Destination: Maryland : 'It's Bawlamer, Hon' : More than a side trip from D.C., it's got high culture, eccentricity, mounds of comfort food . . . in short, heart

When folks think about Baltimore right now, they flash on Cal Ripken Jr., the Baltimore Orioles shortstop who put Charm City back on the map, as some said, just for showing up for work.

As Cal would tell you, the first thing a visitor needs to know about Baltimore is how to pronounce it: Bawlamer . In this most unpretentious of cities, an urban Right Coast sophistication mixes it up with a loopy small-town sensibility, making Baltimore an easy place to get hooked on. I know; I've lived here, on and off, for the past 12 years.

One of the things that sets it apart from other Back East cities--a Philadelphia, a Washington or a Boston, for example--is a high quotient of big hair and polyester. If Elvis is among us, he lives in Bawlamer. It's a Real American City with neighborhoods such as Pigtown, Greektown and Little Italy, a place where most folks answer to "Hon" and the "window shrine" is an altar to the soul. I have seen everyone from the late Jerry Garcia to the Virgin Mary memorialized in the windows of Baltimore's row houses.

How could one not develop a soft spot for a town that dispatched a homemade video welcome to the pontiff in advance of next Sunday's papal Mass in Oriole Park at Camden Yards? The video, sent by the Baltimore Archdiocese, opens with Baltimore Orioles first baseman Rafael Palmeiro hitting a home run, drawing a standing ovation, then turning to the camera and saying: "If they give me a standing ovation, imagine the welcome they'll give you!"

And there'll be more of it to love over the next couple of years. As the city marches toward its bicentennial in 1997, more than $1 billion in new downtown construction, much of it aimed at tourism, is in the works--sort of a second renaissance.

The first and much-heralded Baltimore renaissance occurred in 1980, when Harborplace, a downtown waterfront development, opened with a big splash, prompting visitors to look at Baltimore as something other than a day trip from Washington. (It's no secret in these parts that Washingtonians high-tail it 45 miles to the north to Baltimore when they're looking for off-beat charm and quirky grace, qualities largely absent in their town.)

But as depicted at the movies by screenwriters-directors and Baltimore natives Barry Levinson ("Diner," "Disclosure") and John Waters ("Pink Flamingos," "Hairspray") and in fiction by Anne Tyler ("Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant," "The Accidental Tourist"), this is a place where the ordinary becomes extraordinary. Here you're likely to find a row house adorned with year-round Christmas lights and blue plastic butterflies. Or meet, as I did recently at a big-hair contest sponsored by a local cafe, a forklift operator named Sylvia--her tall, dark beehive impaled with green plastic forks and spoons.

One of Baltimore's curious and continuing obsessions is with the Baltimore Colts . . . at least that's the way they're referred to here. Baltimoreans still hate National Football League team owner Robert Irsay for moving their beloved football team to Indianapolis in 1984. I know folks who to this day won't use Mayflower moving vans because that's the company Irsay used to take the team away.

I'm not much of a sports fan and had only been to one football game in my life until last fall, when I was coerced into attending a Baltimore Stallions game at the Old Memorial Stadium in North Baltimore, home of the Canadian Football League's 2-year-old franchise. Now you can't pry me from my seat through mid-November, when the season ends. It's not just the game that lures me but the opportunity to get caught up in the city's unguarded enthusiasm, which seems to extend beyond the field and into life.

In Baltimore, baseball remains a religion, so it seems fitting that the Pope will celebrate Mass in sparkling Oriole Park at Camden Yards next week.

Last year, 60,000 people toured the ballpark, located two long blocks from the Inner Harbor, and while most of the hype has focused lately on Cal, it's Babe Ruth most visitors want to know about, tour guide Nolan Rogers told me. Babe Ruth's father's three-story row house and saloon once sat 10 yards behind what is now second base.

Beyond Cal and the Colts, something visitors remember long after they've gone home is Baltimore's architecture--some of it grand and Old World; some of it, like Formstone, kitsch from another planet. Formstone is a mottled gray cement shaped into squares that coats many brick facades, particularly in East Baltimore. There you can drive through what I think of as Formstone canyons that are reminders of the hard-working immigrants who put their thumbprints on so many city neighborhoods, as they carved out their own bits of heaven.

My own neighborhood, Bolton Hill, whose eastern edge runs along Mount Royal Avenue between Lanvale Street and North Avenue, is on many must-see lists because of its classic row houses and elegant Renaissance revival mansions. My street, the aptly named Park Avenue, has been home to Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald, James M. Cain, Gertrude Stein and Edgar Allan Poe . . . writers who certainly could not be accused of living mainstream lives.

From where I live, it's an easy walk to Harborplace; Antique Row (a five-block stretch of antique shops, some tony, some peculiar, along Howard Street near Read Street); the Lyric Opera House and Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. But for my money, the city's more interesting side is reflected in its stomach.

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Among my favorite eating and drinking haunts, the surreal Haussner's restaurant, about five miles east of Harborplace is outfitted floor to ceiling with oil paintings, watercolors, sketches, busts and a huge ball of string for ornamentation. It's German food at its heaviest. For a bit of time travel, I love the Woman's Industrial Exchange, an old-fashioned tearoom a few blocks north of the harbor where grandmotherly waitresses serve chicken salad, aspic, deviled eggs and homemade desserts. (It's also the place to buy doilies, mittens, afghans and crocheted baby dresses for the folks back home.)

For crab--just about the best food served here in summer and fall when it's caught only a few miles away--I go to Kelly's or Gunning's, both locals' favorites. Having been away for several years I was struck by Baltimore's retro-charm, at no time more evident than at Halloween and Christmas. In the Hampden area, on 34th Street between Keswick and Chestnut, house after house explodes in seasonal decor with attractions so over-the-top that visitors come by the busloads to see the displays.

But for me, the sheer glory of Baltimore always comes back to the water. I love strolling through Ft. McHenry on a lazy afternoon, watching the ships, tugs and sailboats navigate this natural harbor of the Chesapeake Bay. Water taxis run year-round from landings around the Inner Harbor, which, in turn, lead to some of the city's less well-known but sweetest sites: Cross Street Market, a hugely popular indoor market that's a real Baltimore kind of place, where you can buy everything from fresh crabs to sushi; and Canton, a brick row-house-lined neighborhood whose abandoned factories are being converted into artists' lofts.

One year ago, the Baltimore Museum of Art opened a $10-million New Wing for Modern Art, whose 15 galleries include 15 paintings and three drawings by Andy Warhol, giving it the second-largest collection of Warhol paintings among the world's museums.

At the opening, I heard one lady sniff, "I've seen better collections." To that, her companion responded, "You have to remember you're in Baltimore."

'It's Bawlamer, Hon.'

They must have been from Washington.

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GUIDEBOOK

Baltimore Bound

Getting there: From LAX fly nonstop to Baltimore on USAir or for direct service, with one stop, no change of planes, fly United. Lowest advance-purchase round-trip fares begin at $380.

Where to stay: Mr. Mole, 1601 Bolton St.; a charming B&B; in historic Bolton Hill area; $97-$155 for a double; telephone (410) 728-1179.

Stouffer Renaissance Harborplace hotel, 202 E. Pratt St.; $185-$215 for a double; tel. (410) 547-1200.

The Brookshire, 120 E. Lombard St.; an all-suite hotel; $109-$245 for a double; tel. (410) 625-1300.

The Tremont, 8 E. Pleasant St.; an all-suite hotel; $105-$145 for a double; tel. (410) 576-1200.

Where to eat and drink: Attman's Delicatessen, 1019 E. Lombard St.; tel. (410) 563-2666.

Frazier's Restaurant & Taproom, 857 W. 33rd St.; tel. (410) 889-1143.

Gunning's Crab House, 3901 S. Hanover St.; tel. (410) 354-0085.

Haussner's restaurant, 3242 Eastern Ave.; tel. (410) 327-8365.

Kelly's, 2108 Eastern Ave.; tel. (410) 327-2312.

Maison Marconi, 106 W. Saratoga St.; tel. (410) 727-9522.

Owl Bar, 1 E. Chase St.; tel. (410) 347-0888.

Wild Mushroom, 641 S. Montford Ave.; tel. (410) 675-4225.

Woman's Industrial Exchange, 333 N. Charles St.; tel. (410) 685-4388.

For more information: Baltimore Area Visitors Information Center, 301 E. Pratt St. 21202; tel. (800) 282-6632.

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