The Alpine valleys hold many secrets, but perhaps none as fascinating as the Ladins. With their origins shrouded in myth and mystery and their language virtually unintelligible to anyone outside of their remote villages, they have somehow clung as a distinct ethnolinguistic group, resisting the incursion of the Italian and German cultures around them. .
From a past of poverty and discrimination, they now reside in some of Italy’s wealthiest municipalities – luxurious ski resorts and envious farmland – and enjoy an autonomous status within the country that saw their cultural and economic situation flourish. Numbering only 30,000, they count among their ranks the pioneer of electronic dance music Giorgio Moroder and the Turner Prize-winning artist Gilbert Prousch (the Gilbert of Gilbert & George) as well as a dizzying number of medal winners. gold at the Winter Olympics.
So who exactly are they?
I am in South Tyrol, the northernmost province of Italy, isolated and crenellated in the Alps. South Tyrol is a curiosity; the majority language here is German, Italian is spoken mainly in the two towns of Bolzano and Merano, and Ladin, the province’s third official language, survives in the isolated villages of the Dolomites. This ambiguous mix of cultures and languages is what makes this corner of Italy particularly interesting.
It’s an enticing bus ride from Brunico town, through tunnels, through rivers, on narrow roads with sheer cliffs, through forests so thick that they engulf the whole road in a black veil. . At some point, the road signs change from bilingual to trilingual, signaling that you are now entering a different place: a cultural and linguistic realm known as Ladinia.
Ladinia. You won’t find it on any map, but to the people here, it’s as real as anything. The region is made up of five high valleys – Badia, Gardena, Fassa, Livinallongo and Ampezzo – which meet in the bewitching rocky massif of Sella, from where they radiate like the spokes of a wheel, cut off from the rest of the world by a labyrinth of interlocking mountains, rivers, ravines and thick, almost black forests.
“Italy is my citizenship, but Ladinia is my nation,” says Mattia Maldonado as I meet him in front of the Ladin museum in the village of San Martino in Badia, an otherworldly landscape of green pastures surrounded by high mountains with cream-colored houses and long-haired sleeping cows. The Ladin Museum is housed in the iastel de Tor, an original 13th century castle still partially inhabited by a few families.
Who knows why the first settlers came to these remote valleys, where the climate is harsh and cultivable land scarce? When the Romans first crossed the Alps, they encountered a mysterious people they called the Rhaetians, about whom little is known, not even their language.
In 15 BC. whatever the rheticians spoke (theories range from an Etruscan dialect to a form of Celtic).
The pressure of the Italian, Germanic and Slavic invaders finally reduced this linguistic family of a vast Alpine unit. seatbelt disparate pockets cut from each other. In the Dolomites, the Ladins clustered around the Sella massif, rarely venturing outside their isolated kingdom. They began to develop a rich mythology full of warrior princesses, mischievous dwarves, and, oddly, groundhogs. Lots and lots of groundhogs. They feature prominently in the Ladinian national epic, “The Kingdom of Fanes”, which tells the story of a legendary kingdom that sinks underground, its human inhabitants and marmots destined to wait forever in the mountains. his return.
“These mountains saved us from assimilation,” says Mattia. “You can understand why we have such a mystical attachment to them. Without them, we wouldn’t be Ladins.
At the start of the 19th century, the Ladins saw themselves as a separate nation. As Italian and German nationalism swirled around them, the Ladins remained unfazed. In 1833, the Ladin language was codified by Micurà de Rü, a priest from Val Badia. By the end of the 19th century, intrepid travelers had begun to make forays into the Ladin valleys, including the British writer Amelia Edwards, who passed there in 1872, describing them as a “lost place, out of this world.” »Full of singing peasants, mercurial artists and houses adorned with gold with intricate and colorful frescoes.
This nascent tourism was abruptly interrupted by World War I, which saw Ladinia wrested from the crumbling Austro-Hungarian Empire and handed over to Italy. Under Austria, the Ladins had been classified as Italians. Under Mussolini, they were not Italian enough and language teachers were called from the plains to wean schoolchildren from their aberrant dialect. When the Nazis occupied the area in 1943, they classified the Ladins as Latinized Germans, replacing Italian teachers with Nazi officials who banned their language and forced them to speak only German.
This whole experience left Ladins – ironically – an even stronger sense of their national identity. After World War II, they demonstrated for their cultural and linguistic rights, succeeding in obtaining substantial autonomy from the Italian state. Ladin schools were created, a flag was adopted, and the Ladin village of Cortina hosted the 1956 Winter Olympics (and will do so again in 2026). The growth of tourism in particular has made Ladinia one of the richest places in Italy.
However, from the turret of the Ćiastel de Tor, one can still make out the vestiges of the impoverished past of the region. If you spend enough time in Ladinia, you’ll notice them: those odd clusters of heavy-topped brown barns, so tightly built they seem to stumble over each other. Often they are the only man-made structure in sight, surreal clustered in the middle of a vast sloping meadow. They are named vile, and was born out of the need for the villagers of these valleys to co-operate in order to survive. “Each vile functioned as a kind of micro-village, ”explains Mattia. “Everything was done and shared together, with many families living together. In vile, you will find bedrooms, kitchens, wells, storage rooms and stables. It was necessary to get through the harsh winters in such an isolated environment. Today they have either reverted to barns or restored to luxury hotels, but they remain one of Ladinia’s most striking visual motifs.
The Ladin valleys are so enigmatically remote that it is almost impossible to travel between them with public transport, so I take the bus back to Brunico, take another bus to Bressanone, then to Val Gardena. Like Val Badia, there is a strong sense of changing not only places, but worlds. As the bus plunges further into the Dolomites, you pass these remarkable green, tree-cleared slopes with a single secluded house standing guard. The road gradually darkens and narrows before suddenly emerging into the town of Ortisei (or Urtijëi in Ladin, or St. Ulrich in Gröden in German – all three names are officially in use, which may make the timetables look like bus to the Rosetta Stone).
It is a beautiful place, not only in its majestic setting surrounded by some of the most photographed peaks of the Dolomites, but also architecturally. His historic centro is a whimsical mix of alpine townhouses, pastel-colored cafes and grand hotels covered in frilly ornaments and vibrant frescoes.
Ortisei is also the birthplace of Giorgio Moroder, the godfather of electronic dance music, who grew up here and attended the local art school. In fact, the city has a long artistic pedigree, being renowned for its carpentry and woodworking crafts. Woodworking remains not only a source of pride, but a viable profession in Ladinia. I have been told that there are 3,000 woodcarvers in Val Gardena alone.
And of course you will hear Ladin spoken everywhere. It is classified as a Romance language, and if you understand Italian you can sometimes get the gist of the articles in the local Ladin newspaper. The word for sky, for example, is sky. The snow is nëif. Other words, however, are impenetrable, probably hangovers from the original Rhaetian language, such as aiscoda (spring) or dlasena (Blackberry). In addition to a Ladin newspaper, there is also Ladin radio and RAI Ladinia, a subset of the Italian public broadcaster, which broadcasts two hours of Ladin television per week. The language maintains a presence in all walks of life here – at home, at school, at church – and I noticed a real sense of pride when people spoke it, as if this simple act embodied their attachment to their Ladin identity, to their land and to their ancestors.
From the center of Ortisei, a series of cable cars takes you to the Seceda plateau. Here you can have a panoramic view of Ladinia and its extraordinary set of natural monuments. There’s the crisscross ridge of Seceda itself, along with the flat plinths of the Sella massif and the jagged peaks of the Sassolungo, which rise out of the ground like the petrified spiers of a sunken kingdom.
Is there something particularly beautiful about this part of the Dolomites, or is there just an extra layer of romance evoked by the Ladins, sequestered in their pocket paradise, defiantly holding their ancient language, their rich mythology and their unique identity against thick and thin? I think about it as I watch the Sassolungo, waiting for the Kingdom of Fanes to reappear.