The history of Geneva can be summed up in the phrase, "I have some good news and some bad news." In the 11th century, the good news was that Geneva had developed into a rich and powerful territory, ruled by Catholic princes and bishops. The bad news was that it was under constant attack by greedy neighbors.
In the 1400s, Geneva's fairs were its greatest source of revenue _ good news. In 1462, the Duke of Savoy forbade French merchants to attend them, thereby impoverishing the city almost overnight.
In 1530, the good news was a treaty that assured some degree of security and allowed Geneva to prosper once again. The bad news was that John Calvin came for a visit and stayed. Theaters, drawing, fancy dress were out.
But since then a great deal has changed. The good news about Geneva today is that there is very little bad news. It's true that the memory of Calvin lingers on, in the numberless banks that proclaim the notorious Swiss thrift, in clusters of people waiting patiently for the light to change before crossing a traffic-less street, in neighborhoods free of litter and noise.
But there is something subversive at work. You notice it first in the parks. In the Jardin Anglais, children joyously race hobbyhorse tricycles. On the esplanade overlooking the Parc des Bastions, they revel in the most inventive toys: tiny, self-propelled, merry-go-rounds that 3- and 4-year-olds power with little hands, ingenious carts they pedal on a circular track.
The truth is that Geneva is no longer Calvin's city. For that matter, it is hardly the Genevois', since almost two-thirds of the inhabitants are immigrants. The amazing thing is the grace with which they have been absorbed: North Africans, Asians and Europeans blend into the city's life with little sign of discomfort.
Perhaps it is Geneva's civilizing effect. It was here that Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Voltaire held court, where the Red Cross was born and the League of Nations found a home. When contentious states look for a hospitable atmosphere in which to sit down and talk _ about disarmament, for example _ they come to Geneva.
A good place to begin an exploration of this remarkable city is the top floor of its oldest house, the Maison Tavel, at No. 6, Rue du Puits-St.-Pierre. (Open 10 to 5, every day except Monday.)
Filling an entire room is a scale model of Geneva in 1850, giving a vivid sense of the old town on the hill before it expanded around part of Switzerland's largest lake.
The Maison Tavel is in the heart of la Vielle Ville, the Old City, a cluster of beautiful 17th- and 18th-century buildings surrounded by stone ramparts. What once were craftsmen's homes and mansions of the nobility have been turned into galleries, antiques shops and smart boutiques.
The focal points of the Old City are the cathedral and the Place du Bourg-du-Four. In this charming, open space on two levels, bright with striped restaurant umbrellas and great containers of flowers, locals and tourists mingle and take a break from work and sightseeing.
The Place is enclosed by old buildings that typify what is special about Geneva. They have been transformed into charming shops and restaurants without destroying architectural integrity and sense of history. The entire package is cheerful and clean.
The Cathedral of Saint Peter, just a few minutes away, is another matter. The word "austere" could have been invented to describe it. Calvin stripped its Catholic Gothic to the bare bones, established residence, and invited such cheerful fellows as John Knox from Scotland to proselytize from its pulpit.
The best places to be in the cathedral are above it or beneath. The view from the north tower is worth the dizzying climb up a circular, stone staircase, and the archaeological excavations under the floor provide a fascinating journey into the past.
Any way is a good way to visit la Vielle Ville. Self-guide maps are available at the Tourist Office (Gare de Cornavin, Tel. (022) 45 52 00) as are taped tours (you can even rent a small tape player.)
And though any time is good, nighttime may be best. In warm weather, diners eat outside at Les Armures (near the Maison Tavel), historic buildings are artfully illuminated, and fountains, always brimming with flowers, appear around corners and cul-de-sacs. It's Geneva at its most lovely.
Dardagny is not mentioned as a "must-see" in the guide books to Geneva and its environs. It is only a wine-growing village, surrounded by rolling hills traced with rows of perfectly pruned vines, precisely laid out.
The houses are stone, stucco and wood, and wherever there can be flowers, there are. They spill out of an old wine press in front of the caveau, the wine-tasting building. They flourish in window boxes, planters and gardens.
A fine, leisurely hour or more can be spent in Dardagny, but if that isn't enough, yellow signs in the main street point the way to footpaths that wind through the countryside. Since it is not a tourist town, Dardagny is best visited by a car equipped with a good map. It's only a half-hour outside of Geneva, but people have been known to get lost.
Another, shorter trip involves leaving Geneva in order to see it better. The Saleve is a 4,419-foot mountain just over the French border that, on clear days, gives stupendous views of the Jura Mountains, the entire Lake of Geneva, and the city clustered at its tip.
A large cable car makes a swift ascent to a restaurant and viewing platform. The cable car is only 15 minutes from Geneva by taxi. An alternate route is the No. 8 bus to Veyrier and a short walk to the liftoff.
Geneva is inseparable from Lake Geneva, or Lac Leman, as it is called elsewhere in Switzerland. Graceful water taxis called mouettes dart like waterbugs from one side of town to the other, for the price of a bus ride.
Geneva's lakeside is girdled by parks, broad and peaceful swaths of green punctuated by mansions and gardens. The Jardin Anglais boasts a famous floral timepiece. The Parc des Eaux Vives is known for its rose garden and luxurious manor restaurant of the same name.
On the other side of the bay is the Perles du Lac park and the botanical garden. The Perles du Lac restaurant is a place to sit with a drink and watch the hundreds of sailboats. In their midst are sleek white excursion ships, making regularly scheduled stops.
A better choice might be to hop a boat that links the lakeside villages, stop off and explore one or two and take a later boat home. You might sail to Hermance, only 45 minutes away.
First discovered by artists and artisans, then by the well-to-do, the rustic, peasant houses are chic residences today, flower-bedecked and studiously simple. Hermance has a good beach, walking through town is fun, and the boat ride itself is terrific. (Schedules and prices of cruises are available in hotels and from the Tourist Office.)
The days of Geneva's great medieval markets are gone, but a tiny remnant remains in Carouge, a small town which was enveloped by Geneva as the city grew. When the No. 12 tram crosses the Aare River, buildings lose half their height and residential, apartment-house Geneva gives way to a kind of French-Swiss Greenwich Village.
The Marche stop is easy to miss, but worth looking for, because here, on Wednesday and Saturday mornings, a small fruit and vegetable market takes place. Under the intertwining branches of a double row of trees, farmers exhibit fresh produce to housewives who carefully examine it before filling their mesh sacks. When shopping is done, a visitor can wander the winding streets, past tiny antiques shops and corner bistros in an atmosphere very different from downtown.
That there is much more to Geneva goes without saying. Of its dozens of museums, most are similar to those of other great cities, but the Museum of Clocks and Enamelware is unique. A visit should begin with the excellent video on the second floor, which shows in closeup the remarkable movements of the miniature figures on display.
Different, also, is the Russian church on Rue Ferdinand-Hodler, with its bright gold domes and priceless icons in the murky interior.
The good news about Geneva is that it has achieved a level of civilization, in terms of everyday living, that is a model for cities everywhere. And that is very good news.
For further information about Geneva, contact the Swiss National Tourist Office at 608 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10020, telephone (212) 757-5944.
Robert Ragaini is a free-lance writer living in New York City.