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Yet for generations of valley dwellers, going for a walk in these mountains was asking for trouble – to risk man-guzzling crevices and falling rocks that could bowl humans off the mountainside like skittles. It was against this backdrop of fear that legends of the Dolomites took root.

My ears pop as the trail wriggles its way up the mountainside and into the clouds. I pass upturned trees whose roots claw ominously towards the sky, and spy a bird of prey gliding about the crags below. In this landscape, it takes little imagination to trace wrinkled faces in the rock – or to hear the rustle of a chamois in the undergrowth and mistake it for something decidedly more sinister.

The plateau up ahead was the setting for one of the oldest and strangest of all the Ladin legends. The story goes that long ago the Fanes inhabited this region – a people besieged by enemies from all sides, but loyally defended by a warrior princess with a quiver of unstoppable arrows. After many battles, the princess lost her arrows, and the king of the Fanes betrayed his people to their enemies in exchange for a hoard of treasure. Their castles captured and their kingdom lost, a small band of the Fanes were rescued by marmots – animals said to be the guardians of the underworld – and taken down into the bowels of the Earth.

Experts date this tale as far back as the Bronze Age, when warmer climates meant people could survive high up on the Alpine plateau. Until little more than a century ago, hunters from these valleys would make a point of refusing to kill marmots, and shepherds were said to shelter these creatures beneath their huts.

Night sets in as I approach Lago di Braies – a cauldronlike body of water with the mountain of Sass dla Porta hunched at its southern edge. The Fanes legend has it that once every hundred years, a princess emerges from the Sass dla Porta to row around the lake beneath the full moon. She awaits the day when someone will return the unstoppable arrows to the Fanes people – when trumpets will sound across the Dolomites and the glory of her kingdom will be restored for eternity. Sass dla Porta translates from Ladin as ‘Gate Mountain’. Some say a cavern once stood at its foot before landslides buried the passage – presumably grounding the princess, and postponing forever the return of her kingdom.

The torches of departing fishermen fade on the lake’s far side, and all is still. Except for the distant clunking of cowbells sounding from the darkness, nothing stirs. Seeing the phantom-like outline of the Dolomites against the night sky, it feels harder to sneer at stories of witches, sorcerers and secret gates to the underworld. Perhaps these legends are the last reminders of a time when we didn’t need to believe in heaven and hell – the landscape was mysterious enough in itself. I swim out into the lake, and only the plop of leaping fish and the murmur of a faraway waterfall break the silence.

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The article ‘Legends of the Italian Dolomites’ was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Traveller.

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