The fields of Aigai (modern Vergina) where Alexander the Great and his father once reigned supreme. (Photo by Harrison Blackman).

The elusive star of Vergina

To visit the tomb of Alexander the Great’s father, a modern odyssey

I was in Thessaloniki for the weekend. Of all the things to see in the region, my Greek friends suggested, quite emphatically, that I visit the tomb of Philip II, the famed king of Macedon and father of Alexander the Great. I fell in love with the idea as well. If Alexander the Great was the real-life King Arthur of Greece, then Philip II was Uther Pendragon, had Pendragon been an actual person. To see such a tomb would amount to a spiritual experience, on par with my previous visits to the Anasazi Chaco ruins in New Mexico, the hallowed fields of Gettysburg, the ancient island city of Delos.

The catch was I didn’t have the option of renting a car. And while Vergina, the site of the tomb, is an hour from Thessaloniki by motor vehicle, the public transit options are daunting. How much more daunting I didn’t quite imagine when I set out for Vergina, on a rainy day in June. The journey revealed the typical frustrations of public transit in Greece — and the paradoxes of a nation protective of its Macedonian heritage, but utterly unable to support its nationalist claims through adequate infrastructure.

Tomb of Philip II. (Photo by Harrison Blackman).

Tombward Odyssey

At 10:30 a.m., I took a city bus from the Arch of Galerius to the K.T.E.L. intercity bus station. Since there was no direct way to Vergina, I bought a ticket for the neighboring town of Veroia. I went to the gate, an enclosed steel rotunda choked with fumes. My bus arriving in fifteen minutes, I found it risky to wait outside, and I returned to the gate. Despite the phlegm I felt gathering in my throat, I waited for the bus until it pulled into its spot, which, thank goodness, was labeled with the appointed route.

As the bus arrived, though, even the Greek travelers I was with expressed confusion with the driver — whether this bus was indeed the bus that went to Veroia — or not. As I got on my assigned seat, there were no announcements, no description of our route. The bus just departed, and I could only guess that this bus was headed to Veroia directly.

About an hour later, the bus pulled into the correct cliffside town. A kind and generous woman at the lone tourist kiosk helped instruct me on the next bus I would be able to take, to Vergina at last — an hour-and-a-half later.

After the layover passed, this next bus took 15 minutes to reach Vergina. There, I followed an elliptical series of signs until I reached the cobblestone road that led to the tomb’s entrance. It would cost 12 euros to enter. Twelve seemed like a lot for a public national monument, but I had made it this far.

I paid the fee and admired the mound of dirt, its green grass growing atop it, and the lovely bougainvillea marking the entrance. Dark and menacing clouds hovered overhead. I scanned my ticket and entered the underground museum. A guard emphasized something about photography in Greek. I assumed he meant no flash, which I repeated. “No flash,” he agreed in English.

I entered the museum space. It was very dark. My eyes took a moment to adjust. It was cold down there. I started surveying the opening exhibit space, then moved forward. I turned right to look at a model of the tomb.

A docent stepped in my path. “I think your experience of the museum will be better if you head over there first,” he said, pointing at the left. I assented. I wondered where all these helpful guides had been the rest of my journey.

Soon my eyes had adjusted, and I could see the museum space for the dazzling place that it was. A black color scheme and careful lighting aimed at the headstones, the open-pit tombs, the glorious gold and bronze artifacts of Philip, illuminating them like an oracle’s vision. I raised my phone to take a picture of one of ruins I stood above. The same docent fired back — no photography of the museum at all. I put away my phone, disappointed. One of the only reasons I ever take pictures is to aid in my description of places later. I guessed I would have to buy a postcard.

I continued on in the museum, descending the steps to stand before the tomb of Philip himself — a subterranean marble mausoleum. I admired its vivid blue, gold and red paint that still adorned its surfaces, the door to the underworld, the mural of Alexander on his trusty horse. I have never been to Egypt, and I assumed this was what it was like to stand before King Tutankhamun’s tomb, to feel like Indiana Jones, to cautiously open the door, to enter the sacred chambers that had been undisturbed for millennia. I admired, too, the glass wall that sealed off the tomb, climate-controlled, a high-tech prism that encased eternity. It was a far more impressive effort by the Greek Ministry of Culture than the state of decay I had seen in some of the mosaics on Delos, where dust and rot masked their beauty behind wooden fences.

I emerged from the tomb, proceeding to admire Philip’s armor, his gold and bronze, the ornate crowns, and the tragic artifacts of one of his unlucky (or honored?) wives who followed him to Hades — forced to commit suicide and be cremated along with him.

Following the light out of the museum, I felt refreshed, invigorated with the glory of ancient Greece, the idea that what we experience has been experienced for eons, and that Western civilization, at the very least, has reformed its policy on, um — what to do about royal widows. As for excess and materialism — at least the glitziness of Philip II’s tomb had an elegance about it, one that I don’t expect will accompany the eventual final resting place of my country’s gold-obsessed president. But continuity is continuity, reassuring in some strange way — for better or worse.

Photo of ‘downtown’ Vergina. You can check in any time you like—but you can never leave. (Photo by Harrison Blackman).

Hotel Vergina

As I left the tomb, I was reminded again of the disconnect between the advanced features of the museum and the low quality of infrastructure that supported it. A museum café turned out to be just a vending machine — as the actual ‘café’ was closed. I bought a Coca-Cola. Then, sipping my corn syrup, I walked toward the official gift shop — also closed. If Greece was so worried about raising money for its antiquities, then why was its gift shop closed? And how could a museum forbid photography if they weren’t even willing to sell you any relevant postcards?

I next tried looking for the ruins of the theater where Philip was assassinated, but the signage was terrible, confusing, and led me to a lonely road. I called a knowledgeable friend who was able to confirm that the site had closed for the day. I decided to head back to the bus stop, on a tip that the bus would arrive sooner than expected to whisk me back to Veroia, and then to Thessaloniki’s K.T.E.L. station, and—well, you get the idea.

Only the bus stop wasn’t really a bus stop. There was a bench, sure, that looked kind of like one that belonged to a bus stop, but no signs. No timetables. No nothing.

The bus didn’t come. It didn’t come for another two hours — about thirty minutes after the Veroia station manager told me it would. I ended up waiting in the town square with a Greek-Australian family, caught in the same trap as me. The town square began to take on a sinister feel. Here was a ‘Hotel California’ of sorts. You could check out Vergina any time you liked, but you could never leave.

This whole time, an old man with a cane and a flat cap had been waiting at the stop. He seemed to me like an extra from Waiting for Godot. One of the Greek-Australian families had discovered that he had been waiting for an hour-and-a-half for the bus to visit a neighboring village.

Finally, the bus showed up — for him and his mysterious destination. And still we waited.

The clouds grew darker. The sunlight was fading. I started to feel hungry. And I still had a long way to go. Half the Australian group took a taxi back to their accommodations. The other half waited with me. Every time a loud sound came from the road we looked up — only to see yet another tractor muscle past — not the bus we needed. The appointed time from the Veroia station master came and went. I was beginning to have a lot of questions.

King Philip II’s tomb — it was a major Greek monument. In Athens, I had seen the protests over Greece’s deal with FYROM to rename the country “Northern Macedonia.” If the Greeks were so attuned to the idea that Macedonia was Greek, why wouldn’t they make it easier for tourists to visit the tomb of the greatest King of Macedonia, the father of Greece’s most storied heroic figure? Then it might have been easier to have more of an international backing on their side of the dispute.

But no, here I was, waiting in a quiet town square, rethinking my visit to King Philip’s tomb, rethinking everything.

At last the bus returned. It was late. To our surprise, the old man with the cane, who we had seen so patiently waiting before — had returned. So much time had passed that he had done his business in the neighboring village and he was back. We were all stunned. Had he waited that long just to come back? And if he had satisfied his quest, then how long had we been waiting!? We boarded the bus, which collected our fare, and we departed for Veroia. After arriving — soon enough, the next bus appeared. I boarded that one. And as the bus pulled onto the highway, the rains came.

By the time we arrived at the K.T.E.L. station in Thessaloniki, it was 9:30 p.m. I had left for Vergina nearly 12 hours before. But my journey was hardly over. On the recommendation of a difficult and irritable bus manager, I took a city bus back into downtown Thessaloniki, where I could get off close enough to my Airbnb. The bus looped elliptically through the city, passing by Aristotelous Square, and inching closer to the Arch of Galerius, where my journey had begun. The bus filled and filled, and soon we passed the White Tower, without stopping. The bus kept going, ignoring its stops. A passenger near me yelled at the driver, asking, what was the meaning of this? How could he ignore the stops on his route? The driver barked something in return. A more vulgar passenger played to the buses’ crowd — and called the driver the famous Greek expletive. The crowd laughed — nervously. Finally, the driver gave in to the pressure, stopped, and let half the bus off, including myself.

Mosaic of the Vergina Sun. (By Harry Gouvas CC BY-SA 3.0 , from Wikimedia Commons.

Half-baked Elysium

As I walked along the seafront toward the White Tower, I rejoiced that I had concluded my odyssey. At least I had had the “Star of Vergina” to guide me — in the form of a refrigerator magnet purchased at a private Vergina trinket shop. While I wolfed down a pizza at a waterfront restaurant, I thought about what it meant, that Philip’s tomb was so remote and challenging to visit.

When Philip II was assassinated, his son Alexander the Great gave him a glorious send-off, a pyre and tomb fit for, well, a king. Couldn’t modern Greece do the same for its famous ancient sovereign? It has only done so half-way. While the museum is extraordinary, it is extremely difficult to visit using the public bus system, an irony that invites headshaking comparison to ancient Greek achievements.

I only hope that Greece will strive to give its monuments the respect they need. As many of them, Philip’s tomb included, are UNESCO heritage sites, these monuments also belong to the world. And to get more funding and support, having more world travelers experience the wonder of Greece can only help these monuments survive longer, to enchant future generations with the vision of Philip’s Elysium.