Once upon a time there was a king of Bavaria called Ludwig II who lived in a reclusive fantasy world of Wagnerian operas and medieval legend, and occasionally cherished the delusion that he was really France's Louis XIV. Caring nothing for government affairs, he nearly bankrupted
Finally we headed for our first castle, Sababurg, supposed home of ''Sleeping Beauty.'' Situated a few miles north of Munden, the castle is in the middle of the Reinhardswald, the spiritual location of most of the Grimm tales. Sababurg sits atop a rise, surrounded by rolling acres of oak and beech, its golden stone towers surmounted by blue domed roofs. Today it is a ''Burghotel,'' or castle-hotel, complete with restaurant.
After an excellent lunch we set off to explore the forest and zoological park that surround Sababurg. The 70-acre forest preserve contains many oaks, some of them 600 to 800 years old. These huge, gnarled trees, with their long, reaching branches, have a slightly sinister air. In the Middle Ages, much of Europe was still covered with such thick woods. The forest then was the domain of wild animals and, sometimes, wild men; for the peasants who told the stories that fascinated the Grimms, it held dark secrets.
On our walk the atmosphere of the mysterious trees was tempered by the presence of a score of elderly German women on a nature tour. Probably no people on earth has quite the mystic awe of nature that the Germans have; certainly these sensibly shod and uniformly pot-hatted ladies paid reverent attention to their surroundings. And so, in our fashion, did we, for the dark groves of the forest convincingly evoked the world of Snow White and her devoted dwarfs.
We emerged from the forest preserve and entered the famous Sababurg ''Tierpark,'' the oldest zoological park in the world. Founded in 1571 by Count Wilhelm IV, the Tierpark is contained within a five-kilometer-long stone wall. The wall is four meters high, and something of a marvel in itself. Behind it are herds or flocks of ''prehistoric'' wild horses and cattle, bison, deer, reindeer , wild pigs, and various types of water and forest birds. All of these interesting animals could have been seen by the characters of Grimm, including the reindeer; 12 of the latter were originally sent to Count Wilhelm by the Swedish court, together with a woman to tend the puzzled beasts. We toured the park by miniature train and horse-drawn cart, then set off in the evening dusk for Trendelburg, a castle-hotel in the Reinhardswald. There we would spend the night.
These castle-hotels are well worth knowing about. Their owners have created an organization called ''Gast im Schloss'' (Guest in Castle), which represents over 100 members situated throughout West Germany. The hotels are all genuine castles, hunting lodges, or old inns, and they are usually found in a quaint town, or in a forest, or on top of a commanding hill. Often there is a lake or river nearby. Trendelburg, Gottfried informed us, is a castle on a hilltop. Its owners, the von Stockhausen family, have been connected with the place, on and off, for over 600 years.
We finally reached a little town on the crest of a hill with a sweeping view of the surrounding farms and forests. Lights were already on within the half-timbered houses lining the brief main street. At the top of the hill the road ended: the gate to Trendelburg Castle lay across a narrow footbridge.
We were met at the entrance by some staff and the proprietors themselves: Hans-Ludwig von Stockhausen, his wife, and his son. After the drive Trendelburg's entrance hall was warm and inviting: white plastered walls, a fireplace, and a ceiling veined with dark wood beams high over a polished stone floor. A red-carpeted staircase led up to spacious rooms with antique canopied beds, tall old wardrobes, and tiled modern bathrooms. It was all elegantly comfortable, yet informally friendly in a way regular hotels rarely are. Would Trendelburg's food be as appealing as its decor? I couldn't wait for dinner.
In the castle's dining room we shared a table with the elder and junior von Stockhausen. Together we enjoyed an exceptional meal of steak ''Trendula'' and fresh asparagus. During a delicious dessert of baked apples, our hosts told us of their efforts in restoring the castle and creating a hotel.
The von Stockhausens, we learned, had lived at Trendelburg as early as the year 1318. After centuries of absence, in 1900, the family had exercised a right of preemption and purchased the abandoned ruin. They restored the castle and moved in again, but World War II brought new trials for Trendelburg. In 1949 Hans-Ludwig returned from military service and began another restoration of the castle, this time as a hotel. He was also instrumental in forming the ''Gast im Schloss'' organization, which he heads today. It looks as though von Stockhausens will be at Trendelburg for some time to come. There are still tales to be told on the Marchenstrasse.
The fairy-tale road map and brochure, as well as information on the Gast im Schloss program, can be obtained from the German National Tourist Office, 747 3 rd Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10017.his country by building a series of wildly romantic castles, grand enough to house his dreams.
Ludwig had intended to build five castles, but at the time of his mysterious drowning in 1886 he had only built three. There is Linderhof, a pocket-size Baroque gem in a hidden Alpine valley; Neuschwanstein, a fairy-tale castle crowning a mountain crag; and Herrenchiemsee, a Versailles-like palace in the midst of a wooded island.
I came to understand some of the castles' fascination myself during a recent excursion from Munich. Allowing two days for travel and sightseeing, such a trip can include Linderhof, Neuschwanstein, and the nearby, equally romantic castle where Ludwig spent much of his childhood, and miles of spectacular Alpine scenery. Herrenchiemsee, which lies in the opposite direction from Munich, is most conveniently visited on a separate excursion.
Heading southwest from Munich on Route 95, I saw in less than an hour the lordly peaks of the Bavarian Alps looming overhead. My first stop was the tiny village of Grossweil for a walk around the Open Air Museum of Upper Bavaria, a cluster of vintage Bavarian farmhouses on a lush hilltop meadow that illustrate rural life in the region from centuries past.
A great contrast to the royal splendors that lie ahead, the Open Air Museum includes a charming wooden chapel, an old-fashioned grocer's shop, and authentically furnished farmhouses which were moved to the site from all over Bavaria. In some of the houses craftsmen demonstrate potterymaking, weaving, ropemaking, blacksmithing, and other traditional skills.
From the Open Air Museum it is only a 45-minute drive to the village of Oberammergau and nearby Linderhof. Oberammergau, with its beautifully frescoed houses, is famous both for the woodcarving produced there and the Passion Play presented in the village every 10 years. A special presentation of the play, which depicts the life of Jesus, will occur in 1984 to commemorate the 350 years of the village tradition.
Just west of Oberammergau, a narrow road cuts through the Graswang Valley to Linderhof, the jewel box of a castle in which Ludwig felt most at home. He lived there for most of the time between 1878 and 1886. With just six principal rooms, each one gilded and frescoed in the style of Louis XIV and Louis XV, the miniature castle was clearly designed for Ludwig to enjoy alone.
Perhaps the grandest piece of furniture at Linderhof is Ludwig's massive blue velvet-canopied bed, a rococo marvel
replete with gold-leafed cupids and a richly embroidered Bavarian coat of arms. Scenes from the life of Louis XIV, the French ''Sun King'' that Ludwig tried to emulate, are represented in frescoes on the ceiling and above the doors. Equally dazzling is the Mirror Room, a chamber with huge wall mirrors set into the white-gold paneling, which gives the illusion of a never-ending series of reflected rooms.
In the elegantly terraced gardens surrounding Linderhof are further extensions of Ludwig's decorative fantasies. There is a Moorish-style kiosk appointed with a cushioned throne surrounded by three inlaid enamel peacocks. Above the castle is the Blue Grotto of Venus, an artificial cavern built around an illuminated lake. The grotto was designed as the stage for performances of the Wagnerian operas that Ludwig loved almost as much as castle building.
From Linderhof it is about an hour's drive to the village of Schwangau, the location of Neuschwanstein and Hohenschwangau, the castle where Ludwig lived as a child. As impressive as the castles is the natural splendor along the way: sparkling blue-green lakes, flower-carpeted meadows, and, always, the jagged backdrop of the mountains beyond.
It is wise to allow a full day in Schwangau, first visiting Hohen-schwangau and then Neuschwanstein. It is at Hohenschwangau where the visitor gains some insight into Ludwig's childhood and what led to his dreamlike castles.
Hohenschwangau, which sits atop a small hill overlooking the village, is a 12 th-century castle of golden yellow towers which Ludwig's father, Maximilian II, purchased and restored during the 1830s. It was originally the domain of the medieval knights of Schwangau, the swan emblem of whom is much in evidence throughout the state apartments.
It is little wonder that Ludwig, growing up in such an atmosphere, had his imagination fired by visions of romantic castles in the style of centuries past. The operas of Richard Wagner, drawing as they did upon the Lohengrin saga and other gothic themes, were also a natural attraction for Ludwig's tastes.
Wagner was one of the few friends Ludwig allowed to enter his reclusive life. In the music room at Hohenschwangau is the square maple piano where the composer once played for his avid royal fan. It was also in the music room where Ludwig would sit at the window for hours, binoculars in hand, watching construction progressing on Neuschwanstein across the way.
The construction of Neuschwanstein began in 1869, but when Ludwig died in 1886 at the age of 40 it was still not finished. Despite the fact that the interior of only one-third of the state apartments has been completed, it is the most visited of any of his castles. It is especially popular with Americans, who recognize it as the inspiration for the castles at Disneyland and Disney World.
Neuschwanstein is most impressive from the outside, its white turreted towers rising from a rocky mountain promontory overlooking the Pollat Gorge. It is a half-hour walk up to the castle, a distance that can also be covered by shuttle bus or horse-drawn carriage. At the castle level and on the pathways beyond are magnificent views, including one of Hohenschwangau framed on each side by two shimmering Alpine lakes.
Wagner's operas, the scenes of which are depicted throughout the stateroom walls, are the central theme at Neuschwanstein. An exception is the three-story throne room with its Byzantine-style frescoes and gleaming white stairs of Carrara marble. What is missing at the top of the stairs is the gold and ivory throne, which was never completed.
Although Ludwig spent 17 years planning and supervising the construction of Neuschwanstein, he was able to live there only a few months. His withdrawal from political affairs, eccentric life style, and the alarming expense created by his castle building were among the reasons that the Bavarian government had him declared unfit to rule and incarcerated him at Schloss Berg under the care of a physician. Soon afterward both the doctor and the king, an excellent swimmer, were found drowned in nearby Lake Starnberg.
Ironically, the castle building that was seen for decades as a colossal and irresponsible waste of money has come to win the admiration of art historians and visitors from around the world. Although the fairy-tale king was not to live happily ever after, it appears that his legacy will.