Updated: 19th April 2018

Spain, swords and sorcery: how Tudela enchanted the Game of Thrones producers

A key location in season six of GoT, Tudela, in northern Spain, has the perfect blend of drama, desert and ghoulish charm

It must be difficult being a Game of Thrones writer. Difficult to find gruesome new ways to maim and kill people. The shows millions of fans arent going to be kept happy with routine beheadings and disembowelments, with a penectomy thrown in for fun. So whats a writer to do once season six rolls round?

The first five series were filmed in some of Europes most spectacular locations, from Iceland and Croatia to Malta and Northern Ireland, creating a tourist boom in many places as fans stalked Jon Snow and co. Perhaps thats why the producers chose an area near the city of Tudela in the northern Spanish region of Navarra as one of the key new filming locations for the latest season which starts on Monday.

Tudela
Tudela village. Photograph: Alamy

The carvings at the Portal of the Last Judgement, one of the entrances to the citys cathedral, make Game of Thrones look like the Teletubbies. There are images here to inspire even the most jaded of writers. Grinning devils pour boiling oil down the throats of sinners, while children are thrown into vats of oil above roaring fires. I soon lost count of the number of impalings depicted.

Morbid fascination kept me staring for half an hour or so until, suitably terrified by my own probable fate, I entered the 13th-century cathedral itself, which has a particularly beautiful cloister with intricate stone carvings a damn sight less frightening than the portal. The cathedral and the quiet, historic streets of Tudela were fascinating but they werent the real reason Game of Thrones came to Navarra.

Just outside town lie the badlands of Bardenas Reales natural park, an extraordinary semi-desert landscape where water and wind has carved canyons, plateaus and fantastical shapes out of the clay, chalk and sandstone. Most arresting are the towers of stone, cabezos, which rear up out of the dry, white plain and scream out to be put on film.

Cabezos
Cabezos (rock formation) in the Bardenas Reales national park. Photograph: Alamy

It was a startling, surreal sight made all the more so by the military helicopter that suddenly appeared out of a giant cloud of dust and hovered menacingly above my parked car. Driving off seemed a bit, well, reckless so I sat and waited until it whirred away. Then a string of gleaming BMW motorbikes roared into view, followed by a team of black-clad assistants who quickly set up a photoshoot.

The park encourages the suspension of disbelief; leaked photos from the filming of Game of Thrones here last year reveal principal character Daenerys, memorably titled Breaker of Chains and Mother of Dragons, with her followers (hundreds of local people were recruited as extras the casting invitation specified fit bodies and no hipster haircuts), and, after a few days in the park, I wouldnt have been that surprised to see her three angry dragons perched on top of dramatic Cabezo de Castildetierra, right at the heart of the filming location.

Bardenas is about 45km by 24km and crisscrossed by walking, cycling and driving routes which visitors must stick to. The terrain may look tough and barren but its a fragile ecosystem that sustains a huge variety of wildlife; it draws birdwatchers from around the world and I spotted a golden eagle riding the thermals above a ridge. Theres an added incentive to follow the rules: a Spanish air force bombing range is plumb in the middle of the park and the shattered remains of tanks lie just a few hundred metres from the road.

Casting
Casting for Games of Thrones season six in Tudela. Photograph: Alamy

Hundreds of wind turbines stand on the hills surrounding the park, powered by the cierzo, a cold, dry wind from the north, and, alongside many acres of solar panels, help to make Navarra one of the greenest places in Europe: around 70% of its electricity needs are met by renewables.

Its not one of Spains best-visited areas and most of the tourists that do make it to Navarra never get beyond Pamplona before heading north to Bilbao and San Sebastin. But theres lots to love in the south. The Ebro river runs close to the Bardenas park and makes the land by its banks exceptionally fertile people take their vegetables seriously in these parts. Each spring in Tudela theres a festival devoted to all things green, red, yellow etc, the Jornadas de Exaltacin y Fiestas de la Verdura (running until 1 May).

The counters of bars and restaurants in Tudela are laden with fresh produce, from artichokes to peppers and borrage to pochas (a variety of haricot bean). I propped up the bar at Casa Alberto (Calle Muro 27) and had delicious cogollos de lechuga (baby lettuce hearts) with anchovies, a real local speciality, for a few euros. Trinquete, on Calle Trinquete, (starters from around 6, mains 12) was highly recommended to me for sensational seasonal vegetables from the area but I failed to book a table, missed out and still regret it.

Bars
Bars and restaurants at Fueros Square, Tudela. Photograph: Chavi Nandez/Alamy

There was no chance I was going to miss out on another product this area prides itself on: wine. Viticulture has history here: the industry grew in the 12th century to meet the demands of thirsty pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago, which passes through Navarra. It was most famous for ross but most of its vineyards now concentrate on red grape varieties. There is no accommodation in Bardenas, so I booked a room half an hours drive away at Pago de Cirsus, handily a hotel and a vineyard. It stands on a hill and its square tower is a landmark, looking like a castle that has dominated the landscape for centuries the less romantic reality is that its a new-build.

I wandered the estate in the late afternoon, passing rows of tempranillo, syrah and merlot before returning to the hotel for a wonderful meal. My room was on the top floor of the tower and the next morning I had a spectacular view out across the vineyard and beyond. Yes, the building was a fake and I wasnt a member of the Nights Watch, but that didnt stop my imagination running a little wild. Werent those White Walkers I could see in the distance?

Zaragoza airport (flights from Stansted with Ryanair) is about an hours drive from Tudela; Bilbao airport (Vueling, easyJet and BA fly from the UK) is about 2 hours drive away. Accommodation was provided by Pago de Cirsus (doubles from 99 room-only). In Tudela, Hostal Pichorradicas (double from 50) is right in the centre. Find cycling tours of Bardenas natural park through Navarra tourism, which has an office in Tudela

Read more: http://www.theguardian.com/us

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