The Basque shrine being overwhelmed by its ‘Game of Thrones’ fame

In July alone, 75,000 tourists climbed the 241 steps to the top of the islet that doubles as Dragonstone

Visitors to San Juan de Gaztelugatxe on the last Sunday in August.
Visitors to San Juan de Gaztelugatxe on the last Sunday in August.FERNANDO DOMINGO-ALDAMA

Tyrion Lannister and Jon Snow have sent two separate ravens to Daenerys Targaryen, the Queen of Dragonstone, with the message that they refuse to hold any more meetings either inside or on the steps of the fort, at the risk of being struck down by the gods, including the Lord of Light.

The fact of the matter is, they are tired of the incessant ringing of the bell which denies them sleep and the peace and quiet required to scheme and plot.

Well, maybe not exactly. But it is certainly true that Game of Thrones has made the steep and twisting stairway up to the Basque islet of San Juan de Gaztelugatxe’s chapel in Bermeo, Bizkaia, a global landmark.

There are those proposing a fee to access the famous stairway

And consequently, it has also become a magnet for tourists who can’t resist the pull of the bell that hangs above it. Traditionally, visitors have rung the bell three times and made a wish – a reward for having climbed the 241 steps. Now, multiply these three rings by several hundred a day, as tourists stand in line for the pleasure, and the result is enough to test the most patient of the gods.

In July alone, 75,000 tourists went to see Daenerys’ fictitious fort – which is to say, 2,419 people a day. There is no data on the number of visits in 2016, but there were 28,136 requests for information about the site at tourist information offices between June and August, 21.58% more than the year before. Now, San Juan de Gaztelugatxe it is not just a tourist attraction but also a shrine for Game of Thrones’ pilgrims.

But there are still times when you can visit the landmark location without having to get in line to ring the bell. “It’s a question of organization,” says a spokesman for the Bermeo Tourism Office. “We all want to go up at midday and get down in time for lunch, or else go up at 5pm and come down at 7pm, and that’s just madness.”

Dragonstone in the 'Game of Thrones' series.
Dragonstone in the 'Game of Thrones' series.

Meanwhile, the provincial Environment Department has been working on a scheme to balance tourism and conservation. On the table so far are suggestions ranging from capping the number of tourists, private cars and public transportation that may enter this protected biotope, to improving the access points and signposts. There are even those proposing a fee to access the stairway.

Whatever decisions are taken, they are not likely to have much influence on tourist numbers – so far nobody has been put off by the narrowness of the staircase and the steepness of the climb, or by the poor signposting, or by the small parking area. “The fact that they filmed Game of Thrones here has been a blessing,” says the owner of the small souvenir shop inside the chapel atop the islet. “The seventh season has, I believe, doubled the number of tourists.”

Her advice to visitors is crystal clear: make the pilgrimage sooner rather than later, as “winter is coming.”

English version by Heather Galloway.


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