If you were to live in Europe, where would it be? Perhaps a big city like Berlin, Munich, Vienna or Zürich, where the theater, music, art, restaurant and other cultural choices surpass nearly every American city except New York and possibly Chicago. (A tourist office brochure listing concerts offered at Berlin various classical music venues notes at least 15 of the world's most prominent soloists and conductors performed there in just the first three months of 1996.)

Or you might opt for a quieter life in the country, in an Alpen village or by a quiet lake. Others, we know, dream of living in an ancient farmhouse outside some tiny village in the south of France or the Tuscan hills of Italy.

While these all sound appealing, whenever we contemplate life in Europe, the Swiss shore of Lac Léman (Lake Geneva) gets most of the votes. There's more than enough culture in the cities of Geneva, Lausanne and Montreux to hold one's attention for a lifetime; the weather is some of the best in Europe; the public transportation is unmatched; and, of course, there are precious few drive-by shootings.

A two-bedroom condo in a small hillside town above the lake would do nicely. It would have a large balcony overlooking neat vineyards, the vast, sparkling lake and, on the French side, drifting in and out of the clouds, the Savoie Alps.

One of the attractions of this area is its proximity to some of Europe's greatest delights. Of course, Switzerland is a small country and none of its many charms is much farther away than a three-hour drive. The variety of things to see within an easy drive of the lake is extraordinary. In less than an hour, one can be in fashionable Gstaad, see the Roman ruins at Avenches, stroll the hilltop fortress town of Gruyères or explore Fribourg, one of Switzerland's most picturesque towns. Lyon, at the heart of France's great Burgundy wine region and the center of some of the world's greatest cooking, is just 94 miles from Geneva. Milan is only about 200 miles in the opposite direction.

Here are two easy daytrips. The first, into France on the other side of the lake, is by car. The other, an exploration of Vevey and Montreux, could be done mostly on foot or by bicycle, with an occasional assist from public transport.

Circle the Lake

Map: Die Generalkarte Switzerland #2. This trip is mostly in France, where things are less expensive. Proceed east from Lausanne, along the Red Road by the lake, skirting the eastern tip and finally heading back northwest on Red Road #21 to St. Gingolph at the French border. Once in France, always choose the road nearest the lake to stay as close to the water as possible. You'll pass through Evian, with its spa and large casino, then another spa town, Thonon-Les-Bains, and then, on a piece of France that juts into the lake, the medieval, walled fishing town of Yvoire, which is worthy of a visit. Park the car at the gates to the town and walk the narrow streets of the village.

Some readers use Yvoire's immensely charming Hotel du Port as a "first night" hotel out of the Geneva Airport, which is only about 30 km (19 miles) distant. The hotel's ancient, vine-covered, stone building is directly on the lake, at the end of a narrow street crowded with flower-bedecked old stone and wood buildings housing small restaurants, galleries and shops. The du Port has a glass-enclosed restaurant that seems to hover over the water and, at from 500 to 750 FF ($95-$143) for an air-conditioned double room, is an excellent value.

Hotel du Port, Yvoire - 74140 Douvaine (France), tel. 50 72 17, fax 50 72 90 71.

Continuing on after Yvoire, being careful to remain as near the lake as possible, you soon will encounter the hulking structures of Chateau de Beauregard and beyond that, another town worth a stop, Hermance, which is back in Switzerland.

From there it's only 16 km (10 miles) into Geneva where, if you keep the lake in view on your right, you'll have no problem finding Red Road #1 heading back northeast toward Lausanne. If you've time you might stop at Chateau Coppet - about 13 km (8 miles) - beyond Geneva for a tour of this fine 18C house that once belonged to a banker.

Celebrity Tour

Understandably, the Lac Léman region - especially around Vevey - has attracted its share of famous names. Though there are few monuments to those that are gone, a willingness to explore will yield a few traces of their presence.

• Though you won't find many celebs, an interesting start to the day might be at the Wine Museum at Aigle with its 13C turreted castle splendidly set in the vineyards. Afterward, proceed northwest, back toward the lake, on Red Road #9.

• Stop at Chateau de Chillon, thought to be one of the best preserved medieval castles in Europe, and one of Switzerland's most popular tourist attractions. In its present form, the castle dates to the middle of the 13th century, but its fame began in 1816 when the English poet, Lord George Gordon Noel Byron, wrote his Prisoner of Chillon, a tribute to Francois de Bonivard who was held in its dungeon for four of the six years (1530-36) of his Chillon imprisonment. Byron's name carved on a dungeon pillar is thought to be a fake.

Byron met his friends, the Shelleys, in Geneva in 1816 and there, during an evening of story-telling, Mary Shelley is said to have first introduced her character, Frankenstein.

• Go on to Montreux. At Grand Rue 100 is one of the finest hotels on the lake, the Montreux Palace. Vladimir Nabokov and his wife settled in Switzerland in 1961 and for a time, in 1964, they lived in this luxurious hotel. The successful U.S. release in 1958 of his novel Lolita had given Nabokov financial independence and he loved to collect butterflies in nearby mountain pastures.

• Further on in Clarens, at Rue Sacre du Printemps 7, is the flat of composer Igor Stravinsky where he wrote Sacre du Printemps, the "Rite of Spring."

• Above Montreux, in the village of Chamby, is the Hotel des Narcisses, one of many European hangouts, in the early 20s, of American writer Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway also spent some time further up the hill, in Les Avants, where he enjoyed the bobsled run.

• Les Avants also attracted the immensely talented British novelist, playwright, actor and lyricist, Noel Coward. On the route de Sonloup he purchased a 10-room chalet on four acres of land. While his home was being renovated Coward stayed at the Hotel Victoria in nearby Glion.

• In Vevey (if it's Saturday morning, your first stop should be the open air market), at 49 Rue d'Italia, is the Hotel Trois Couronnes, where American writer Henry James wrote his novel Daisy Miller. Published in 1878, the scene of the novel is Vevey and there are descriptions of the town, its people and the hotel.

• Following the death of his three-year-old daughter, Russian writer Feodor Dostoevsky settled in Vevey in 1868. At Rue du Simplon 13, he worked on his novel, The Gambler.

• On a terrace overlooking Vevey is Eglise Saint Martin (Church of St. Martin) which Victor Hugo, an exile from France because of his opposition to Napoleon III, sketched in 1861. His novel Les Miserables was published the following year and he returned to Paris in 1870.

• Just north of Rue de Lausanne, near the bus stop "Funiculaire du Mont Pelerin," is the Cemetery of Corsier where, among numerous other famous folk, are buried two prominent Brits, Graham Greene, author of The Third Man and Our Man in Havana, and film star Charlie Chaplain.

Greene, who had family in the area, died in Vevey in 1991.

Chaplain brought his fourth wife Oona O'Neill, daughter of playwright Eugene O'Neill, and nine children from Hollywood to the village of Corsier in 1953 where they settled in a luxurious estate. He had refused U.S. citizenship and been labeled a Communist sympathizer. Both Chaplain and Oona are buried in Corsier and their descendants still occupy the family home.

• In 1923, at Route de Lavaux 21, the architect Eduard Jeanneret, known as "Le Corbusier," designed a home for his parents. The family lived in the house until 1972. It is now a museum. Le Corbusier, who played a key role in the development of modern architecture, drowned accidentally in the Mediterranean in 1965.

May 1996