The romance of Bavarian castles is inextricably intertwined with the larger-than-life story of Ludwig II; for the area's most opulent fantasies in stone owe their existence to his compulsion to build, and build extravagantly.

The unhappy monarch increasingly left the running of his domain to his ministers, while he indulged in a crescendo of building activities that assuaged his desires for power and fulfillment. Beset by fixations and delusions of grandeur, and sybaritic in the extreme, Ludwig spared no effort or expense to surround himelf with the most elaborate and costly art and decor.Some say he was mad. At the least, he was an eccentric, an enigma. Yet the world must thank Ludwig for two enduring achievements: his castles, which have given pleasure to millions of visitors, and the encouragement of Richard Wagner as a super-composer.

Ludwig was passionately devoted to Wagner, and though their relationship was often stormy and strained, his loyalty never flagged in providing first stagings of Wagner's works. The Festspielhaus at Bayreuth and the first performances of the Ring owe their existence to Ludwig's generosity.

Less than a year after Ludwig's death in 1886 (whether by accident or suicide) in the Starnbergsee near Schloss Berg, the first entry admissions were charged at Neuschwanstein. Since then, a century of visitors have fully and willingly paid for his castles.

Is great art a wasteful frivolity, or a precious legacy? Most modern visitors thank Ludwig for the colorful and spicy tales he added to history, and the art he left behind. Indeed, when Ludwig's life achievement is compared with the likes of Napoleon or Hitler, whose vast expenditures brought only misery and death to their followers, one wonders if Ludwig was not truly wise.

As reigning Wittelsbach, Ludwig lived in many of the castles that dot the Bavarian coutryside. Besides the Residenz and Nymphenburg (where ge was born) in Munich, he enjoyed Schloss Berg, a confortable country seat some 10 or 15 miles south of his capital.

But it was to the Alpine region that he was irresistibly drawn. The family often repaired in summer to Hohenschwangay near Fussen, a site saturated wiht legends. In 1832 his father Maximilian II had purchased the dilapidated old home of the Schwangau nobles, and had its walls decorated with scenes of the Grail, of Tannhauser, and the Swan-knight Lohengrin who, according to radition, had lived in this very castle.

There Ludwig acquired from his father his taste for solitude and the mountain. Swans were everywhere - on the lake, on the walls, in statues and knickknacks. This romantic small castle is still open to the public, but those with limited time will find their attention drawn to the fairy story vista up the hill.

In the late 1860s, his mind stimulated by his contact with the legend-obsessed Wagner and his taste informed by his own visits abroad Ludwig embarked upon an orgy of casstle-building which soon threatened the stability of the Bavarian treasury. Ludwig supervised every step of his buildings and their decor, and made minute corrections that had to be followed by his architects and workmen to the tiniest detail, under penalty of royal wrath.

On a crag about a mile above Hohenschwangau stood the ruins of an old castle - Vorderhohenschwangau. There Ludwig determined to build Neuschwanstein, (New Swan Stone) with decor and layout inspired by the medieval Wartburg immortalized in Wagner's "Tannhauser." Indeed, one may ponder whether the present structure most reminds him of Tannhauser, or of Valhalla, home of the Wagnerian gods.

As fairy tale elaborate as it is, the castle was considerably simplified from its original design, and really not very large. Work began in 1869, and though substantial progress was made, it was never to be finished in Ludwig's lifetime, nor is it today.

Most visitors walk up from the parking lot, a steep climb. But the hillside is beautiful and the view from the top - the valley on the one hand, and a tiny Hohenschwangau nestled between two lakes on the other - is breathtaking. Hikers may be drawn to the hills behind, particularly the little footbridge that gives a view of the rushing Pollat Falls.

On summer days you may have a little wait in line, and weather is more apt to be rainy than fine. English tours are conducted periodically through the few rooms that are open, exemplars of Romanesque and Byzantine splendor.

As usual, Ludwig insisted that his bedroom be finished first. The chamber is decorated in ponderous, ornate late Gothic, crowned by a bed of carved walnut, with a forest of tiny Gothic spires on top. Woodcarning in this room alone took 17 skilled woodcarvers four and a half years. A profusion of murals and mock tapestries illustrates the Lohengrin legend, and Ludwig's adjoining study is dominated by a big erotic mural of Tannhauser's dalliance with Venus.

The most important room at Neuschwanstein is the minstrels' hall, a veritable hall of song with elaborate wooden ceiling, monstrous candelabra and murals of the Wagner opera legends, principally "Parsifal." It's a surprisingly cheerful room, with big windows that overlook magnificent views of forests, mountains and lakes.

Equally impressive is the throne room, modeled after a Byzantive basilica, its floor a mosaic of plants and animals, and its blue ceiling studded with stars. White marble stairs ascend to a thronelless dias, for one was never built, nor indeed needed there. Topping the throne alcove is a painting of Christ reigning in glory, along with the six holy kings.

Almost simultaneously (1870), Ludwig began work on Linderhof, some 15 miles east of Neuschwanstein. There, near a 300-year-old linden tree, stood a little hunting lodge that he and his father had occasionally used in his youth; and there Ludwig created a palace, rather than a castle. The compact, white building, supported and surmounted by pillars, statuary and elaborate railings, was inspired by the Trianon near Versailles, though many features are distinctively German baroque.

Indeed, there Ludwig induged his every wish for rococo splendor - baroque gone wild. One could scarcely place the palm of his hand on a space unadorned in some way. Mirrors and gilt, rich tapestries and murals, paintings and sculptures, cut-glass candelabra, precious stones and porcelains tumble over one abother in profusion, form richly-carpeted floors to elaborately painted ceilings.

Tours in English are available through the grounds and palace where in dim weather one must make do without electrical illumination. Yet this dimness somehow enhances the fanciful atmosphere.

In the rather simple entry stands a bronze equestrian statue of Ludwig's idol - Louis XIV, the Sun King - with a royal sunburst on the ceiling. The larger rooms are connected by "cabinets" decorated in yellow, lilac, rose and blue - little rooms that reflect the king's interest in things French.

The circular maroon and gilt-laden dining room features a table that could be lowered to the kitchen, so the king could dine totally alone, without intrusive servants. His preferred companions were the French kings, their queens and paramours, whose pictures surrounded him, and with whom he sometimes carried on one-sided conversations.

The large, imposing bed chamber is decorated in bright blue and gold, and surmounted by a ceiling painting of the sun god Apollo in his chariot. Ludwig's suite includes also a splendid hall of mirrors and two chambers, one a music room, hung with Gobelin tapestries.

The beautiful park and outlying buildings of Linderhof invite strolling. The southern terrace garden ascends past a pool with a fountain, up to a rotunda with a statue of Venus; and on all sides parterres abound in trimmed hedges, stairways, statues, cascades, pavilions, flowers and lawns.

Visitors will want to see the Moorish kiosk, made in Paris where the Moorish style was the rage. From Paris also came a spectacular peacock throne, specially-ordered by the king.

Ludwig engaged in open-sesame mystery in his Venus grotto, highlighted by a painting of "Tanngauser's" Venusberg. Up a little hill, a stone moves aside to give entry to a long passageway, lined with artificial stalactites. In a large, open "cave" a spring-fed lake holds a cockleshell boat. Here Ludwig was often rowed about for hours, while a "rainbow machine," driven by one of the first power plants in Bavaria, created color transformations in the charmed space.

Inspired by Louis XIV's Versailles, Ludwig undertook one other major project: the Herrenchiemsee Palace. About 50 miles southwest of Munich is the Cheimsee, Bavaria's largest of three small islands, Ludwig began the grandest of his palaces.

In the all-important bedroom, each curtain weighed a hundred pounds, and 30 or 40 women spent seven years making the covering for the bed. Indeed, Ludwig's building mania fired up the arts and crafts workshops in Munich, and underwrote the city's architects, designers and decorators.

Though he only partly completed his work, and only occupied the palace for 10 nights in the autumn of 1885, by the time he died Ludwig had already spent 16 million marks on Herrenchiemsee - more than Neuschwanstein and Linderhof together.

However, he never intended it as a residence, but as a monument to his beloved Louis XIV, and the similarities to Versailles are inescapable - the vast hall of mirrors, the lordly staircase, the gardens and fountains - all in isolation, surrounded by water, with the Bavarian mountains as a backdrop.

The palace makes a wonderful excursion at any time, but is most beautiful at night with its glittering lights reflected in mirrors. One would be lucky to catch it on a summer night when a concert was going on.

Never without a building scheme (he completed dozens of lesser projects), Ludwig left two cherished dreams unbegun at his death. One was a Proposed castle on the Falkenstein, a spectacular crag 1,000 feet higher and to the west of Neuschwantstein, for which plans for a veritable Cinderella's castle had been drawn up. The other, a Chinese palace on the shores of Austria's Plansee, was intended as a copy of the Winter Palace in Peking. There Ludwig would have staged Chinese ceremonial, for which he and his courtiers would wear Chinese dress.

A dreamer, an obsessive, a visionary, an eccentric, Ludwig would have been at home in the world of "Star Wars" and "Princess Bride." Was he right or wrong in making the prodigal expenditures that so scandalized his practical burgher ministers?

Go see the results and judge for yourself.