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Malaga - a gracious and mysterious city

Right in the center of Malaga stands the Gibralfaro, a great hill that has all the profile of a minor mountain. At night, el monte, as they call it here, disappears into the blankness of the Mediterranean sky. But by day it shows its flanks, ribbed with stony ruins and moorish walls. And it serves as a focal point for this gracious city of antique heart and modern torso.

As el monte is to Malaga, so the heart of Malaga is to the Costa del Sol - a compact figure of how gracious and mysterious this part of Spain once uniformly was, and sometimes still is.

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A traveler along the 72 miles of coastline in this European playland runs a journey through the rugged mountain-and-sea terrain that harbors sandy havens for the beautiful people and big spenders, as well as gracious hideaways for the old wealth of the region. In the course of a day, you can watch the suntan-lotion buttery action in seaside cabanas. You can follow solitary pursuits among the mountainside villages. You can press your way through crowded Las Vegas-style hotels.

Then, again, you can make your way into Malaga (the city where Pablo Picasso was born). And you would be well advised to do so.

From the top of the Gibralfaro - which sports a tiny, castle-like Parador with an excellent restaurant, right below a genuine 14th-century fortress ruin - you can look down at Malaga's complex patterns of sea, ancient Alcazaba, central-city park, and teeming life. You can see the driving development of apartment buildings that sprawl westward, and the gentle denouement between city and mountain-sea on the east.

The ''castle'' up here, like many in Spanish cities, consists of crumbling ruins strung along ridges and gorges, still holding much history in their gutted innards. Walking along the turrets and battlements, which circumnavigate the brow of this hill, you will see the usual refuse of urban youth. But you will also cut through the encroaching greenery in a setting full of timeless anonymity and stillness.

The part of Malaga that most invites exploration lies right at the foot of el monte: the aged center, compact, gentle, beautiful, and pleasant to walk through.

Within easy walking distance down here, you can find the Roman Theater, the beehive of shopping streets, the Alcazaba Palace Fortress, the Bellas Artes Museum, and the archaeological museum inside the Alcazaba.

One feels in the old part of town that something gracious will soon pass into history. Malaga evidences urban growing pains - churning traffic, ambient noise, runaway commercialism. Yet the street life of the old city gives off a serenity and deep contentment with things as they are. People throng the parks, hands in their pockets, taking the air.

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At about 8 or 9 in the evening last May, the sun had not set, and would not until after 9:30. The Paseo de Parque was lined with bookstalls for the annual book fair, which runs for two weeks at the end of every May and the beginning of every June. The plenitude of styles, languages, and titles made a telling statement about the city's active thought-life. You can wander back into the old shopping district and find bookstore after bookstore. Not so many bargains as one heard of in times past. But plenty of books.

You'd have to search diligently to find a book in anyone's hand in Torremolinos, just a short drive west of here. The glass and stone resort hotels and droves of pretty people make this part of the Costa del Sol into that nondescript place without a country one finds wherever the sun shines, the water's warm, and tourists can be lured from chillier climes. Better to turn east toward the balcony of Europe and Nerja, where, at the same time, you can find plenty of Old World charm to offset the press of commercial traffic.

One afternoon last May I sat there in the backyard

garden of the poet Giner de los Rios, talking with him about his long-deceased friend Federico Garcia Lorca. The Mediterranean pounded below us at the base of the cliffs. The air was warm and limpid. He spoke of Andalusian gypsies and the cante jondo (deep song) of Spain. Within a short drive eastward, the bitter, dry beauty of Almeria hugged up against the sea. Mountains swept down to the shore. The water was a shade of deep azure. I felt I was perched on the threshold of a magical culture.

That feeling is not difficult to come by here. With a little enterprise, you can get up into mountain villages and meet a more sedentary part of Spanish life. I found the people of Andalusia easy to meet and talk to; and much of the Costa del Sol is no exception. But it's more likely that the most memorable memento one takes back from a trip to this region is one's own confrontation with the landscape.

The sun and the swimming are there, surely.

But so much poetry looms out of the earth in its meeting with the sea - and so much quiet warmth lies at the heart of Malaga - that I all but forgot to swim.

In practical terms, this part of Spain can get expensive by comparison with other Spanish cities. Prices have been driven up by demand for year-round sun and fun. In Malaga, the medium- to high-price hotels run 4,000 to 6,000 pesetas (about $24 to $36 a day); in Marbella, you can spend as much as 17,000 ($103); and in Nerja, the best spots run 5,000 to 6,000 ($30 to $36).

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