Pella, once the capital of the Macedonian kingdom and the birthplace of Philip II of Macedon in 382 B.C. and his most famous son, Alexander the Great, in 356 B.C., is easy to spot. The archaeological site and museum are right beside the highway (a 40km/24-mile drive west of Thessaloniki on the E86 Hwy. to Edessa).
The first thing to know about Pella is that what you see today bears no resemblance to what you would have seen when Philip and Alexander lived here. Then, you would not have looked out on a dusty plain, but on an inlet to the sea, with ships docked near the palace. The navigable inlet ran all the way from Pella to the broad Thermaic Gulf that borders Thessaloniki. Over the centuries, the inlet silted up, leaving Pella landlocked, but in Philip and Alexander's day, ships would have bobbed in the waters of today's flat plain. The city itself is thought to have covered at least 13 sq. km (5 sq. miles), of which only a fraction has been excavated.
There's more than enough of Pella above ground to give you an idea of this stylish city, with its large, square agora (market and civic center) bordered by colonnaded stoas and flanked by streets lined with shrines, sanctuaries, temples, and private homes. The lovely frescoes that once adorned house walls are gone, but a number of handsome pebble mosaic floors remain, both on the site and in the museum. These gaily painted houses with sheltered inner courtyards must have been exceptionally pleasant. Long ago, families might have passed an evening discussing the Athenian playwright Euripides's The Bacchae, which had its premiere here around 408 B.C. in the as-yet-undiscovered theater.
Unfortunately, the dwelling you'd probably most like to see -- the palace where both Philip and his son Alexander were born -- is not open to the public. Not to worry: You can drive or walk to the hilltop north of the site and peer over the wire fence to get an idea of how large this royal home was. In fact, the palace covered 60,000 sq. m (645,835 sq. ft.). Somewhere in this vast complex, Aristotle tutored the young Alexander. The view from the hill is still tremendous, but it must have been truly breathtaking in antiquity, when the palace overlooked both the plain and the channel down which ships sailed, bringing supplies from around the Mediterranean.
Vergina & Environs: the Tombs at Leukadia, The Town or Veria & Nearby Vineyards
Vergina is 20km (12 miles) south of Pella and 62km (38 miles) west of Thessaloniki, just outside the hamlet of Palatitsia. It's well signposted off the main road and poorly signposted as you approach from Thessaloniki. If you're short on time, head for the museum. If not, explore the Vergina site (Palace of Palatitsa) and the Royal Tombs Museum (tel. 23310/92-347). Combined museum and site admission is 8€. Summer hours for both are Monday from noon to 7pm and Tuesday through Sunday from 8am to 8pm; in the off season, the site and museum close at 5pm. Allow at least 3 hours to visit both.
Vergina (known as Aigai in ancient times) is the most important of the royal Macedonian sites; the museum contains some of the most spectacular gold objects found in ancient Greece. King Philip lived here when not at Pella and in 336 B.C. died here. Preliminary excavations suggest that the palace was enormous, with an inner courtyard about 14 sq. m (147 sq. ft.). Around the courtyard ran a Doric colonnade; the bases of some of its 60 columns are still in place and give you a sense of the courtyard's size. The palace also had a long, airy, colonnaded veranda running the length of its north side, overlooking the theater. It's quite possible that the royal family watched spectacles in the theater from the comfort of the palace veranda.
Unfortunately for Philip, that's not what he did on the fatal day in 336 B.C. when he was assassinated en route from the palace to take in a performance at the theater. Some scholars surmise that Alexander was behind the assassination. Others said that the young prince was not noticeably grief-stricken by his father's death, and left it at that. You can sit in the theater, the only really impressive remains, and contemplate the moment when Philip realized that he was about to be struck down.
As you drive from the site to the Royal Tombs Museum, notice the hundreds of low mounds on the gentle hills of the Macedonian plain. Some of the more than 300 burial mounds found here date from as long ago as the Iron Age, although many are from the time of Philip himself. Robbers looted most of these graves in antiquity. Fortunately -- and almost miraculously -- the tomb identified as Philip's lay undisturbed for almost 2,000 years. How it was found is one of the great stories of archaeology, deserving a place beside accounts of how Schliemann found Troy and excavated the Tomb of Agamemnon at Mycenae.
Veria (Veroia) & its Byzantine, Jewish & Turkish Remains
The hill town of Veria (Veroia), rich in medieval remains, is 15km (9 miles) northwest of Vergina. The Municipal Culture Office, at the corner of Pavlou Mela and Bizantiou in the center of town (tel. 23110/27-914), has helpful maps and brochures. The Veria, in the throes of development, still has a number of old streets, wood houses with overhanging bay windows, more than 50 small Byzantine churches (usually locked), a 15th-century cathedral, and a good number of buildings from the Ottoman period, including a former mosque and hamam (bath). Most will want to stop here for a coffee and a stroll; devotees of small Byzantine churches, ramshackle Turkish houses, and winding lanes may wish to spend longer. If you're here in winter, you'll encounter skiers who come to the Veria Ski Center on Mount Vermion at Souli (tel. 23310/49-226; www.seli-ski.gr).
The Dion Archaeological Site and Museum (tel. 23510/53-206) has an idyllic site just beyond the Vale of Tempe, in the foothills of Mount Olympus. The site is on the fringes of the village of Dion, about 8km (5 miles) west of the DION sign on the E75, the main Athens-Thessaloniki highway (and 78km/48 miles south of Thessaloniki). Combined admission to the site and museum is 6€. Hours are Monday from 1:30am to 8pm and Tuesday through Sunday from 8:30am to 8pm; both close at 3pm in the off season. Allow at least 2 hours for your visit.
This is an unusually green spot, with pine groves and farm fields watered by springs fed by the melting snow that clings to Olympus's peaks year-round.
According to legend, Dion was founded as a religious sanctuary back in the mists of time, but its constant water supply led both Philip and Alexander to change the character of the sacred site and establish military training camps here. Philip bivouacked at Dion before he marched south to conquer Greece, while Alexander drilled his men here before heading east to conquer Asia.
According to a story preserved by the 2nd-century-A.D. biographer Plutarch, it was at Dion that Alexander, then only 8 years old, first saw Bucephalos, the handsome black stallion soon to be his favorite mount. Philip bought the horse but found that neither he nor any of his men could ride it. Alexander asked his father if he could have a go at taming the creature. Muttering that if he could not tame the horse, an 8-year-old hardly could, Philip nonetheless agreed to give Alexander a chance. Immediately, Alexander turned Bucephalos so that he could not see his shadow, leapt up, and galloped away. When the young prince returned from his ride, Philip said, "My son, look for a kingdom equal to you. Macedonia is too small."
Although Dion -- which sits by a narrow pass between Thessaly and Macedonia -- was an important military camp first for the Macedonians and then for the Romans, it is much more than the Fort Bragg of antiquity. The Romans adorned Dion with a theater (bigger and better than the Hellenistic one, as was the Roman habit) and built sanctuaries to the healing god Asclepius, the nurturing goddess Demeter, and the Egyptian goddess Isis. In addition, of course, the Romans built baths -- and baths being large structures, a good deal remains for you to explore. The site sprawls on both sides of a through road and it is not hard to get somewhat disoriented here, despite helpful information signs beside many of the ruins. Copies of statues found in the sanctuaries have been erected at the site; the originals are tucked away safely in the museum.
There's a lot to see at Dion, but I have to confess that some of my happiest visits have been spent picnicking under the trees -- especially in spring, when the Greek wildflowers more than live up to their reputation. From your shady spot, you can make excursions through the site, following the course of a stoa, admiring the statue of Isis seemingly admiring her reflection in a pool, and imagining the day that Alexander, all of 22 years old, mounted Bucephalos and set off to conquer the world.
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