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