Eagerly we stare at the winding road and the fields around us with occasional houses, rushing to the exit at the sight of a sidewalk and a restaurant sign. Road signs have been pointing to the UNESCO-designated Vergina Archaeological Site for at least two kilometres now, and we are keen to get off the bus in order to visit the Makedonian royal tombs. Alexander the Great must have been here before us we think. But, "Not yet, not yet", the bus driver and several locals in the bus hold us back. Finally, at a deserted road corner seemingly in the middle of nowhere, we are allowed to get off the bus. "This way up to the royal tomb!"
Indeed, it is only 50 metres or so to the entrance of an inconspicuous garden with a ticket office. Inside the gate, there is only a large green hill with a ramp leading down into it as in an underground car park. We haven't seen any tourists yet – the parking and souvenir stalls are on the opposite site of this road, it turns out later.
The hill in the countryside of Vergina had always looked man-made – in the 5th century BC the kings of Makedonia resided in this village, and although they were not particularly powerful, the archaeologists expected to find some tombs of nobles or even kings in the tumulus. In 1977, they came across a stone chamber filled with expensive weapons and grave goods – among them golden greaves of different length. They turned out to belong to a king who had one shorter leg: Philipp II of Makedonia.
Philipp II was the father of Alexander the Great. He was also the first important king of Makedonia, a military commander who turned a rural hinterland into a leading force in Greece. The civilised ancient Greeks with their democracies and city-states tended to look down on the Makedonians as barbarian country bumpkins who still had kings. It was Philipp who turned the Makedonian warriors into a strong army, defeated the other Greek states and became leader of the Greek forces whom he organised in a campaign against the mighty Persian Empire. Eventually, the king was killed before the start of the war, and his successor Alexander fought that great war against the Persians (very successfully so, which made Alexander famous and a god, and earned him the epithet "the Great").
Philipp's tomb, thus, was a major discovery for the archaeologists, and also a perfect opportunity for Greek nationalists to reinforce their claim on the heroic Makedonian kings.
Inside the green hill, there is no earth and rubble these days. Only the stone chambers of several tombs are untouched, the rest of the tumulus has been replaced by a tumulus-shaped museum displaying many of the most spectacular finds in glass cases.
The exhibition starts with some old tombstones of local people found in the rubble used to fill in the tumulus: These tombstones, a large panel explains with a certain excitement, are much older than Philipp's tomb, and they display Greek names (at least this is what the panel claims). So, this is proof that the Makedonians were Greek! Okay – we wouldn't have thought about it without the exclamation marks, but apparently their Greek-ness isn't undisputed if such proof is needed.
Whether Greek or not – the Makedonian graves contained some beautiful artefacts – figurines and crowns, sets of silver dishes for the funerary feast. We wonder what the "chryselephantine couch" may have been, until we realise that was a heavily decorated ivory daybed used to heap all the grave goods onto. So “chryselephantine” is ivory, the curators just didn't bother to translate the Greek word.
Inside the Royal Tumulus, we have to look twice to find the actual tomb of Philipp II, Alexander the Great's father. The stairs are hidden behind a small modern door, and they only lead down to the large, decorated gates of the ancient tomb chamber. The gates are closed, but Alexander the Great must have stood exactly here when his father was entombed. The whole site was registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996.
A few days later, we endeavour a similarly complicated excursion by public bus to Pella, the ancient Makedonian town where Alexander was born in 356 BC. Most of the remains are from a slightly later period, but the mosaics are worth seeing and the museum is quite good.
How to get to Vergina by public transport
Our day trip to Vergina took us several hours each way by public transport, including transport within Thessaloniki. Rush hour is between 9 am and 10 am – during that period walking is probably faster.
From Thessaloniki Makedonia Bus Station (at the far Western end of town, city bus 12 and 33), busses to Veria leave not exactly regularly, but more or less twice per hour from bus stand 20. The express bus takes one hour. Busses from Veria to Vergina take only 20 minutes or so, but they are scarcer, so it helps to plan backwards. Since they backtrack a part of the route, it is possible to get off the first bus some stations before Veria Central Bus Station in order to catch the Vergina bus if the connection is tight. The bus driver will be able to advise. We found bus timetables at https://ktelmacedonia.gr/gr/routes/tid=12 and https://www.ktel-imathias.gr/ (only in Greek).
Is Vergina worth the visit?
We are glad that we went: the exhibits at the museum are quite stunning, but it is also the sheer historical weight of the place – going back to the origin of Alexander's empire … Okay, access on public transport is somewhat complicated, but travelling with the locals is also a good experience that you would miss out on, going with organised tours or rental cars.
***All expenses for our trip to Thessaloniki and Vergina were paid and organised by ourselves and we did not receive any funding.***