“Hey, this is the Dragonpit!” exclaimed my sister Kate. “The actual Dragonpit from Game of Thrones.”
“Yep,” I said. “Although sadly, it doesn’t have any actual dragons in it at this time.”
We were in the ancient Roman city of Italica, just six miles northwest of Seville, visiting the remains of the massive amphitheater built to enable 25,000 bloodthirsty spectators to watch gladiators fight to the death. In much the same spirit, 10 million Game of Thrones fans found themselves riveted to other epic clashes filmed on this spot, including this meeting between the psychopathic queen Cersei Lannister and Daenerys “Mother of Dragons” Targaryen, a woman who really knew how to make an entrance.
Italica was a great place to visit even before it was discovered by Hollywood location scouts; I’ve been taking visitors there for 15 years and they always love it. The city, founded in 206 BC to house veterans returning victorious from the battlefield, was home to two emperors and thrived under their patronage; at one point it was the second largest city in the Roman Empire. Today the most important artifacts have been safely removed to the Archeological Museum of Seville, but the 128-acre site is still impressive, with paved streets, gorgeous mosaic floors, and of course, the amphitheater. Or as we know it today, the Dragonpit.
“There’s not a single sign or flyer about it being the Dragonpit,” Kate marveled, looking around at the ancient stone walls. “No mention anywhere of Game of Thrones.” Having grown up in California, in a family with several Hollywood actors, we both found it astonishing that nobody had thought to capitalize on the fame of the site.
But that’s Seville for you; it likes to act cool and nonchalant whenever Hollywood comes to town. During the filming, a friend was walking through my neighborhood when a long, black car pulled up at the curb and she saw Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Jamie Lannister) and Gwendoline Christie (Brienne of Tarth) emerge and go into Bar Alfalfa, one of my favorite places to grab a coffee. Did anyone take a picture and post it on the wall? Get them to sign menus or napkins? Apparently not. I have been in this café dozens of times since then, including yesterday with my sister and brother-in-law, and there’s nothing to show the actors were ever there.
To round out my sister’s impromptu Game of Thrones tour, we went to Seville’s Royal Alcázar. This spectacular palace was built in the fourteenth century by Pedro the Cruel on the ruins of an old Moorish fort where, it’s said, they used the skulls of their enemies for flower pots. Somebody persuaded Pedro to get rid of the skulls, and I think we can all agree that was a good call. Today, the palace is home to the Spanish royal family when they’re in town and a favorite with visitors from around the world. It includes a breathtaking mix of every architectural style in vogue for the past 700 years. My favorite part? The elaborate pleasure garden, which Game of Thrones fans will recognize as the Water Gardens of Dorn.
Of course, GoT location scouts weren’t the first to discover that Seville is always ready for a close-up. Generations of filmmakers have fallen in love the grand sweeping arc of the Plaza de España, a 1928 architectural fantasy with turrets, colonnades, and a moat crossed by a series of lovely arching bridges. In 1968 it stood in for the Cairo British officers’ club in the scene from Lawrence of Arabia where Peter O’Toole scandalizes everyone by storming in dressed as a Bedouin and demanding a lemonade.
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, the Plaza de España took on the role of a city on Planet Naboo for the underwhelming 2002 prequel Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones. The backdrop is gorgeous; the actors are young and handsome; the dialog is excruciatingly wooden. Don’t feel obliged to watch all of this short clip; fast forward to the end where the setting morphs into the real Plaza de España, which is genuinely worth a look.
Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones was far from the worst film ever made in Seville; I personally award that distinction to Knight and Day, shot here in 2009. When word got out that Tom Cruise and Cameron Diez were coming to town to film a romantic action movie, and that they were calling for people to sign up as extras, half the city went down to the casting office to see if they could get in on the fun. Sadly, Rich and I were turned away because at that time our residency visas didn’t allow us to take paying jobs in Spain. Many of our friends did get hired, and Rich and I suffered through one hour and forty-nine minutes of idiotic dialog and hammy acting to see spectacular shots of Seville with nanosecond-long glimpses of our amigos in the background. I happened to walk by while stuntmen were filming this scene, so it’s one of my — well, not favorites, that would be going too far, but I guess I can say it’s the part of the movie I dislike the least.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: “Hey, I didn’t realize Seville has the running of the bulls!” We don’t. That takes place elsewhere, most notably in Pamplona, as immortalized by Ernest Hemmingway in The Sun Also Rises. Evidently the filmmakers figured nobody would know — or care — about the inaccuracy, and perhaps American audiences didn't, but here in Seville everyone roared with derisive laughter.
As luck would have it, Rich and I did have one brush with stardom while Knight and Day was being filmed. One evening, as we were having tapas in the (now defunct) Aguador de Sevilla, Cameron Diaz came in with some friends and asked for a table. The manager glanced around, shrugged, and informed her they were full. She walked out looking stunned; I don’t imagine that has happened to her since she got her big break in The Mask in 1994.
Did the manager recognize her? Probably. The film was the talk of the town that spring, and quite likely some of his friends, family, and/or customers were working as extras. But as I said, Seville likes to play it cool. The city was founded by Hercules, sent two emperors to Rome, gave Christopher Columbus his send-off to the Americas and his final resting place in the cathedral. It takes a lot to impress a Sevillano. Now, if someone showed up on an actual dragon, then the city just might sit up and take notice.
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I'm an American travel writer based in Spain, to which I've just returned after a 16-month absence due to the pandemic.
As I resettle in Seville, my favorite city on the planet, I'll keep you posted on how the pandemic has reshaped the landscape and where to go to find fun, adventure, and great food in this quirky, engaging city.
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