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EXPO '92, SEVILLE'S WORLD FAIR, GEARS UP FOR APRIL 20 OPENING

Though traditionally conservative and intensely religious, Seville nonetheless glories in its fame as a European capital of sun-splashed fun, the very epitome of romantic Old Spain. In no time at all, I began to fall under its spell.

In Seville, romantic fantasies have a way of coming true. By day, we wandered the twisting alleyways of the Old Quarter of Santa Cruz, reveling in the beauty of its flower-filled patios, with their splashing fountains and brilliantly colored tiles. One afternoon, we lingered over lunch in a little orange-tree-shaded plaza, daydreaming to the songs of Gypsy troubadours. And once, in the cool of an early evening, we hired an elegant horse-drawn carriage and nourished illusions of aristocratic grandeur in a slow clip-clop down cobblestone streets graced with ornate 16th- and 17th-century palaces.This is Seville's year of resurrected glory. In centuries past, the city profited mightily from the riches of the New World unlocked by the voyages of Christopher Columbus, whose impressive tomb (or at least one of them) stands in the Cathedral of Seville, the third largest in Europe. This year, in celebration of the 500th anniversary of Columbus's first voyage, Seville is playing host to a six-month-long world's fair, Expo '92, which opens April 20. In preparation, almost $9 billion has been spent restoring the city's magnificent architectural heritage, creating new promenades along the Guadalquivir River and diverting commercial traffic away from the historic city center. Seville probably hasn't looked so grand since the great treasure galleons from Peru and Mexico stopped sailing into port centuries ago.

Once the fair gets going, first-time visitors are going to find themselves facing a considerable quandary. Do they devote the bulk of their time to the massive fair, which is rapidly rising on the Island of Cartuja just across the river from the city center? In keeping with the city's penchant for late-night festivities, it will remain open until 4 a.m. each day and could occupy a visitor's every waking moment.

Or do they concentrate on the old city itself, which cherishes some of the world's most splendid examples of medieval Islamic architecture? For five centuries until the year 1248, Seville flourished as a Moorish capital, and this heritage is evident everywhere. Bedecked with dazzling tile work, the ancient Islamic-style palace known as the Alcazar is a fairy-tale fantasy that kept me engrossed for most of a morning. And its luxuriant walled garden is a mystical place with its own exotic tales to tell.

And when does the visitor this year squeeze in a taste of contemporary life in Seville? Many times a setting for operas, the city last year opened its own new whitewashed opera house, the Teatro de la Maestranza (Maestranza Theater), which surely will tempt music lovers. Just down the Paseo de Cristobal Colon, a busy street named for Columbus, is the historic Plaza de Toros - one of the handsomest and most famous bull rings in Spain. Days in advance, the crowds line up for tickets to the bullfights, a spectacle much revered in the city. And every night, the adjacent neighborhood of Arenal, where our hotel was located, swarms with the people of Seville making the rounds of the wine and tapas bars or heading for their typically late dinner. Properly sampling the fine wines and foods of Seville and the surrounding Andalusian countryside could easily take up a large chunk of time.

I really can't answer these questions. Like any frenetic tourist, I scrambled to absorb what I could, pausing only when I was forced to by the Spanish custom of shutting down almost everything except cafes and bars at midday for several hours. Without this forced rest, I might have missed yet one more of Seville's pleasures - its leisurely, sociable pace of life. There is no better way to sample it than by sitting beneath an orange tree, sipping wine and listening to Gypsy melodies.

Several of Seville's most notable sites should not be missed, even at the expense of overlooking an exhibit or two at the fair. All are concentrated in the city center. A fortified wall once protected the city to the north, but most of it was demolished in the 19th century. In its place, a series of broad avenues, arcing from the western leg of the river to its eastern shoreline, now defines Seville's charming old heart.

All but hidden in the northeast corner of that heart is the white-washed Old Quarter of Santa Cruz. Under Moorish rule, it was a flourishing Jewish neighborhood, but when Christian Spain introduced the Inquisition the Jews fled. Now the area is filled with small hotels, atmospheric restaurants and bars and several fine Spanish craft shops. Its labyrinthine streets, lined with flower-draped balconies, are thronged daily well into the early morning hours. To the south, the Cathedral of Seville and the Alcazar, facing each other, form an impressive gateway.

Begun in the 15th century on the site of a great Muslim mosque, the lofty Gothic cathedral is Spain's largest and third in size in Europe behind the Basilica of St. Peter in Rome and St. Paul's Cathedral in London. Its most pleasing features, however, are survivors from the original mosque. One is the Giralda, reputed to be among the world's loveliest minarets. As the city's most recognizable landmark, the brick tower commands the skyline. It is decorated with the arched double windows of the Moors called ajimeces and delicate arabesques, the Moorish sculptural lacework of intertwined lines. A series of interior ramps leads to a viewing platform that offers panoramic vistas of the city.

The cathedral's other Moorish remnant is the Patio de los Naranjos, the "Patio of the Orange Trees," a lovely garden where orange trees still grow.

Before we concluded our foot tour of the city, I wanted a look at the bull ring, about a 15-minute walk south of the Old Quarter. I am no fan of bullfights, but the people of Seville love them, and the 18th-century structure beside the river is impressive. So are the prices for a ticket, which on the day we passed by ranged from $24 (for a seat in full sun) to $113 (in the shade).

Late one afternoon, we paused for a beer at one of the refreshment kiosks that line the tree-shaded Paseo de Cristobal Colon alongside the river near the bull ring. When a carriage driver suggested a ride, we hopped right in and rode by the Park of Maria Luisa, an expansive formal garden laced by shady promenades.

And then this heretical little thought crept into my mind. If I were going to be in Seville during its world's fair, no matter how splendid, I might just decide to pay hooky from it. If you are a romantic, the best show in town - as it has been for generations - really is the old city itself.