In 338 B.C. King Philip of Macedon conquered Greece; a few years later, his son Alexander -- whom history remembers as Alexander the Great -- set off to conquer the world. Today, more and more visitors are heading north to see Pella, Vergina, and Dion, the cluster of ancient sites most closely associated with these two famous Macedonians. If you can only visit one of these sites, head for Vergina if you like monumental tombs and glittering gold, Pella, if you'd like to try to decipher the remains of a now landlocked ancient port town, and Dion, if you want to wander around a lush green site that seems more like a picnic spot than the enormous army training ground where young Alexander himself bivouacked. Of the three, Vergina is usually by far the most crowded, due to its close connection with King Philip.
Greek interest in Macedonia has been intense since 1991 when, just across the border, the former Yugoslavian district of Macedonia proclaimed itself a republic. How dare these non-Greeks take the name of Macedonia, Greeks asked -- forgetting that their own ancestors had not considered Philip of Macedon a Greek! Most Greeks remain furious that Philip's best-known royal symbol -- a star with 16 rays -- was put on the new Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia's flag. Things calmed down after the new Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) changed its flag, but this issue has not gone away: When President Obama and Prime Minister Karamanlis met in 2009, discussion of rights to use the name of Macedonia was on the agenda.
Greece's ongoing determination to prove that there is only one Macedonia, and that it is Greek, has led the Greek Archaeological Service to redouble its efforts to excavate the Macedonian royal sites and build museums. And that, of course, means that there's much more to see aboveground than there was even a few years ago.