Daenerys Targaryen came home across the Narrow Sea to Dragonstone in season seven of Game of Thrones. From Dorne to the Iron Islands to the North, visitors arrived to bend the knee.
Now that’s happening in real life as well, as Game of Thrones acolytes come to bend the knee at the actual location of Dragonstone — the steps leading to San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, a church and one-time monastery, near the village of Bakio in the Basque region of Spain. Some 75,000 tourists walked, literally, in the steps of Daenerys this July.
According to the Spanish daily El Pais, that means some 2,400 people a day, made the monumental schlep up a narrow and crumbling flight of ancient stairs in order to feel a touch closer to the mother of dragons. (The steps are real; the palace, in the show, is computer generated).
Those 241 steps that Daenerys and Jon Snow walk are part of the very real, roughly 1,000-year-old, man-made land bridge leading out to a monastery named for Saint John the Baptist, which is tethered to the coast by a wisp of land and a bridge.
In a millennium of pilgrimages, San Juan de Gaztelugatxe has never seen tourism numbers like these. But even the name sounds like it hails from Game of Thrones: Gaztelugatxe, in Euskera, the Basque native tongue, literally means “Castle Rock.”
Traditionally, visitors and pilgrims have come to San Juan de Gaztelugatxe to have their chance to ring the church’s bell at the end of the long and winding walk for luck and to keep away the evil eye. Thus far it has been clanging nonstop all summer. According to El Pais, local tourism authorities, meanwhile, are struggling to find a way to keep the landmark from physically crumbling under the pressure of so many visitors. Plans are being mulled to curtail the number of cars, or even to levy a fee to walk the steps. It’s currently free, for the brave and hearty souls that make the trek.
Before Game of Thrones, the trip to San Juan de Gaztelugatxe was off the beaten path, about an hour from Bilbao, and down a narrow strip of country highway populated by Basque bicyclists, and nearly as many sheep. It’s gorgeous and remote and a reminder of an era when calls to a monotheistic God included plenty of prayer for sailors to return from a sea that brought as much sorrow as it did riches. These days, additional prayer might be necessary — to keep this charming landmark as wild and beautiful as it has always been, before the Targaryens made landfall.