Geneva: everything just so

IN May in Geneva, the plane trees come into leaf along the Mont-Blanc and Wilson Rivers, and along the Gustave Ador River on the opposite shore of Lake Leman. The trees are severely pruned, each branch cropped to a stump, so that the spring's new shoots will spread into a tight crown of greenery. Before the leaves are out it all looks artificial, as if too much care has been taken to produce the effect - too neat, perhaps, in a very Swiss sort of way. But May does away with that idea, as the plane trees bud and artifice shows itself as art.

You arrive in this city on the lake to find impeccable stone fa,cades kept to nearly uniform elevations, shorelines uncluttered with urban affairs save for parking lots and sailboat moorings, and even the narrow warrens of the oldest quarters are scrubbed and pointed with fresh mortar.

A stage set, you suspect, lovely but impossibly correct: the perfect place for international diplomacy.

It soon occurs to you, as it always does in Switzerland, that perhaps what you've been used to at home is all too slapdash and chaotic, and that people who make virtual topiary of their shade trees might well be trusted with life's other little details.

It certainly isn't easy to fault a transportation system that provides for 130 trains a day in and out of the city, including direct service to Paris and Lyon via the French National Railways' superfast TGV. Even the Swissair-managed airport has a direct rail connection.

Impossible as it may seem to North Americans, your plane and your downtown train are barely 200 yards apart in Geneva. Ascots are a must

Geneva, I found almost immediately upon my own arrival, is not one of those cities in which the first item on the agenda is to scour the tourist literature and plan an attack upon that sacred canon of guidebooks, the Points of Interest.

Geneva itself is the point of interest, and the best way to begin a sojourn here is to simply drink it in for awhile.

Stand at the window of your hotel (the Hotel des Bergues, the Beau-Rivage, the President - all admittedly expensive, but incomparably situated right on the lake) and look at the plane trees and the excursion boats, and at the wonderful 400-foot fountain that soars from the end of a pier on the southern shore near the Jardin anglais and the Rhone.

Geneva brings out the boulevardier in what may otherwise be purposeful individuals, a tendency which might explain the remarkable number of ascots being worn by gentlemen there.

I hadn't brought an ascot, but I began to walk the city at a pace which would not betray such boulevardier's apparel - anything but the tourist's determined lope. Just such a leisurely walk took me across the Pont du Mont-Blanc at the head of the Rhone, and into the old town of Geneva, a compact, medieval city on a hill. Serendipity stroll

The old town offers just the sort of contrasting diversions, best found by serendipity, that makes the casual-stroll style of visiting strange cities so rewarding. In the splendid park called the Promenade des Bastions, I discovered one of Geneva's great monuments, the Reformation Wall.

Here, massive stone relief carvings commemorate the heroes of the Protestant Reformation - John Knox, Guillaume Farel, Theodore de Beze, and, of course, John Calvin. Calvin came here in 1636, the year after Geneva became a republic (the city-state joined the Swiss Confederation in 1815), and it was from the safety of this Protestant enclave that he helped lay the intellectual groundwork for the Reformation's expansion.

Just a few blocks away, however, I came upon the far more worldly prospect of a street carousel. The sight of a piece of urban real estate, however small, being used to permanently harbor a merry-go-round comes as quite a pleasant shock to North American sensibilities.

Near the carousel were street stalls selling shirts, scarves, and jewelry. These seemingly are the only inexpensive items in a city devoted to selling everything from antique Oriental rugs and fine paintings to the ubiquitous chocolates and watches at prices reflective not only of the dollar's decline against the Swiss franc but also of the prosperity of the place.

Calvin said that banking was all right, and the Genevese have taken him at his word ever since.

On the banks of the Rhone

Eventually, though, I had to impose some order upon my ramblings. The old town and adjacent neighborhoods on the left bank of the Rhone, I found, were an excellent place to begin. (Note: the left and right banks of the river are determined by standing with your back to the lake.)

Here stands Geneva's most imposing church, and certainly its most ambitious archaeology project, the Cathedral of St. Pierre. Although the present building was begun in the 12th century, a decade and a half of restoration work involving extensive excavation has revealed aspects of structures that have stood on this site since Roman times.

Now that the work is nearly complete, it is possible to visit the sub-basements of St. Pierre and take a guided tour of two millenia - fourth-century mosaics and all.

Another left bank attraction is the Art and History Museum, housing a collection begun early in the 19th century, when Calvinist strictures on the public display of art had sufficiently loosened. Genevese painters are well represented, among them the portraitist Jean-Etienne Liotard; Pierre-Louis de la Rive, whose pastorals are reminiscent of the Hudson River School, and Ferdinand Hodler (1853-1918), who painted por traits of people at work and of the Swiss mountains in a protomodern style.

Small museums abound in and around the old town. On the Promenade des Bastions is the Jean-Jacques Rousseau Museum, dedicated to the memory of the Geneva native, while the Museum of Modern Art (Renoir to Picasso) occupies the exquisite Petit Palais a few blocks away. Another fine old-town mansion houses the Zoubov Collection of paintings, furniture, and carpets.

Still on the left bank though just outside the blocks that technically define the old town are museums of Chinese and Japanese art (the Baur Collections), antique musical instruments, and - how could they not have a museum of their own? - watches and clocks.

The manageable size of these institutions, along with their proximity to one another, makes the visitor to Geneva virtually immune to museum fatigue or time wasted unraveling mysteries of public transportation. Even while pursuing history and culture here, it is possible to keep the composure of a boulevardier.

Gimmick-free cuisine

A true boulevardier, of course, is sustained by more than culture with a capital C. There are always Genevese dishes such as the local sausage longeole, served with potatoes and leeks; the delicious Lake Leman perch; and the renowned cheese preparations fondue and raclette.

Local specialties are only part of the story; just as it is identified with diplomacy and a certain sense of world order, Geneva may be thought of as the keeper of the best traditions of classic, gimmick-free French and northern Italian cuisine.

One of the best hotel and restaurant schools in Switzerland is located here, and Switzerland has long been regarded as the best hotel and restaurant school in the world.

I lunched one afternoon at a sidewalk cafe on the Quai Mont Blanc, near a table where an elderly British gentleman sat with his wife. ``Switzerland,'' I heard him say, ``is a land of gastronomic excess, and discretion in all other things.''

He was wearing an ascot. We were sitting beneath the budding plane trees, on the banks of Lake Leman.

If you go

Write the Swiss National Tourist Office, 608 Fifth Ave., N.Y., N.Y. 10020 (212-757-5944) for details on Geneva. For information about flights from the US to Geneva, contact one of several airlines, including Swissair, TWA, Luftansa, or KLM.

Because of a translation error an article in the April 10 travel section (page B7) incorrectly referred to the Mont-Blanc, Wilson, and Gustave Ador rivers. They are boulevards that rim Geneva's Lake Leman.

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