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Notes from an author: Stephen O’Shea

Thanks to its unique mineral make up, the Italian side of the Alps is fertile ground for some of the world’s most colourful mountain myths

Notes from an author: Stephen O’Shea
Stephen O'Shea. Illustration: Jacqui Oakley

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As someone familiar with the Alps, I am often asked which range of these marvellous mountains I would most recommend visiting. There can be but one answer: the Dolomites, in northeastern Italy.

Why? Imagine if you will, a toddler five-miles tall. Like all toddlers, this baby behemoth is no clean freak. He scatters his outsized toys and building blocks higgledy-piggledy, leaving his nursery a hymn to randomness.

The toddler’s building blocks are the Dolomites: massive, twisted, pitted sentinels of stone standing in a patchwork of forest and village, with the occasional thousand-foot-high ha-ha wall appearing out of nowhere. Many of the Dolomites massifs rise completely independent of each other, like a child’s strewn playthings. The effect is arresting, a flouting of our conception of what mountains should look like.

Stranger yet is their colour. Or, rather, their colours. By some mineral miracle, the mountains change their hues according to the light of the time of day. Grey, white, rust, and red: such is the kaleidoscope that can be taken in by anyone lucky enough to look at the Dolomites from one of their many high passes. Swiss architect Le Corbusier called them ‘the most impressive buildings in the world’.

Having tasted this visual feast, I was not surprised to learn that the Dolomites have inspired the richest vein of folklore in the Alps. One concerns a princess of the moon, who wed a local prince and brought in her wedding trousseau an edelweiss flower, to brighten the brooding vastnesses of the mountains. But the edelweiss disappears at night, leaving the heights forbidding and dark, so unlike the gleaming landscapes the princess loved on the moon. She fell into depression.

Her husband, despairing of her condition, took to wandering the forests of his principality in search of a magical cure for his wife’s distress. At last, he came upon the king of the Salwans, ruler of a society of dwarves endowed with supernatural powers. On learning of the prince’s plight, the king summoned his subjects, who climbed the tallest peaks to capture the moonlight, streaming it earthward and weaving it into a glowing cloth to drape over the mountains. The princess, on seeing this, forgot her homesickness and the people rejoiced. The Dolomites are often called the Pale Mountains.

Colour informs another of the region’s most famous tales, which explains the ‘alpenglow’, the riot of red that lights the mountains at sunrise and sunset. Seen in many Alpine ranges, the alpenglow’s greatest stage is the Dolomites.

The tale tells of King Laurin, monarch of a dwarf people who lived inside a mountain, the exterior of his abode covered in rosebushes. Alas, Laurin’s fortunes waned and he lost his kingdom. Seized by fury, he turned the rosebushes to stone and declared they should never be seen again by day or by night. In his curse, he forgot dawn and dusk — neither night nor day — which accounts for the stone roses displaying their true colours at these times.

It is effortless to travel the Dolomites and feel the magic that inspired these tales; so unearthly are the vistas that appear around what seems to be every hairpin bend. Added to the physical peculiarity is their human variety. The people of the Dolomites communicate not only in German and Italian, but also Ladin, a descendant of the vulgar Latin spoken by the legionaries of old Rome. It’s cheerfully incomprehensible, and my travelling companion and I kept our ears cocked for snatches of the language, eventually concluding that Ladin sounded as if it had originated with a Portuguese who was raised in Germany and trying to speak Italian.

This quirk of language seems fitting in such a majestic setting. The seemingly countless woodworking shops of the villages overflow with depictions of ogres, trolls, witches and the like, testament to the distinct otherness of the Dolomites, felt even by those who grew up there. I can say with certainty that no other precinct of the Alps so delighted me. What is more compelling than the truly weird?

Stephen O’Shea is author of The Alps: A Human History From Hannibal to Heidi and Beyond, published by W W Norton & Company. RRP £20 (hardback). stephenosheaonline.com

Published in the Winter Sports 2018 guide, free with the October 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)