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Footloose in Salonika

Capital of Macedonia Is the Most Byzantine City

December 07, 1986|BEVERLY BEYER and ED RABEY | Beyer and Rabey are Los Angeles travel writers.

SALONIKA, Greece — This capital city of Macedonia has always posed a slight problem to all but the most ardent students of ancient history, what with its many roles in the Roman and Byzantine empires, Christianization of the Balkans and later as a major city-state within Greece.

Founded in 315 BC as a seaport for the first capital of the Macedonian Empire, nearby Pella, it seems to have always been a second city, first to Pella, then as second capital of the Byzantine Empire after Constantinople and finally to Athens.

Yet the Macedonian rulers Alexander the Great and his father Philip II loom large in the history of what is now Greece, and Salonika is without doubt the country's most Byzantine city.

Salonika's massive White Tower, built by Turks along with city walls during the 16th Century, its bountiful treasure of Byzantine churches and the absolutely superb Archeological Museum all add up to a Hellenistic jewel just waiting for the admiration it so richly deserves.

Europeans are drawn in great numbers by its elan, marvelous harborside esplanades and near endless array of great little restaurants and fish tavernas, plus a wave of cultural attractions extending down the three promontories of nearby Halkidiki with its magnificent beaches and legendary Mt. Athos monasteries.

Here to there: Fly Pan Am to Athens via Frankfurt, TWA through New York, some domestics to JFK for a change to Olympic's nonstop onward, or foreign carriers with a home-country stop. Olympic flies you Athens-Salonika in just under an hour.

How long/how much? Two days for the city, at least one or more for the breathtaking prehistoric Cave of Petralona and Halkidiki's beaches. Food and lodging costs make Greece one of Europe's few remaining budget countries.

A few fast facts: The Greek drachma was recently valued at .0075, about 133 to our dollar. Visit any time of year, but the balmy weather of May-October brings out the best of northern Greece's Macedonia. Walk the Old Town, excellent bus service elsewhere, taxis very moderate.

Getting settled in: Our first choice has to be Electra Palace Hotel (Aristotelous Square; $58 B&B double) for its ideal location at town center, full air conditioning, very pleasant rooms and public areas. Sidewalk cafe under arcades, another good one across square. Olympia (65 Olympou St.; $32 B&B double) is also in heart of city but noted for its very quiet location. Only six years old, air-conditioned, restaurant and bar, a pretty place.

Astor (20 Tsimiski St.; $32) is a rather severe-looking place outside, yet rooms are most comfortable and location also good. Panorama (14 Analipseos St. in suburb of Panorama; $40) sits on a hill in one of Salonika's loveliest areas. Fifty spacious rooms, a rooftop restaurant that overlooks Salonika and the rest of the world.

Regional food and drink: Fresh seafood that you dream of comes at you in waves from every menu. Greek cooks, as the Italians, are not at their best with beef, which is in fairly short supply in both countries. So why dine on braised brontosaurus when you may have fresh and tender grilled octopus, swordfish, squid, bourbonia or gribadi ? The last two are very special: bourbonia being a small red mullet-like fish noted for it sublime taste and numerous bones; gribadi is another fish of memorable flavor, heavenly when sliced and broiled.

Salonika (Thessaloniki to the Greeks) is noted throughout the country for its preparation of tripe. Try it with a garlic, vinegar, egg and lemon sauce, or with tomatoes, garlic and red peppers if you're nursing a recovery from the previous evening. Ouzo is the anise-flavored aperitif that, along with the resin-flavored retsina wine, will bring on this condition unless taken in moderation.

Moderate-cost dining: O Takis Fish Taverna (Faethonos 4 in Nea Krini) laid out a brimming table of seafood that kept us there almost three hours. Starting with taramosalata, a meze of red fish roe, olive oil and lemon, we made our way through several other first courses. Highlight of the lot was ktypiti, a meze of Chevre cheese, garlic, oil, lemon and red peppers.

A visit to this simple but marvelous taverna is a must for anyone interested in the sea's best, prepared beautifully and served bountifully for about $8 per person, plenty of wine included.

Nautical Club restaurant (Kalamaria Marina) is the yacht club's first-class place. Cozy bar for an ouzo, lovely dining rooms, extensive menu. Another marathon contest at table here with more seafood and souvlakia, lamb or veal grilled on a skewer. We had our first taste of the above gribadi here and immediately placed it in our pantheon of delectable fish.

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