The best of ancient and modern

Mike Gerrard visits Thessaloniki, European City of Culture 1997, where good food, churches and museums add up to a different Greek break
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At The sublime little church of Ossios David, hidden high up in the back streets of Thessaloniki, an old man in a string vest greets me. He's sitting in the shade in the courtyard, nibbling sunflower seeds, and I feel guilty at disturbing him, but I want to see inside this 5th- century church, hacked out of the rock on which the city's acropolis was built. Behind the altar is one of Thessaloniki's finest mosaics, a rare portrayal of a clean-shaven Christ appearing to the prophets Ezekiel and Habakkuk in a vision.

The caretaker creaks to his feet and shuffles in his slippers towards the door, smiling and still munching. He takes the chunky key from its hiding place and unlocks the double door. He opens one side of it, in a ritual. He steps inside the darkened church and unbolts the other side of the door, top and bottom. He pushes both doors fully open, and switches on the first light before beckoning me in, warning me about the stone step down on the other side. He gestures around - magnificent, yes? - and indicates I should stand in the centre of the cave-church, looking towards the darkened altar. He disappears around the side, and after a dramatic pause the altar-light clicks on, revealing the gloriously coloured mosaic as if in a conjuring trick. "Wow" is my inadequate and involuntary response, and the man re-emerges, beaming a smile that says "it works every time".

After my visit he reverses the ritual and sits down again, to pick at his plate of nuts. As I get my camera out to take a shot of the lovely little courtyard, some more people arrive. He gets up to inch his way across the yard for the key.

"Honestly," a female Kensington voice says, "this is supposed to be a really holy place and they've got Greek flags hanging everywhere and even a football flag!"

Mrs Kensington misses the point. The mix of the spectacular and the everyday is one of Greece's charms. Give me an old man in a string vest, football pennants and all, rather than a Visitor Centre any day of the week. My spirits soar every time I see the Parthenon standing proud above the streets of Athens, or happen upon a spontaneous outburst of music and dance in a grimy old taverna. This is culture, Greek-style, and this year it takes centre stage in Europe with Greece's second city, Thessaloniki, our Cultural Capital for 1997.

Athens began the business of Cultural Capitals 12 years ago. It was, after all, the Greek actress and politician Melina Mercouri who came up with the idea in the first place. Thessaloniki has been sprucing itself up and opening new museums in readiness, and it should serve to remind travellers who are bored with Greek beaches that the Greek mainland is one of Europe's overlooked treasure chests. From the National Park that surrounds the Prespa Lakes on the Albanian border in the north, to the rough seared landscape of the Inner Mani in the south, Greece has gorges, rivers, forests, lakeside towns, remote mountain villages... and a few well- known places such as Delphi, Olympia, Mount Olympus, Mycenae, Meteora and Mount Athos.

The exhibition of treasures from the monk's republic of Mount Athos will be one of the highlights of Thessaloniki this year. For the first time in a thousand years, people will have the chance to see some of the beautiful objects accumulated by the monks without having to go through the complicated business of applying for a permit to visit the Holy Mountain itself. Permits are severely restricted, and in the case of women, not issued. No female has set foot on Ayion Oros (the Holy Mountain, as it is known to the Greeks), since an edict banning their presence was passed by the Byzantine Emperor, Constantine Monomachos, in 1060. The mountainous peninsula only has room for one woman: the Holy Mother of God.

Its 20 occupied monasteries do have room for, among other items, the largest collection of Greek manuscripts in the world, some 14,000 of them. The best of these will be on display alongside metalwork, sculpture, ceramics, carvings, embroidery and some of the 15,000 icons from Athos. About 600 objects are being brought to Thessaloniki, for display in the Museum of Byzantine Culture, opened in 1995.

Also newish is the excellent Museum of the Macedonian Struggle, housed in a fine neo-classical mansion which was once the Greek Consulate in the days when Thessaloniki was under Turkish rule. It will certainly help explain the strength of concern shown by the Greeks over the use of the name by the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. Here are the faces of the freedom fighters who fought against Bulgaria and Serbia to regain Macedonia for the Greeks, many dying in the fight. Show any interest at all in the Macedonian question and glossy multi-lingual leaflets will be thrust upon you with an enthusiasm not usually displayed by the custodians of Greek museums.

Athens has many splendid museums too, but the one great advantage Thessaloniki has is its waterfront. Across the bay you can often make out the shape of Mount Olympus, some 50 miles away. The waterfront is as lined with bars and restaurants as any Greek island, though the choices are more expensive and extensive. At the Straus the menu was fairly conventional till you got to the drinks, where some fine wines clinked up against some excellent beers, even bottled Belgian beers if you wanted to spend pounds 3 a time. I was more concerned with their notoriously high alcohol content, and I didn't think a drink called Lucifer was quite right for Sunday lunch in a heatwave, so I settled for a quenching draft Pilsner. My moussaka was mouth-wateringly light and spicy, the bread a nutty-tasting wholemeal and the waitress one of the smiliest I've ever seen.

Greek food gets a bad press, but not from me, and certainly not in Thessaloniki. You do have to search for the Aristotelous Ouzerie, though. "Hard to spot," said one guidebook, "opposite the building with the big Microsoft sign." Venture down the arcade, past the entrance to a block of flats, and you come to an oasis of an ouzerie which will change any cynic's opinion of Greek cooking in three courses.

On the smart marble tables the lovely menus are the first thing I notice. Well, when your father's a printer you take an interest in these things. They've reprinted ancient ledger sheets from the ouzerie and also included a couple of old photos taken in the place. They're beautifully hand-written... in Greek. The waiter shows me what they have. There's seemingly everything from under the waves, so I choose something described only as a white fish, which it is, and very light, delicious grilled and served with a garlic sauce. To start I have something new: a dip made up of feta, red peppers, tomatoes and chilli peppers, all blended together to make for a slightly fiery taste, unusual for Greece. However, I'd also ordered the potato salad. Now you know what a potato salad is, and I know what a potato salad is. But this potato salad was a baked potato the size of an aubergine, which after baking was sliced neatly in two, scored diagonally, and then grilled with butter and a final topping of cheese. It was delicious, but even I - who my partner refers to as "the human dustbin"- had to leave some for Mr Manners. I didn't even have room for the homemade halva afterwards.

The highlight of Thessaloniki - memorable meals aside - has to be the treasures from the Royal Tombs at Vergina, housed in the Archaeological Museum. The approach to the special annexe down a corridor lined with photographs and information gives a sense of drama to what you're about to see: royal bones and royal gold.

In 1977, near the undistinguished rural village of Vergina, about 35 miles southwest of Thessaloniki, archaeologists found an unlooted tomb, evidently that of a very important person. How important wasn't known for a while, until it was established that the skeleton inside the tomb was that of King Phillip II of Macedon, the father of Alexander the Great. His bones were contained in a solid gold box, decorated with the 12-pronged Macedonian star and now the dazzling centre of the Vergina exhibition, which also has armour, jewellery, vases, ivory carvings, silverwork, gold laurel wreaths and the skeleton of the king. This man's son, you tell yourself while gazing at the remains, went on to conquer Greece, Syria, Egypt, Persia, Babylon, central Asia and northern India, before dying at the age of 33.

Alexander's statue stands on Thessaloniki's waterfront, a symbol of the glory that was Greece. Though as the city prepares to cater for more visitors than it's ever had in its life, my thoughts go out to an old man in a string vest, locking and unlocking the door of Ossios Loukas. I hope the Cultural Capital funds extend to finding him an assistant.

Mike Gerrard is the author of 'Essential Mainland Greece' (AA Publishing) and a contributor to 'Eyewitness Greece: Athens and the Mainland', published in May 1997 by Dorling Kindersley.

FACT FILE

t The Mount Athos exhibition runs from June until October. Information on this and other events in Thessaloniki in 1997 can be obtained from the Greek National Tourist Organisation, 4 Conduit Street, London W IR ODJ (Tel: 0171 734 5997).

t Amathus Holidays (0171 636 9873) have three-night breaks at the deluxe Makedonia Palace Hotel in Thessaloniki from pounds 437.

t Sunvil Holidays (O181 568 4499) offer fly-drive holidays to the Greek mainland from Thessaloniki and other airports, from pounds 354 per week including flight and car hire but no pre-booked accommodation.

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