London — JULIUS Caesar fortified it. Calvin thundered against sin in it. Voltaire wrote in it, Liszt composed in it, Byron fashioned verse in it, Lenin conspired in it, numerous conventions governing health, travel, and diplomacy come from it, and hopes for a world parliament and rule of law still live in it.
Yet when a veteran foreign resident was asked for his assessment of it the other day, he replied: ``Tidy and bland . . . a place of upmarket, expensive wristwatches, chocolates, cheese, and light industry making parts for sewing machines and air conditioners. . . .''
That's Geneva: romantic history, prosaic present.
This lakeside symbol of Swiss neutrality, this home of the United Nations in Europe, is in the headlines these days as the site of the resumed nuclear arms talks between United States and Soviet negotiators.
Nor does Geneva feature only East-West issues. As the arms talks opened, a major North-South conference was in its second day: the first comprehensive UN conference on African famine, looking for billions of dollars to help feed an estimated 30 million people facing starvation south of the Sahara.
Indeed, the comparatively small (population: 160,000) city, located between the towering snow-covered slopes of the Alps and the Jura Mountains, where the turquoise waters of the Rhone River flow into western Europe's largest lake (Lake Geneva), is known mainly today not for charisma but for conferences.
In its hotels, and in its global headquarters buildings known by endless acronyms (ILO, WHO, GATT, UNCTAD, ICJ, ICAO, WMA and many more), some 7,000 major conferences are held every year.
Counting smaller meetings (which can include 50 to 60 people), the overall total is closer to 30,000.
That's an awesome average of 80 or so conferences every single day, including Sundays.
``The meeting place of the world,'' as Time magazine called it recently, receives some 2 million visitors a year -- to sessions on trade, slavery, health and wildlife, on law and copyrights and aircraft landing rights, as well as to such events such as the world's largest auto show (recently staged in a giant hall near the airport).
Not to mention the straightforward tourist, attracted by the France that surrounds Geneva on three sides, or the Swiss mountains, where skiing and the walking of precipitous paths are just train rides away from centers such as Montreux.
At first sight the city itself looks grey and flat as it winds its way sedately around the western tip of Lake Geneva. The one spectacular sight is the j'et d'eau, an arrow of water that shoots 400 feet into the air just offshore, yet charmingly close to the city center.
It's a city not of smokestack industries but of talk, expensive shops, and good restaurants. It is also a careful, cautious place of Swiss industry and thrift laced with French cuisine and an international outlook.
There is also a lot of money around the lake. Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, for instance, has a chateau said to be worth $3 million or so. Asked if he knew of it, one man whose family still lives in Geneva hesitated: ``Let's see,'' he said. ``There are a lot of big chateaux around the lake. . . .''
Across the lake from the quiet old city is one of the its enduring symbols, the Palais des Nations, a huge, formal, marble complex of cavernous corridors and high-ceilinged salons built for the League of Nations. It was not finished until 1937, by which time the League's usefulness was minimal, but after World War II it became the European headquarters of the UN.
The Genevois seem little impressed with the new superpower arms talks, or by the fact that both SALT agreements were hammered out here. One man blew out his cheeks and spread his hands in Swiss-Gallic deprecation: ``They talk, yes, but they still build more arms. . . They are like children with their toys. . . .''
In one respect, however, Geneva retains some of the mystery and intrigue of its past. Diplomats say this is Europe's espionage center for the Soviet Union.
According to the Journal de Gen`eve, a French-language newspaper, the Soviets had about 2,500 people in Switzerland in 1984, the bulk of them in Geneva.
The latest arms talks opened in a Soviet mini-city within the city, centered around the consulate, and containing its own shops, hotel, school, conference halls, and a medical dispensary.
The newspaper estimates that about 400 Soviets live there full time, and double that number are visiting at any given time. The Soviets possess 430 autombiles registered in Geneva, half with diplomatic plates and many containing communications equipment to keep in touch with a base office in the ``mini-city.''
Officially, the Soviets are said to have 785 diplomatic posts in Switzerland, but the Journal reaches its 2,500 number by adding wives (many of whom work as secretaries), children, and Soviets who stay less than one year (not counted in official figures).
In Geneva, the Soviets fill 680 formal positions: 500 at the UN and its specialized agencies, about 25 in such organizations as Aeroflot, Tass, Pravda, Novosti and Izvestia, and Soviet radio and television.
In Geneva, the Journal reports, at least one third of Soviet personnel are agents of the KGB, the Soviet secret police, or of the GRU, the Soviet military intelligence.
The Soviets watch the West -- and each other: The Journal quotes one wife of a former vice-consul as saying that ``we can't even leave [the Soviet compound] to buy lipstick without going on tiptoes.''
Soviet people are caught in a dilemma, however: The lure of the Geneva shops is strong, but the cost of living is extremely high.
The most popular room in the luxury hotel where the entourage of US Vice-President George Bush stayed in March was the one in which a duty-free ``shop'' was set up for the Bush party. Prices were reasonable rather than astronomic.
What, one wonders, would Caesar, Calvin, Voltaire, and even Lenin have made of that?