Photo by Andrés Nieto Porras
Grjótagjá is a small lava cave located near lake Mývatn in north Iceland, famous for featuring a beautiful geothermal hot spring in its depths.
Grjótagjá’s known history begins in the early 18th Century, where it was known to be the home of outlaw Jón Markússon. Throughout Iceland’s history, their icy, jagged rocks, total darkness and reputation for trolls meant law-abiding folk avoided Iceland’s lava caves, making them the perfect spots for bandits who had been ostracised from Icelandic society by the parliament.
Little is known about Jón, but after his death, fears of his cave gave way to excitement at its potential. It was used by locals as a hot spring in the decades that followed until the 1970s, when Iceland’s unpredictable geothermal forces prevented them from doing so.
From 1975 to 1984, the Krafla volcanic system erupted nine times, resulting in (to say nothing of new expanses of lava, the creation of new caves and magma chambers and the release of toxic gases) the water’s caves to boil and make it unusable.
After 1984, the temperature has slowly cooled, but has been known to rapidly heat again; in the surrounding area, liquid rock is just two kilometres (just over a mile) under the surface of the earth, meaning it can be very unpredictable.
As such, bathing is no longer allowed in Grjótagjá. You are welcome, however, to at least feel the water and dip your feet in to relax.
The lava cave and hot spring, however, have such an ethereal, otherworldly beauty that they attract many visitors a year. This unique, fantastical appeal, did not go unnoticed by producers; HBO’s Game of Thrones even shot one of the season’s most iconic scenes here.
If you don’t want spoilers, please skip ahead to ‘Getting to Grjótagjá’.
Photo from Wikimedia, Creative Commons, by Petr Brož
In Season Three, Episode Four, Grjótagjá is used as the setting for the much anticipated love scene between Jon Snow and the wildling woman Ygritte, where Jon Snow ‘proves’ his abandonment of the Night’s Watch by consummating their relationship.
In the televised version of the cave, there is a waterfall added with CGI, but otherwise, Grjótagjá is as it appears in reality.
Grjótagjá is far from the only place in Iceland used to build up the world of Westeros; in fact, it is not even the only one in the local area. Also in the Lake Mývatn area is the lava fortress of Dimmuborgir; in midwinter, this dramatic area was used to reflect the wildling camp of Mance Raider throughout Seasons Two and Three.
Also in the series are Mount Kirkjufell and the Reynisdrangar sea stacks in the penultimate episode of Season Seven, Vatnajökull glacier, on which ‘the Wall’ is built with CGI effects, and much of the landscape around Þingvellir National Park throughout. Icelandic mountain ranges can also be seen cut behind scenes filmed in countries such as Ireland and Croatia.
Reaching it and getting to the hot spring, however, requires a reasonable level of fitness and a little sense of adventure. There is a slightly rocky path that takes you from Dimmuborgir to the cave itself, which you will need to be careful descending into; lava caves are very jagged, and the ground is uneven.
There are car parking spaces beside Grjótagjá if you do not want to take the short hike.