Legends of the Italian Dolomites
A half-timbered farmhouse standing on an outcrop further up the valley from Corvara, Sotciastel does indeed look like a sensible place: piles of logs are stacked neatly by the porch, while tidy lawns sparkle with the morning dew. Inside, little has changed since Erica’s ancestors built their home in these mountains more than two centuries ago. Pious sentiments are inscribed on creaking doors and wooden floorboards groan wearily underfoot. For the past two decades, Erica has opened the doors of her home to staying guests. Wednesday mornings see visiting cookery students joining them, shuffling into a small kitchen to take notes as Erica prepares stews, dumplings and doughnuts on an old wood-burning stove.
‘It doesn’t matter what sort of cheese you use for dumplings,’ Erica sagely tells her students, reaching for a cheese grater. ‘Just as long as the cheese stinks.’ Food here is intended as fuel for long days slogging up steep inclines – protein-rich staples served in mountain-like portions. It represents a culture distinct from Mediterranean Italy. Despite living in a largely German-speaking corner of the country, Erica counts herself as Ladin – a community whose mother tongue descends from the Latin spoken by Roman legionaries who marched through these valleys millennia ago.
Europe was once a jigsaw puzzle of smaller languages like Ladin. As others disappeared, Ladin clung on – a tiny Romance language that evolved in parallel to French and Italian, wedged between the Italian- and German-speaking worlds. Ladin history celebrates defiant heroes, such as a 16th-century nobleman who rescued villagers from a marauding dragon, and a 19th-century housewife who defended her village against Napoleon’s armies, wielding a pitchfork. Bolstered by a five-minute Ladin daily slot on TV and a page in the regional newspaper, native speakers today number more than 30,000. A peculiar mix of Italian-sounding cadences and glottal Germanic stops, it is the language in which many of the Dolomites’ most famous legends are preserved.
‘We’re not like the Italians – we’re much more practical,’ says Erica, heaping splinters of wood onto a raging fire beneath the stove. ‘For instance, what’s the point in wasting time eating lots of different courses for dinner? You may as well eat everything all in one go!’
Ladin legends also seem sternly pragmatic. One tale tells of a flamboyant peasant who drank too much grappa and marched up a mountain to vanquish an ogre. The disgruntled monster catapulted him across a mountain for his cheek. The peasant learned never to try anything so daft again. I step out of Sotciastel farmhouse and into the morning sunshine. Cows watch fleecy clouds pass along the valley below, and old tractors wheeze their way up the hillsides. Erica dusts her hands on her apron as she bids me farewell. ‘If you really are looking for witches and the like,’ she says, ‘I’m afraid you’ll have to go much higher up.’
The landscape turns crueller as I climb into the Fanes National Park and towards Lago di Braies. Meadows rise to barren precipices, and pine trees begin to lose their foothold in the scree. Traces of civilisation become scarcer: I pass a wooden crucifix clinging to a wind-battered outcrop, and ruined cottages where wildflowers sprout among the stones. Black clouds hover grimly around the summits, periodically sending thunderclaps booming down the valleys below.
Hard though it may be to believe, these mountains were once coral reefs, prised up from the seabed when the European and African tectonic plates collided more than 50 million years ago. Today, fossilised sea creatures are sometimes found at altitudes where humans rarely venture. It was only in the mid-19th century that climbers first began to explore the Dolomites in earnest. Early mountaineers encountered what they described as petrified castles and Gothic cathedrals built of rock – buttress-like ridges, and towers of biblical proportions. The Swiss architect Le Corbusier even went so far as to call them ‘the finest natural architecture in the world’.