It's chilly, it's foggy, the sun sets at 4:30 p.m. and some attractions that are open in summer are closed.

So why am I in Europe?Because the air fares and hotels are cheap and because, despite its disadvantages, Europe in winter is still a wonderful place to be.

I've just spent four days in Austria, where I explored two marvelous palaces, visited the home of Mozart and went window-shopping on one of Europe's premier pedestrian streets. Here in Munich, I drank beer from a liter mug and listened to oompah music in a beer hall, gawked at jeweled crowns and scepters in the treasury of the Residenz and joined the crowd in the Marienplatz waiting to see the famous Glockenspiel animated clock strike 11.

These are all things I could do in summer, but I did them in winter, and that's the point. Sure, I wore a muffler, gloves and coat when I ventured outside, but that didn't stop me from enjoying these cities' main attractions.

Besides, there are plenty of other good reasons to visit Europe in winter. Because it's the off-season, theaters, museums, stores, restaurants and hotels all are less crowded and prices are more reasonable.

It's also the continent's cultural season. Opera takes the stage in cities like Paris, Vienna and Milan. Concerts and theater crowd the nightly schedules. Museums may not be open as late as they are in summer, but they are easier to visit in winter, when they are less busy and may even offer new exhibits. Paris' Louvre Museum, for instance, has just opened its new Richelieu wing, an enormous space that almost doubles the famous museum's exhibition space.

All over Europe, winter is the season for carnival, or Fasching, as it is called in Germany. This pre-Lenten fete takes many forms.

Vienna celebrates Fasching with literally hundreds of gala balls. More than 300 of them are held during the winter, the most famous being the Inmperial Ball on Dec. 31 and the Opera Ball on Feb. 10. With the exception of the Opera Ball, which is generally sold out well ahead of time, anyone can buy a ticket, sometimes even at the door.

In France, Nice is host to its famed Carnival (Feb. 10-15), in which a parade of huge papier-mache heads marches down the seaside Promenade d'Anglais. Venice's famous carnival (Feb. 6-15) dates to 1700 and features masked balls, music, plays and fireworks. The renowned Carnival of Binche, Belgium (Feb. 13-15) is even older; it has been celebrated for 430 years. In Rhineland and Bavaria, Germany, Fasching's revelry (Feb. 1-15) climaxes with Rose Monday parades in Cologne, Mainz and Dusseldorf.

These are annual celebrations, but 1994 will also bring some special ones to Europe.

At Lillehammer, Norway, the XVII Winter Olympics will take place Feb. 12-27. If one does not already have Olympic tickets and accommodations, they will be difficult to come by. All the prime events are sold out, said Don Williams of Cartan Tours, the only operator in the United States authorized to sell tickets, and less than 1,000 other tickets remain. However, Cartan and some other oeprators also offer packages that include event tickets and some that do not include tickets.

For information, call Cartan at (800) 841-1994; International Sports Tours at (800) 348-3427; Warren Miller Ski Travel at (800) 754-8747; and ScanTours at (800) 223-7226.

This will be the 50th year since the D-Day landings of World War II, and both Britain and France are planning major commemorations at the Normandy beaches in June. British Airways and Air France are offering 30 percent discounts to veterans and/or persons 60 years of age or older.

Other special events on tap: Frankfurt will celebrate its founding 1,200 years ago and Lisbon, named the 1994 cultural capital of Europe, will stage a year-long series of events.

All these are good reasons to cross the Atlantic in winter. But that said, let us not minimize the down side. Europe in winter is not the sunny, colorful place it is in summer.

In Vienna, the cold was damp and penetrating. In Munich, it started snowing the moment I got there and continued until three inches of the white stuff sat on the ground. In Krems, about 60 miles from Vienna, the fog was so thick and persistent that I never did get to see much of the reportedly beautiful Wachau valley.

I have been to Europe in other Novembers and never experienced such poor weather so early in the season. But that's the risk one takes by going off-season.

However, some parts of Europe remain warm and pleasant throughout the winter. Portugal's Algarve coast, Spain's Costa del Sol and the Mediterranean islands are highly popular for that reason.

Yes, some places you might like to see may be closed in wintertime. I was unable to stay at the famed Durnstein castle near Krems, for instance, or to visit the interiors of the Amelienborg and Pagodaburg pavilions at Nymphenburg Castle in Munich.

But one man's low season can be another's high. Snowy times are great for skiing, bringing hordes of skiers to such renowned resorts as St. Mortiz, Gstaad, Innsbruck, Kitzbuehl, Courmayeur, Cortina, Chamonix, Val d'Isere and Garmisch-Partenkirchen. Many ski packages to Europe are excellent bargains.

So attractive is Europe becoming in the off-season, that the New York-based European Travel Commission expects a record 3.5 million Americans to visit during the current 7-month off-season (October-April).

Helping the flow of Americans to Europe is the stronger dollar. The greenback certainly isn't as hefty as it was in 1985, but the exchange rates today are far better than they were as recently as September 1992.

Biggest gains have been scored against the Finnish finnmark, where the dollar gained 49.7 percent in the year from Sept. 1, 1992, to Sept. 1, 1993. In the same period, the Italian lira went down 47.5 percent and the Spanish peseta 43.2 percent.

Air fares not only are lower in winter, but promotional deals are often attached. Flying Delta to Europe ($482 round trip, Miami-Vienna) enabled me to get a car for three days for $50 (it's free if two are traveling). Al Italia is offering air fare, five nights in a hotel and airport transfers from Miami to either Rome or Venice for $559. El Al will fly to Israel for $870; add $179 and they'll throw in five nights in a hotel with breakfast and a car.

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Packages can offer good value. American Airlines, for instance, offers six nights in London beginning at $145 per person, double occupancy. A seven-day ski package to the French Alps starts at $765 and includes air fare from New York to Geneva or Lyon, and car rental. Hotels, too, lower their rates to lure winter guests. All three of the hotels I stayed in cost about 30 percent less than they would in high season - and rooms were very available.

In addition, hotels often offer special incentives to winter visitors. Two examples: Holiday Inn hotels in Europe are offering a room rate of $79 or less at more than 100 participating hotels from Dec. 10 through Jan. 14. Inter-Continental hotels' new Heart of the City Winter Spectacular prgram offers savings of up to 50 percent through Jan. 31.

Savvy travelers can find deals on their own that are as good, but they have to work at it.

Sure, Europe in winter means tree branches bare of leaves, long nights and topcoat weather. But so does winter in Pittsburgh, Pa., and if you offer me Pittsburgh or Paris, I think you'll know which one I'll choose.

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