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.’

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’.

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.