Over the course of Game of Thrones, we've seen several major castle landmarks in Westeros. Some are very familiar to viewers, like the curved tops of Winterfell, or the spires of King's Landing, and others we haven't seen enough to remember very well, like Harrenhal, or Moat Cailin.
Then there are castles we visited early on in the show but left behind as the series went on. One of those is about to become a major location this season: Dragonstone.
We've heard the name a lot in the run up to this coming season. It's where Dany is coming home to, we're told. It's the name of the first episode of the season. But where is Dragonstone, and why is it Dany's destination?
The island was settled around 300 BC, towards the end of the Age of Valyria. In 126 BC, Daenys Targaryen has a vision of the coming Doom of Valyria, and in response, her father Aenar relocated their entire family, and their five dragons, to the island. This is when they built the castle, using Valyrian techniques to fuse together rock, which is also called "dragonstone."
Due to this, there are tons of dragonglass deposits located beneath the hold. (As you can image, Jon Snow is going to be very interested in these.)
The Targaryens staged their original conquest of the Seven Kingdoms from this island. During the centuries under their rule, Dragonstone was the second home to the family, often used by warring factions during their endless infighting and during the civil war period known as The Dance of Dragons. When Robert's Rebellion happened, it was where the majority of the family fled to escape the fighting.
Daenerys was born there, just prior to the sack of King's Landing. She was taken away as a baby before Stannis' forces reached the island. This is why she considers it her home, and why it's her first choice for a seat of power to function from when she begins her own conquest of the Seven Kingdoms.
Stannis, as the "conqueror" of Dragonstone, was rewarded with it after Robert became king. We should be clear here: Dragonstone, to those who grew up in Westeros, is really quite terrible. It stinks. It's an active volcano! The smell of sulfur permeates everything. Also, it's hot. The Targaryens who came from Valyria were used to living on active volcanoes -- Baratheons are not.
Then there's the fact that most of the island population has Targaryen blood in them due to bastardy and a small population, so you know which side their loyalties quietly lie. Moreover, it has very few vassal lords sworn to it, since the Targaryens never felt they needed them. When Robert "gave" Dragonstone to Stannis as a prize, it was really him being a total jerk to his brother who he didn't like, since Stannis couldn't turn it down.
We first see Dragonstone in Season 2 of Game of Thrones, when we meet Stannis and Melisandre, who are in the middle of burning the Seven Gods of the main Westerosi religion. Though the books describe several dragon-shaped towers, and state that the Great Hall is carved in the shape of one as well, the artwork on the show looks more like steep walls. (We hope to see beyond those this season.)
One major feature that did make it onto the show is the Chamber of the Painted Table, which we know is still there, as Dany is seen running her hand over it in the trailers.
When Stannis left to go on his ill-fated trek North, he took his entire army, as well as his wife and child. This means that when Dany arrives, Dragonstone will have no Baratheons to get in her way. In fact, the castle may be completely abandoned, ransacked by the poverty stricken local population when word came that the Baratheons were no more.
But perhaps the servant population will be willing to return to their jobs once a new master moves in? If not, no biggie. Dany's entourage is such that the castle will be bustling again soon enough.
Game of Thrones returns this Sunday, July 16, at 9 p.m. ET, on HBO.