Switzerland's capital is a city of geraniums, stone houses, and unhurried people-watching

BERN is a city of both quaintness and grandeur -- in an area small enough to preclude that familiar tourist lament of having ``missed something.'' You can amble to your heart's content without fear of being trampled by yet another busload of tourists or of waiting in endless lines for a quick peek at a famous painting. Happily, Bern, with its population of only 146,000, is not on the itinerary of most package-tour groups. That a small city could have such a feeling of spaciousness is a testimonial to the city planners of the 12th and 13th centuries, as well as the Swiss of today who see no need to improve on a supremely livable city. There are no intrusive high-rise buildings in the Old Town.

Instead, a profusion of geraniums brightens the balconies of thick-walled stone houses that line the wide cobblestone streets. City squares invite unhurried people-watching and display a typical activity in Bern -- people playing chess with chessmen two feet high on boards marked off on the pavement. Marathon chess matches can run all day as spectators urge the players on. The seat of government

The Old Town, dotted with red-roofed sandstone houses, is nestled on a peninsula formed by the wide horseshoe curve of the Aare River. Founded in 1191, Bern was orginally built of wood, with towers marking its outer limits. A fire in 1405 destroyed all but the foundations, over which today's city was rebuilt. The majority of structures have remained unchanged since the 15th century.

The stately grandeur of Bern is apparent as soon as you leave the Bahnhof (train station) and walk toward the Aare. There's no royal palace, because Switzerland never had a king, but high on a bluff overlooking the river are the majestic green-domed Houses of Parliament. Here is the seat of the Conferatio Helvetia (the CH on Swiss license plates), Latin for ``Swiss Confederation.''

Switzerland is one of the world's earliest democracies. The Federal Council consists of seven members who make their decisions jointly and rotate into the presidency for a one-year term. Each of the 23 Swiss cantons sends two representatives to serve in Bern on the Council of States. This body, and a National Council, whose 200 deputies are elected by the people, constitute the two chambers of legislative authority.

Bern was designated the federal city by the Swiss constitution of 1848, and in a land that shuns centralization of power, the city performs its political role with little fanfare. Banks and cathedrals

Switzerland and banking have long been synonymous. Bern not only has a wealth of towering bank buildings, but the gold reserves of the nation are buried in deep underground vaults of the National Bank in the shadow of the Houses of Parliament.

The Cathedral of Bern, with its towering spire, is a stirring example of Gothic architecture. Construction work was originated on the present cathedral in 1421; the front is from the year 1524, the organ from 1726.

Even if you feel you've seen one cathedral too many in your travels, you should climb the high bluff to the Munsterplatz on which Bern's cathedral stands, just for the view. You'll be gazing at the Bernese Oberland, with the snowy peaks ofthe Jungfrau, Eiger, and Monch aglow on a sunny day. Even when these great Alpine peaks are obscured in mist, there is a wonderful sense of pure, clean air and incredible beauty. Clock Tower pageantry

The Clock Tower is the oldest building in the city. Its inner walls, more than nine feet thick, date back to the 12th century. The tower's hourly puppet show has delighted young and old for four centuries. Three minutes before each hour strikes, a rooster high above the crowds crows and lifts his wings. Then, as a procession of armed bears marches in a circle, a jester rings two bells, the rooster crows a second time, a quarter-hour bell is struck, and Father Time turns his hourglass. Next, a larger-than-life knight in gold armor strikes the full hour on a large bell, Father Time counts the hours by moving his lips and his scepter, and a lion turns its head with each strike of the bell. The incredible performance ends with a third crow of the rooster.

This pageant is even more intriguing from the inside, but arrangements must be made through the Bern Tourist Office in the Bahnhof. The Bern bears

As beloved as the Clock Tower are two other Bern attractions -- the bears and the arcades. The Bear Pits are a short walk across the Aare via the Nydegg Bridge at the foot of the Old Town. Although overfed by tourists and residents alike, some dozen bears spend their days hamming it up in the interest of cadging more carrots from those watching from a safe distance above the pits.

There's even a monument to a bear atop one of the city's colorful fountains. This benevolent-looking animal is wearing the coat of arms of the city's founder. Legend has it that Duke Berchtold V von Zahringen, who built Bern as a military post on the frontier between French- and German-speaking bailiwicks, vowed to name his city after the first animal he encountered. Maybe there were bearsin what is now a lush residentialsection across the river, maybe not. In any case, a bear was emblazoned on the city's first known seal, designed in the 12th century. And bears have been maintained in the pits since the early 16th century. Weatherized shopping

More than four miles of vaulted arcades, centuries old, protect shoppers from misty summer rain and harsh winter weather. Here, in the heart of the inner city, is a colorful jumble of elegant boutiques, art galleries, department stores, supermarkets, fur salons, jewelry stores, and irresistible candy and pastry emporiums. It's almost impossible to pass these confectionery windows without going in to sample at least one chocolate truffle or tiny gingerbread bear.

Strict laws limit all but government buildings to a height of four stories, so merchants have gone two and three levels underground in the arcades. Several cellar theaters have also opened beneath the streets and feature avant-garde plays, cabaret acts, and pantomime shows.

Twice a week in Bern there is a fruit and vegetable market, with stalls going right up to the steps of Parliament.

The most beautiful market of all is the Geranium Market, held every mid-May on the Munsterplatz. Bern's geraniums are almost as famous as its bears, and naturally window boxes need replenishing each spring. A wealth of attractions

Bern can boast of 13 museums, some of which are internationally famous.

The Kuntsmuseum houses the largest collection in the world of works by Paul Klee, over 2,000 of them, along with representative collections of other modern artists, such as Picasso, Modigliani, Chagall, Braque, and Matisse.

The Swiss Postal Museum houses the largest stamp collection on view anywhere.

The Natural History Museum contains realistic dioramas. There are theater collections, alpine exhibits, libraries -- something for everyone.

A zoo in the middle of a forest across the Aare from Old Town is always fun.

A city bus tour will pass some of the 80 embassies and consulates housed in Bern and will also take you to the Rose Garden, with its spectacular blooms and views of the city.

A cable railway goes to Mt. Gurten, just 20 minutes from the town center.

In the evening there is more entertainment -- American movies, symphony, ballet, bistros, sing-along pubs, a casino, and the Mocambo nightclub.

Spectator sports range from ice hockey and soccer to bicycle races and curling. Practical information

Bern is at the crossroads of Western Europe. It's about 1 hours by train from both Zurich and Geneva International Airports, served by flights on SwissAir or its charter subsidiary, Balair.

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