Considering that the tomb of King Philip II of Macedonia is on UNESCO’s protected world heritage list, and the Greek Tourism website calls it “a unique discovery of an enormous universal impact”, very little has been done to promote this treasure an hour outside Thessaloniki. SAMANTHA STOKES went exploring to check out the city of Aigai (now Vergina) and returned a more literate woman
Tumulus is the new word I learnt today. Usually I learn new Greek words, but today I learnt a new word in my native tongue, English – which despite a degree in English Literature and an A level in Ancient History, I have never come across before.
For those who also don’t know this strange noun (there must be some to keep me company, surely?!), it means a man-made mound built to cover a tomb.
I paid 8€ to venture deep inside an ancient Tumulus today, to visit the astounding museum at Vergina that is built over and around the tomb of Philip II of Macedonia, aka Alexander the Great’s Dad (pictured opposite).
I am sure the tomb would be breathtaking anyway, but the modern museum certainly enhances the experience. Despite the large scale of the cavity inside the Tumulus (must use my new word as much as I can), the clever low lighting gave it a private atmosphere, so that as you peered into each cabinet holding the incredible findings from the tombs, you felt as if you were discovering them alone; as if time had truly stood still. The atmosphere was hushed and we visitors truly shared a sense of being awe struck.
I’ve been to Petra in Jordan, the pyramids in Egypt, the Taj Mahal in India. You would think I’m not easily impressed anymore. And I’m not. But here I was in little Vergina, seriously and unexpectedly impressed – and I think it was certainly aided by the clever design of the so-called “Museum-Mausoleum”. You simply must go. It’s one hour from Thessaloniki towards Verea. (Infact, if you are interested, please email [email protected] to say so, and the Board can organise a trip.)
I enjoyed the 20 minute video that you can watch inside the museum, where archaeologist Manolis Andronikos talks you through his discovery and offers an insight into what the After Life meant to the ancient pagans. He also reflects beautifully on death and some snippets I remember are: “Burying the Dead is the sacred duty of the Living… We remember the Dead from the shape of their absence… We go back to earth without exception, without mercy; Death comes to us all whether we believe in the After Life or not.”
The highlight was of course the wonderful stefania. Not only Philip’s, the most famous, made of delicate gold leaf shaped into oak leaves and acorns - and suitably luxurious for the proclaimed Leader of all Greeks - but also a young wife’s. Philip had seven wives, and this was a Thracian princess called Midas who followed her duty to the very end by willingly flinging herself on her husband’s funeral pyre. Also his young grandson by Alexander the Great (or so they think) has a death crown. Intricate, beautiful, stylish works of art that truly stand the test of time.
The urns that held the ashes were exquisite; boxes coated in gold with lion’s feet and fabulous embossed patterns. (I’m sure Versace took his icon from here. Somebody, sue!) I also adored the silver wine ware the king took with him - he clearly expected never to go thirsty in the After Life! There were gorgeous wine cups with a head of Dionysus or Silenus at the bottom, engraved almost entirely in the round, so your last sip would reveal his cheeky little face smiling up at you. Plus a beautiful strainer with swan necks as handles to hold back any sediment from the king’s wine. And huge decanters and ladles. Wonderful stuff. Oh to be an ancient king! (But then again, he was murdered at the nearby theatre during his daughter’s wedding, at the very moment of giving her away, so there are clearly major downsides.)
I could go on and on, about golden armour, stunning jewellery and great big hand basins, but you should just go and see for yourself. And any art lovers will be gob smacked I guarantee by a very Impressionist fresco of Hades snatching Persephone from Dimitra, found on the tomb. It could be a Turner, had Turner painted pagan gods.
Now for a reality check. Sadly, although this “Multicenter Museum” was obviously renovated at great cost with creative minds and best intentions, outside it has fallen into lonely, neglected, disrepair. The grounds must have been super when first done, but now weeds have taken over the beds of roses, the lawns have gone to seed and, quite frankly, it looks like an epidemic wiped out the place. It is difficult to find from the main Verea motorway with sporadic signs, and once you arrive it is hard to know where to park or where to go etc. But then again, it does all serve to heighten the sense of adventure.
The ruins of Philips’ palace and the theatre itself, plus all the mosaics, are closed for a few years while a 7m€ restoration project is underway.
To finish off our day, we visited the nearby wine estate of Kalaitzi for lunch, and the good weather meant we could eat out in the beautiful grounds. Sigh. Finally my eyes could soak up some manicured lawns! Surrounded by bursting roses, rich, thick lavender and rosemary bushes, I could have been in England. The garden could belong to the British National Trust! (Or is this fabulous wine-induced hyperbole?!)
My children ran to do headstands on the lawn - it was that type of lush grass! As they say, the secret to any garden is: Hedges and Edges. And Kalaitzi clearly understands.
Enjoying the incredible view of the dam, the lake, and the Pieria and Vermio mountains, I would have been perfectly content with a cheese sandwich and coffee. But the food was good, and the Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon blended 2011 wine even better. I think next time, we’ll stay the night. Hic.
It looks like an equally good venue for winter-time, with a huge hearty fireplace and a deep, carved, wooden mantlepiece inside. There’s a wood and stone theme throughout, with welcoming leather chesterfields; big, masculine, quality stuff. Downstairs is the wine tasting area with a collection of musical instruments (including a grand piano) and much, much more to discover. All of this is topped off with first class service by the very friendly staff. What more could you really ask for in a family lunch out?
And on that note I will stop and quite simply urge you to visit yourself. I know we’ll certainly be going back. And meanwhile, what is the plural of tumulus, anyone?