It is virtually axiomatic that Bavaria and the Bavarians are different from the rest of Germany. The question is, why?

Travel brochures try to explain it with the state's picturesque and idyllic facade: onion-domed baroque churches, fairy-tale villages, ornate palaces, sparkling lakes, lush green highland meadows with contented cows and craggy snowcapped peaks set against an azure sky. There are also those who note the culinary specialties -- rivers of beer, mountains of dumplings and sausages -- and the folkloristic ambience expressed by buxom maidens in dirndls and burly men in leather breeches. Historians are inclined to credit the Wittelsbachs, Bavaria's dynasts for more than 800 years, who -- unique among Germanic and European rulers -- eschewed the art of war in favor of the fine arts.

Bavarians themselves take it a step farther. They tend to see the wellspring of their individuality in the short-lived flush of royalty when -- thanks to Napoleon, who was repaying Bavaria for its support and alliance in his early campaigns -- the Wittelsbach duchy was elevated to the rank of a kingdom. For more than a century after that -- from 1806 until 1918 when it was convulsed by radical socialist revolution that briefly turned it into a Soviet republic -- Bavaria was a monarchy and ruled by a succession of kings.

Under the first one, Max Joseph I, it acquired all of Franconia, large chunks of neighboring Wu rttemberg and all of the Tyrol, right to the shores of Lake Garda. He turned what had been a minor principality into a European power that embraced the continent's principal trade routes and its major waterway, the Danube.

Max Joseph's son Ludwig I, who ascended the throne in 1825, set out to turn his capital, Munich, into a "new Athens" -- a center of science, letters and the arts. He built palaces, museums, theaters and magnificent broad avenues. But he is remembered more for his mistress Lola Montez, whose unpopularity brought on student riots that sparked the revolutions of 1848.

Yet, when Bavarians today look back nostalgically on that brief but proud and halcyon era -- which they do quite often -- and talk about "the king," they really mean only one: Ludwig II, the lonely "dream king," the patron of Richard Wagner, the eccentric recluse and builder of fantastic castles in the Alps, the "Sun King of the 19th Century," who came to the throne at age 19 in 1864 and reigned until his mysterious death in 1886.

This summer Bavaria is celebrating its "Ludwig Year" -- the centennial of his death, 100 years ago Friday.

No monarch since France's Louis XIV, whom he sought to emulate, captured the imagination of Europe more completely than Ludwig II. Paul Verlaine gushingly eulogized him as "a poet, a soldier, the only genuine king of this century of impotent kings." Wagner, 32 years his senior, panegyrized him as "outstandingly talented, a ruler of prodigious capabilities."

A magnificent figure -- 6-feet-3, blue-eyed with a carefully coifed mane of dark locks -- he was the idol of his time and the quarry of artful women and scheming mothers. But Ludwig had little interest in women.

He was the romanticist par excellence of the Romantic Age. While the "iron horse" was conquering Europe, Ludwig dreamed of slaying dragons and riding on the back of a swan, like Wagner's Lohengrin. While Krupp forged cannons and Bismarck an empire, Bavaria's Ludwig built castles in the sky. He was born a century too late: a 19th-century king steeped in 18th-century thought. He abhorred the present and enveloped himself in a make-believe past. He became a legend in his lifetime.

On June 13, 1886, his body -- and that of the psychiatrist who had declared him insane as part of a palace coup -- was found floating in shallow water near the shore of Starnberg Lake, 17 miles south of Munich. Murder? Suicide? Accident? Heart attack? To this day the questions have never been answered. But it was inevitable that his legend would continue.

And continue it has, with the tenacity of a cult.

Some 5,000 books, monographs and doctoral dissertations -- 200 of them biographies -- have been written about him, his castles, their artworks, his relationship to and sponsorship of Wagner, and his mysterious drowning. Six full-length movies -- the first a 1929 silent epic, the most recent, in 1973, starring Helmut Berger as Ludwig, Romy Schneider as Elizabeth and Alec Guinness as Wagner -- have been made about his enigmatic life.

His portrait hangs in thousands of Bavarian farmhouses, highland inns and taverns. Beers, restaurants, hotels and nightclubs are named after him. Statues of and monuments to him dot the countryside. There are King Ludwig II clubs and societies.

And each year more than a million tourists from around the world pass through the most famous of his ornate palaces: Neuschwanstein, Ludwig's vision of a medieval knight's castle, near the alpine town of Fu ssen; Linderhof, a fanciful country chateau in neo-rococo style, near Oberammergau, and Herrenchiemsee -- a replica of Versailles, replete with Hall of Mirrors -- situated on an island in the Chiemsee, Bavaria's largest lake, 53 miles southeast of Munich.

This summer the legend and the cult will get yet another boost with Bavaria's centennial celebrations.

A stamp has been issued commemorating the event. Solid gold and silver replicas of coins from the year of Ludwig's coronation have been minted, and gold bars emblazoned with the king's portrait have been cast. Prince Luitpold von Bayern, Ludwig's great-grandnephew and owner of a brewery and castle near the town of Landsberg, is bottling a special "centennial" version of his "King Ludwig Beer."

Every Monday night the Dorint-Leoni Hotel in the Starnberg Lake town of Berg, where Ludwig spent the last two days of his life, will be offering guests a $40 six-course dinner modeled after the one served at Hohenschwangau Castle on Aug. 28, 1884, the 20th anniversary of Ludwig's ascendancy to the throne.

The Wittelsbach family, now headed by 81-year-old Duke Albrecht, grandson of Ludwig III, the last of Bavaria's royal rulers, has renovated nearby Berg Castle, which it still owns and where Ludwig was incarcerated.

The Bavarian State Tourist Board is offering various all-inclusive package trips to the most important Ludwig II sites.

Meanwhile, the Bavarian state government's Castles, Lakes and Parks Administration, which owns the king's ornate digs, has invested $2 million into the renovation of Herrenchiemsee Palace and that much again into acquiring and restoring hundreds of art objects -- paintings, furnishings, porcelain, crystal, jewelry, silverware, gold and brass works, tapestries, rugs, and royal garments -- once owned by or associated with the king. They will be displayed permanently in a new Ludwig II Museum at Herrenchiemsee, which opens officially next Sunday.

These festivities will last the entire summer, through Aug. 25, Ludwig's birthday, at all the spots even vaguely associated with him.

The program is to start June 13 with a wreath-laying ceremony at the Ludwig II Monument on Munich's Cornelius Bridge. Later that day there will be a memorial mass in Munich's 16th-century St. Michael's Church, where Ludwig and a number of Bavaria's other Wittelsbach rulers are entombed. Two days later, in Berg, there will be an even grander mass in the lakeside Votive Chapel, near the spot where his body was found, followed by a folklore procession of all of Bavaria's numerous Ludwig II societies. High point of the season will be a million-dollar multimedia show, replete with fireworks, laser-beam displays, deafening Wagner music and burning ships, on Lake Starnberg. The spectacular is tentatively scheduled for July 19.

Gaudy and kitschy as some of the events and trappings of the anniversary may seem, Ludwig himself would probably have loved it.

As Luchino Visconti, the Italian filmmaker who produced a three-hour travelogue through Ludwig's fantasy mind and fairyland edifices in 1973, once said: "Ludwig had an incredible ability for living completely outside reality. He was an idealist who ran aground on the reefs of his real world and escaped into one of dreams. He was called the 'Mad King' and was ruled insane. But he was no more insane than any of us."

But he was certainly eccentric.

Born in Munich's Nymphenburg Palace, the Wittelsbach dynasty's summer palace, in 1845, he spent a royally secluded and pampered childhood. His mother Queen Marie recorded in her journals that by the time he was 6 years old he showed "an interest in art" and "loved building with toy bricks, especially churches and monasteries." He also "enjoyed acting and dressing up as a nun." Moreover, according to the queen, "he was always giving away his toys and money." The early traits, it seems, prevailed throughout his life.

During the summers the royal family usually went to Hohenschwangau, a little castle that Ludwig's father had purchased in ruinous condition in 1832 and renovated with neo-Gothic frescoes depicting Germanic legends -- the Holy Grail, Tannha user, Lohengrin.

Nestled in an alpine valley near the medieval town of Fu ssen, Hohenschwangau was the center of the "Swan Country," and it was there that Ludwig acquired his lifelong passion not only for the solitude of Bavaria's mountains but also for swans. They were everywhere: live ones on the lake below the castle, painted ones on the walls of the royal apartments and in a plethora of knickknacks. They fascinated young Ludwig.

Another kind of swan came into his life when he was only 15 years old and heard his first Wagner opera -- "Lohengrin." The performance not only reinforced his preoccupation with swans but launched his lifelong reverence for and association with the composer. When he heard "Tannha user" a year later it made an even deeper impression on him. A courtier who was with him in the royal box at Munich's Court Theater spoke of the "demoniacal effect" the performance had on the teen-age prince and reported that during the passage where Tannha user re-enters the Venusberg, "Ludwig's body was so convulsed that I was afraid he was going to have an epileptic fit."

The first signs of abnormality, or just hypersensitivity and a dreamy romanticism? The question has been debated for over a century. Suffice it to say that Ludwig's romanticism -- and his lavishly extravagant patronage of Wagner -- became a hot political issue in Bavaria, and the gossip of Munich, not long after he became king.

Though he loved the trappings of royalty, and imagined himself as absolutist a monarch as Louis XIV, he actually hated politics, affairs of state, the job of governing his kingdom, especially during Bavaria's brief war with Prussia in 1866. Above all, he hated being in Munich, the capital. He sought to escape it all and soon began constructing a fantasy world to which he could retreat.

On the roof of the Residenz, the royal palace in downtown Munich, he built a winter garden with exotic tropical trees, a painted Himalayan backdrop and an artificial lake on which a hidden mill wheel created waves and into which servants poured gallons of copper sulfate each day to make it appear marine blue. It is the only one of Ludwig's constructions that cannot be viewed by visitors today: The Residenz was hit and badly damaged during a World War II air raid and Ludwig's rooftop lake was never rebuilt.

The plans for Neuschwanstein Castle were drawn in 1868, and the foundation stone was laid a year later. A fantasy medieval fortress in which endless rooms and tracts are modeled after scenes from Wagnerian operas and Teutonic legends, it perches on a jagged peak overlooking Hohenschwangau and the Swan Lake of Ludwig's childhood.

Construction of this 19th-century adumbration of Disneyland was just getting started when, in 1870, Ludwig and his court architect, Georg Dollmann, unveiled plans for Linderhof, near the Passion Play village of Oberammergau, 15 miles west of Hohenschwangau.

This little palace that he built there between 1870 and 1879 is a dazzlingly ornate chateau in a kaleidoscopic mixture of styles from various periods and countries. The models were the Grand Trianon and the little garden chalet of Marly near Versailles. Extravagant as Linderhof appears from the outside, the exterior is the height of restraint when compared with what is inside: a riot of rococo, a flash of mirrors and the glitter of gold, rich tapestries and lush velvets, crystal chandeliers, the most precious porcelain, lapis and malachite.

In the park, a few hundred yards above the palace, there is an artificial grotto, inspired by the Blue Grotto at Capri. Outfitted with stalactites of cast iron covered with concrete, a lake fed by an artificial waterfall and a backdrop scene from the first act of "Tannha user," it became one of Ludwig's most favored redoubts.

On the lake, which had a machine for artificial waves, he kept two swans and a boat, in the shape of a cockleshell, in which he was rowed about by a servant. The colors in the grotto can be changed at will, thanks to electric lighting -- Bavaria's first.

Construction of Linderhof had barely begun when yet another fantasy was already nearing completion: the hunting lodge on Mount Schachen. A plain wood chalet on the outside, it is an eye-popping extravaganza, entirely in Moorish style, on the inside.

Throughout the 1870s Ludwig dreamed of other projects: another medieval fortress like Neuschwanstein, this one in the Allga u Alps, and a replica of Peking's Forbidden City, to be built near Linderhof. But the most grandiose one of all, on which work began in 1878, was the copy of Versailles that he had built on Herren Island in Lake Chiemsee. Herrenchiemsee Palace is the most eclectic of his three great castles, and in a sense the most magical, especially on rare summer evenings when its Hall of Mirrors and other great rooms are illuminated by 4,000 candles.

During the 1880s Ludwig spent most of his time in hiding in the Alps and in his dream castles, going for midnight rides in his boat in the Venus Grotto at Linderhof. He evaded his cabinet ministers and officials, and instead sought the company of various spongers and homosexual friends. He also sought happiness among the peasants, woodcutters, herdsmen and mountaineers of the Bavarian Oberland, giving them lavish presents, often calling on them between midnight and dawn. All the while he elaborated on his dream-world castles, going deeper and deeper into debt. He also deteriorated physically, becoming grossly paunchy and almost toothless by the time he was 40 years old.

Yet, he was a legend in life, and the mysterious circumstances surrounding his death merely served to engrave his memory indelibly on the Bavarian psyche.

For many weeks in the spring of 1886 his uncle Prince Luitpold, and various ministers who had despaired of finding more capital for the dream castles, conspired to remove him by having him declared insane. If they could keep him incarcerated for a year and one day -- so the Bavarian constitution stipulated -- he would lose the crown automatically and Luitpold would become prince-regent.

A first attempt to arrest Ludwig, on the night of June 9, 1886, failed when guards at Neuschwanstein, supported by armed and angry peasants who had rallied to the king's defense, foiled the plotters by capturing and imprisoning the commission of psychiatrists, doctors, warders and government ministers who had come to the castle to apprehend Ludwig. In his eccentricity, Ludwig ordered the posse released.

Two nights later, they returned and Ludwig surrendered. He was taken to Berg Castle at Lake Starnberg, where a "royal asylum" had already been constructed for him.

During the next two days Ludwig threatened suicide several times. He was kept under close surveillance. But the evening of June 13 he was permitted to take a walk on the lake shore, accompanied only by Dr. Bernhard von Gudden, the psychiatrist who had compiled the dossier that served as the basis for the insanity charge. When the two men failed to return, servants started to search for them. Shortly before midnight the bodies of both were found floating in the water near the shore, the doctor with strangulation marks and other bruises suggesting there had been a struggle.

Did Ludwig, an accomplished swimmer, try to flee? Did he attempt to commit suicide and did von Gudden try to prevent him? Did the burly, 40-year-old king murder the doctor and then, perhaps, succumb to a heart attack? Were both men overpowered, chloroformed and drowned by conspirators lurking in ambush?

No one knows. But the whispers and rumors have not subsided in the century since. One of the most persistent versions, told to this day, is that it was not the body of Ludwig but a wax dummy that was fished from the water and later lay in state in Munich. The king, according to this story, escaped across the border to Austria and subsequently moved to Italy or Switzerland where he led his dream life incognito for many more years.

Almost immediately after the drowning a cross was raised on a pedestal in the water at the spot where the body was found. The goal of annual pilgrimages, it will be the focus of ceremonies this summer. So, too, will be the nearby Votive Chapel, a neo-Romanesque structure completed in 1896 by Ludwig's favorite architect, Dollmann. Monuments to Ludwig II already exist in 14 Bavarian towns and several new ones are to be unveiled in this centennial year.

It is one of the ironies of the Ludwig cult that he is regarded by many Bavarians as a folk hero, a "people's king," despite his eccentricities, the vast sums he spent on his castles, his own adoration of Louis XIV and his notions of absolutism.

But perhaps the greatest irony is in what has happened to his castles. When he was alive, they became his undoing. He was almost 20 million gold marks in debt in 1886 and fleecing the Bavarian treasury for more. That, more than anything, led to the coup against him. The castles were immediately confiscated by the Bavarian state after his death. Today they are one of Bavaria's most lucrative sources of income.

Last year, for example, more than 625,000 people visited Herrenchiemsee, more than 770,000 trooped through Linderhof and more than 1.1 million ogled their way through Neuschwanstein, each paying an average admission fee of DM 5 ($2.27). Those revenues pay for the maintenance of all other state-owned palaces and monuments in Bavaria.

This year the surge of visitors will be even greater. A century after his death, the "dream king" seems more real and alive than ever.