There is a pilgrimage each evening an hour before sundown to the hill opposite the Alhambra palace for a spectacular natural light show. From the terrace of St. Nicholas' Church, the crowds watch as the setting sun's rays play on the red fortress braced mightily against the snow-canned Sierra Nevada mountains. r

Having seen it, the poet Francisco de Icaza wrote the words cut into the marble of the Alhabra watch tower: "Give him alms, woman, For there is nothing in life, nothing, So sad as to be blind in Granada."

To walk through the luxuriously cool gardens and sumptuously decorated chambers of the last bastion of Moorish Spain and to gaze from the hilltop lookout over the bowl-shaped valley is to retreat momentarily into the "1,000 and One Nights" and the grandeur of ancient Granada.

Here in southernmost Spain, 433 kilometers beyond Madrid, the 781-year Moorish occupation of the Iberian peninsula ended in 1942. Modern Andalusia, Spain's largest province, remains a rich visual legacy of the Hispano-Moorish artistry and spirit which many equate with the image of the nation.

From Andalusia came spicy gazpacho and bewitching flamenco. White-washed pueblo villages dot a rugged terrain of olive groves. Gold-studded mosaics dazzle empty mosques and clifftop fortresses. Elaborate religious processions unfold in town streets on holy days, and a summer Sunday brings a daring bullfight.

The tourist is welcomed warmly without being pursued and is presented a range of budgetary options from among the cheapest in Europe to the grand elegance of the sultans. Seville's gaiety, Cordoba's lyrical beauty and Granada's magic are three inviting reasons to spend a week in Andalusia.

A first stop in Granada puts it all into perspective. Isolated below the fortress of the Alhambra, modern Granada is less pretentious than Seville or Cordoba. Handmade posters and stacks of printed brochures answer practically any imaginable question in the municipal tourist office. They won't book hotels, but they provide a complete list with prices as well as bus schedules for Sierra skiing and camping and sunning on nearby Mediterranean beaches.

Any non-Spanish-speaking tourist, however, must be armed with a versatile phrasebook, even though English and French are sometimes spoken by Spaniards in the tourism business.

Halfway up the Alhambra hill, the city bustle transforms at the lower fortress gates from a souk-like row of tourist shops to a tranquil dense forest. High up in the fortress' watch tower, the circular view encompasses expansive fertile plains, stacked villages of white-washed houses hiding interior gardens and grassy slopes dotted by entrances to gypsy caves. It is easy to understand how Granada held out for nearly two centuries longer than the rest of Moorish Spain under siege by Christian reconquerors. The encircling mountains and the practically impenetrable Alhambra create a double fortress.

Unfortunately the view also takes in the smoggy pall that hovers over most of industrialized Spain.

The intricate beauty of the interior of the 14th-century residence accentuates the most refined aspects of Moorish art -- filigreed stucco work, painted tile mosaics and carved wood marquetry. One room leads into another still more enchanting. Finely honeycombed molded plaster fills a ceiling cupola above walls shrouded in fragile arabesques. Slender windows crowned by horseshoe arches unfold into the far horizon. Carved mahogany ceilings portray the stars of the firmament above marble floors bathed in canals of running water.

On the slope above the Alhambra, sculpted gardens of the Generalife, the summer palace of the sultans, invoke a Moorish Shangri-La. Streams rush along handrails in terraced water gardens below arbors of wandering wisteria and tall shading cypresses.

This cool hilltop is the setting for Granada's renowned International Festival of Music and Dance from June 22 to July 6. On the far side of the hill, the Manuel de Falla dance theater beside the composer's rustie home recently presented a modern dance festival.

Two of Granada's top-ranked hotels, the Parador Nacional de San Francisco and the Hotel Alhambra Palace, are among the half-dozen hilltop accommodations. Rates range from the parador's high of about $63 for a double to the Hostal America's low of $15 a night. Whenever possible, stay in one of Spain's 72 "paradores" -- government-designated inns often in old castles, convents and other historically important monuments. They usually cost between $40 and $75 for two per night and offer the best of traditional Spain.

Before leaving, taste Andalusian cuisine in several settings, notably the Restaurant Bar Polinaro on a cloistered patio. Like most Spanish restaurants, you can eat as little as a filling "tortilla" (a Spanish omelette of eggs and potatoes) for about $3 or a three-course a-la-carte dinner with wines for a comfortable $15 for two. Highly recommended are the baked sherried chicken and the "tarta helada," an ice cream cake lavered with frozen cream.

Spanish restaurants are not necessarily the culinary disappointment some food-lovers would have you think. But Spain is a good place to apply the adage that the best food is often found in very ordinary spots. The restaurant rating system tends to favor the number of dishes served rather than the quality of the food. One of Granada's two five-fork restaurants, the Sevilla across from the cathedral, prepares such specialties as oxtail soup, mountain stewed lamb and garlic shrimp that more ordinary eating spots do not serve. Watch out for the uniformly grease-laden cuisine.

Many times (its quality varies), the "sopa de mariscos" (seafood and shellfish soup) and the "sopa de ajo" (either a creamy or brothy garlic soup). Standup sandwich bars serve delicious "bocadillos," best with spicy "chorizo" sausage or fresh anchovies on a buttered roll. An ample "paella valenciana," the classic variety of the saffron rice dish topped with seafood and chicken, costs about $7 for two at the Restaurant Abenhamer (Abenhamer 6).

For a nightcap, drop in on "La Gran Bodegfa" around the corner from the Abenhamar. In Spain cocktail hour starts about 7 p.m., and only the earliest diners think of supping before 10 p.m. Somehow the bars always stay crowded. It must be the prices -- abouit 15 to 50 cents for a brimming glass of wine or beer.

Although Granada was the last foothold of Moorish Spain, Cordoba was its intellectual center, and where in many ways this ancient spirit is more enduring. Always a city of the spirit, Cordoba produced the philosopher and physician Maimonides during the Muslim domination of the Middle Ages, and the remnants of the diverse civilizations that spawned them are worthy attractions in Cordoba. tThe archeological museum, with an entire floor devoted to Andalusian art, is one of the most complete in Spain.

A city of gentle charm and vibrant color, Cordoba is abundant in the Romanesque and Renaissance architecture favored by the Catholic monarchs who followed the sultans.

But the "mezquita," the mosque hidden inside a Catholic church, is the acknowledged expression of caliphic art "par excellence." It's ghostly interior forest of 850 red brick and creamy white-striped horseshoe arches, mounted in two tiers on marble pillars, lead in all directions into darkness. The sacred "mihrab" niche facing Mecca is studded with precious mosaics over gold. Unfortunately, after Cordoba fell in the 13th century, the conquering Christians decided to rip out a few arches to erect a hideous baroque sanctuary at the very center.

Alley-like streets in the old Jewish quarter lead past white-washed houses with walls draped in potted geraniums and balconies spilling over in carnations and bougainvillea. Closed iron gates reveal elaborate interior patios, the regal ones wrapped in ceramic tile walls and adorned balconies overlooking wishing wells and fountains. The Marquis de Viana's mansion with 14 exquisite patios is one of several open to the public. The May "festival of patios" culminates with a flamenco dance and guitar festival.

Between Granada and Cordoba the snaky road threads through villages snuggled below castles at the crest of the hill. In the other direction, from Cordoba to Seville, the plain is so flat that the sun's light radiates with piercing clarity. Seville, the classic embodiment of Andalusia and its capital, has been described by poets as "the city of reflections" because of the way the colors dance under this intense light.

"La Giralda," the former minaret which was incorporated into Seville's huge Gothic cathedral, stands 322 feet high at the center of the cosmopolitan city. Just below the revolving weather vane that gave the tower its name, 25 tower bells chime each quarter hour. The mosque, once attached to the minaret, was demolished in the 15th century to build the lavish cathedral, the third largest in Europe after St. Peter's in Rome and St. Paul's in London.

Seville is a musical city of ringing bells, a labyrinth of parks girded against the heat and sweetly perfumed by orange blossoms.Residences and hotels in the quaint Santa Cruz quarter opposite the cathedral resemble white-washed Cordoba, but they are more decoratively done up. Wrought iron and porcelain are the dominant artistic embellishments of Seville: the metal twisted in gates and balconies, the painted ceramics molding park benches and reflecting pools. Jungle-like Maria Luisa Park shades several city blocks in tall palms. Outside the cathedral, carriages drawn by horses in comic sombreros line up to taxi tourists through streets never envisioned for cars.

Not far from the Alcazar palace, second in splendor to the Alhambra, the palatial Alfonso xiii Hotel, the city's finest, charges about $68 a night for two.

Seville is the best of these cities for enjoying the evening streetlife in Spain -- the outdoor "paseo," a parade of strollers filling the center of town with self-made entertainment.

Seville also offers the best in "tapas" or appetizers served at the bar, and a culinary "paseo" bar-hopping for unusual "tapas" is the Sevillian way.

El Meson on Calls Dos de Mayo, a restaurant praised for its regional specialties in James Michener's "Iberia," serves a thick spicy gazpacho that is widely recognized as the best in Andalusia.