very fun, non-monologue-y way) is engaging, and learning about the land and the Icelanders we are amongst enriches the experience in a way that’s different from touring a Hollywood back lot and seeing where Tom Cruise picked his nose. Also, the scenery is way better, naturally.

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The ‘Land Beyond The Wall’

All of the scenes in ‘Game Of Thrones’ that took place in ‘The Land Beyond The Wall’ were filmed in Northern Iceland. The wall itself was made with computer-generated imagery (CGI) on Svínafellsjökull Glacier in Southwest Iceland.

Our first stop in the ‘Land Beyond The Wall’ is Goðafoss, which is dripping with icicles and blowing frigid mist from its downward contact with the glacial river Skjálfandafljót. The waterfall makes cameos in season three and purportedly the upcoming season four, though I can’t remember the context and, at this point, Jón hasn’t whipped out his iPad to show us the relevant scenes.

We stop for coffee and then carry on to the Lake Mývatn area, where those rocky, snow-covered tundra landscapes of the Wildling’s camps were filmed. Hverfell Crater—what looks like a mountain cut in half and gutted—backdrops it all and is easy to spot in season three of the series.

We get out at one particular spot to see where a kidnapped Jon Snow (loveable, super-babe, illegitimate son of one of the noble-family-heads) has his sword taken flirtatiously by the ‘Wildling’ Ygritte. We watch the scene on the iPad and then drive to the Grjótagjá cave where, ultimately, Ygritte ran with the sword and she and John shed their parkas and discovered new ways to keep each other warm. It is a beautifully dark and serene cave filled with clear, geothermal water.

From there, we hop over to the bubbling mud pits of Hverir, or what Jón called, “the stinky pots.” The steam coming off of these foul-smelling earth pocks were used in filming to create the sense of a blizzard. The mixture of snow and the blowing gray steam make it look as if the characters had been caught in a snowstorm.

“Imagine France, the UK, Germany, the Nordics and Spain fighting for the domination of Europe, and meanwhile the threat of climate change looms overhead with the potential to send humanity into a never-ending Icelandic December. And zombies are coming over from Greenland.”

From a car window you might find yourself thinking that everywhere in the landscape is footage featured in the ‘Land Beyond The Wall,’ and my love of the show definitely made it come alive. I don’t think that’s totally lost on those who haven’t seen the show, but I did notice the son from the father-son duo sleeping through the first half of the trip.

Yule Lads in the ‘Land Beyond The Wall’

We stop midday to eat at Vogafjós, a café and guesthouse with attached cow barn that you can take a stroll through. The token Icelandic delicacies are on order and everything from the smoked trout to homemade cheeses are deemed delicious. This is capped with a trip to the Dimmuborgir lava fields to meet one of the Yule Lads who pops out from a rocky outcrop FROM OUT OF NOWHERE! It is a cheesy performance in a sweet way, and though it has nothing to do with ‘Game Of Thrones,’ it was memorable and I’m glad we stopped.

Getting in and out of a somewhat cold car to waddle around in the even colder outside world all day has left our muscles tight and our bones rigid. We end the day at the Mývatn Nature Baths and I’ll go ahead and encourage any tour operator to end whatever day-long package they offer with a trip to hot pools. The car could have broken down, someone could have accidentally tumbled into Goðafoss and one of the stinky pots could have exploded from beneath us and none of it would have mattered as long as we got to unwind under a full moon in vibrant blue water. I even catch myself thinking that winter could come with its damnedest life in the ‘Land Beyond The Wall’ isn’t so rough after all.

The distance from Reykjavík to Akureyri is 302km. Book your trip with Iceland Travel; arrangements can be made online or by phone at +354 585-4300.See also:HBO Release GoT Featurette About IcelandGame Of Thrones Return

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