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From mid-October through March, Europe has no tourists -- only travelers and guests.

It's off-season, the time of year when hotels become residences again; no longer making do with apprentices and harried part-timers, but down to their permanent staffs. In two days they know us. The breakfast waitress remembers my preference for marmalade; that my husband takes hot milk in his morning coffee.

And the room rates drop. I hesitate a moment, then say, "Is that your best off-season rate?" and the cue is picked up at once. The rates drop again.

The shops that live and die on tourism are closed. We do not miss the plastic junk, and discover postcards are cheaper in the general variety stores. Merchandise is fresh and utilitarian from well-made wooden kitchen tongs in Germany to miniature flan pans in Spain.

Even the food is better from autumn to spring when restaurants return to slow cooking. The tourist comes once; the inhabitant is a regular customer. European diners are more interested in flavor than speed so each entree is prepared to order. The quality of soups goes untested in August, and chefs know they will never make reputations on the quick grills of hot weather menus.

This is the time to visit the cities of Europe. Nights are long, but even in Stockholm and Helsinki where they reach 22 hours of dark and two of dusk, there is more bustle, more excitement than in midsummer when the movers and shakers have retreated to island cottages in the Baltic archipelago. We begin to comprehend the regional obsession with saunas.

Lighted ski trails give new dimension to cross-country enthusiasm for all ages, and they begin in the suburbs. Trolley cars bristle with skis as office workers in Oslo leave midafternoon for pre-dinner exercise. Wine and beer move in from the sidewalk tables as brown cafes (so-called for the color of their ancient walls) in Holland and Belgium come alive.

All over Europe the seasons of theater, opera and concert are "on."

Royal ballets perform for their own first families in Sweden and Denmark. La Scala is open in Milan. Philharmonic orchestras known to us only from CDs are acoustically perfect in spaces that echo with history as well as sound. String quartets play without charge Sunday afternoons in palace music rooms. In Amsterdam they claim more than 12,000 performances take place from November to April in 65 theaters and concert halls.

Museums do not seem crowded though this is the time when special exhibitions are arranged to attract the local populace and educate school children in their cultural heritage. Museum personnel hassled and abrupt in July become mellow and caring November to March. ("English?" the man says in surprise. "One moment please. A book is here someplace and you should have it to enjoy the exhibit more.")

Once winter becomes an established fact, continental hotels are warm and cozy. The problem of cold rooms is most likely to occur in unheated summer hotels opened too early or in the swing season when there are unanticipated downturns in the weather.

We have learned to travel without a firm fix on time. If the weather changes for the worst, one of us will murmur "let's stay on" or maybe "let's go on." In the city business-class hotels weekends are 40 percent to 60 percent cheaper and come with room upgrades, free breakfasts and other perks. With rail passes in hand we spend rainy days sightseeing from train windows or en route to resort areas (Innsbruck for winter sports; Marbella for the sun) where the prices go down midweek.

This is, after all, the perfect time of year to take the trains. The riverboats are few, and driving in iffy weather is no fun. Trains go to the centers of things whether in Rome or Strasbourg. They scale mountains in Switzerland and are not intimidated by squalls. Rail Europe's Europass Saverpasses purchased before we left home are an even better bargain when two of us travel together. With the relatively short distances of Europe we can cover a

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