Legends of the Italian Dolomites
The Sassolungo mountain range, with an altitude of 3,181m, as viewed from the Alpe di Siusi cable car station above the town of Ortisei. (Matt Munro)
The Italian Dolomites are rich in legends – dwarves, witches, ogres and dragons are said to stomp about the slopes, and lofty peaks conceal hidden passages to the underworld.
The church bells chime noon in the Val Badia, and Michil Costa sits outside his hotel in his home village of Corvara, studying a tattered road map through a cloud of cigar smoke. The whirring of cable cars sounds in the distance as he leans forward and rings a point on the map with a blunt blue crayon. ‘This is where witches were said to gather on summer nights,’ he says. ‘Whether you’ll see them there these days, I couldn’t say...’
With a felt flower in his top pocket, a pennyfarthing in his backyard, a penchant for quoting the Dalai Lama and fondness for hiking long distances barefoot, Michil Costa certainly isn’t your average Italian hotelkeeper. And yet somehow, amid the fantastical landscapes of the Dolomites, this eccentric behaviour seems to have its own curious logic.
The mountains around us might have been Tolkien’s blueprint for Middle Earth – this is a land of soaring rock spires seemingly suspended above the clouds and ramshackle farmsteads huddled fearfully on the pastures below. For centuries, these peaks served as mighty ramparts, shielding valley dwellers from invaders, protecting ancient customs and, above all, preserving legends as old as anyone might dare to guess. Passed down over generations, the legends of the Dolomites read like fairytale accident reports. To leave your front door was to risk getting bludgeoned by an ogre, harassed by a dragon or transformed into something rather unsavoury by a witch. Long before Christianity arrived here, they were a way of explaining the origins of the landscape; one famous story tells how the mountains acquired their pale colour after a visiting princess from the moon required that they be whitewashed to ease her homesickness. Another tells of a clumsy wizard who caused a rainbow to collapse into the Lago di Carezza, a lake which still glows a luminous green to this day. These tales offered glimpses of a hidden life in the mountains above – of summits that were always in sight of humans living in the valleys, but were forever out of reach.
‘I’m not saying I believe in these stories,’ says Michil. ‘But there’s always an element of reality to the myths. It’s a connection with the land that most of us have lost these days.’
He grins mischievously, before reaching into his pocket to produce two small fir cones. ‘I’ve borrowed these from the elves. I put them in my hat for good luck, but if I ever think bad thoughts I must return them – else the elves will play tricks on me.’
For most locals, however, the practical application of these stories has diminished over time. Since tourism came to the Dolomites in the 19th century, skiers have displaced sorcerers and elves have lost ground to exclusive resorts. Grandparents grumble that youngsters today are too preoccupied with PlayStations to be scared by the witches who roam the slopes outside their bedroom windows. Yet the stories are still an indelible part of the landscape: to walk almost anywhere in the Dolomites is to trespass on a witches’ coven, or to unwittingly scale mountains hollowed out by communities of dwarves.
Michil swoops down on the map and marks out a lake at the northern edge of the Parco Naturale di Fanes-Sennes-Braies – a windswept plateau rearing up behind sheer walls of rock, a few miles to the northeast of Corvara. ‘Legend tells that Lago di Braies hides a secret gateway into the underworld. They say if you visit when the moon is full, the mountains shall open up and a boat will appear carrying a princess... I don’t know if that’s true,’ he says with a shrug, pocketing the fir cones. ‘I’ve never tried to find out.’
Erica Clement drops a fistful of dough onto her kitchen table with a satisfying thwack. ‘Nonsense,’ she says. ‘We don’t believe in fairytales – we are sensible folk up here.’