The Dolomite Alps with their green fields and the ancient people of the Ladins

Discovering Ladinia

In the heart of the Dolomite Alps, in the hidden valleys, where the ancient rocks at dawn and dusk are colored with reflections of soft pink, there is a wonderful country. In winter there, the violent winds stroll between the mighty peaks wrapped in dazzling white snow, and the unfrozen streams seem to be filled with ringing liquid crystal. In summer, the emerald slopes are covered by glades of mountain flowers like multicolored bursts, and the air is filled with the smell of grass, fresh needles, and heated by the hot sun.

You will not find this country on any world map, and its name is not mentioned in any geography textbook. This country is Ladinia. A land of high jagged peaks and bottomless gaping gorges, turbulent mountain rivers and quiet mysterious lakes, dense forests full of wild animals and fantastic creatures, and lush meadows, on which it is so good to graze cows and sheep.

The Ladin people live here, an ancient people unlike any other and still completely unfamiliar to most people outside of Ladinia. Even the very fact of the existence of the Ladins becomes a novelty for most people who come here.

And yet, the history of the Ladins begins in a deep, dust-covered antiquity, when the sun was hotter and the mountains younger. Back then, the Apennine peninsula, stretching with its blessed mountains and valleys right in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, was largely inhabited by the Etruscans, a people enigmatic, culturally and technologically advanced and generously sharing their achievements with their neighbors. Although Tuscany is considered the original home of the Etruscans in Italy, the territories they controlled stretched as far south as Naples and as far north as the foothills of the Alps.

But somewhere in the middle of the I millennium BC on the territory of the Apennine peninsula from across the Alps began to penetrate more and more actively Celtic tribes – the very threatening Gauls, who had reached as far as Rome and almost invaded it. The Romans pushed them far to the north, and later even subdued and assimilated them, but before that the Celts had managed to colonize almost all of northern Italy. Before that, they had managed to colonize practically the whole of northern Italy. The ancient, proud people found themselves divided in two. A large part of the Etruscans continued to settle the expanses of central and southern Italy, to trade, fight and make alliances with the tribes that inhabited these lands. The other, less numerous group, isolated from their compatriots on the banks of the Adriatic, was forced to leave their homes to the north and take refuge in the foothills and valleys of the Alps. There the Etruscans gradually mingled with the savage hill tribes and to a certain extent went feral, lost their high culture, giving birth to an entirely new people, which settled the eastern part of the Alpine Ridge and the plains adjacent to it, and which the Roman historians and geographers called the people of the Reti. The Rhaetians, wandering around the mountains in search of habitable places, spread what little of the Etruscan culture, including writing, they had left over the vast area of Noricum.

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As the Roman legionnaires and colonists advanced further north, contacts between them and the Rhaetians they encountered became more frequent. Unfortunately, these encounters were not always friendly. More often the opposite was true. After all, the Romans occupied the few pieces of mountainous territory that were suitable for farming. For their part, the Rhaetians, forced to use any means to survive in those harsh conditions, were not squeamish about robbery and plunder. In a word, the good neighborly relations between them somehow did not get on well at once.

The last word in the history of the pacification of the Alpine region was put by the first Emperor of Rome, Octavian Augustus, in 15 B.C. Augustus, following his grandiose plan to establish “Roman peace” in the whole of his country, entrusted the command of the Northern Campaign to two of the most gifted commanders of Rome, his adopted sons Drusus and Tiberius. These, quite in keeping with the canons of Roman strategy and the character of their lord, tried to fit in one summer season, understanding, among other things, that in winter to fight in the mountains is at least unwise. The Alpine campaign was lightning and bloody. The Rhaetians, unaccustomed to diplomatic stratagems, were almost completely wiped out, and those of them who survived were assimilated by the Roman settlers who came to the depopulated Alpine valleys and became part of the population of the vast Roman Empire.

From the fusion of the Rhaetian and Roman elements a new group of peoples emerged who spoke in a mixed Rhaeto-Romanic dialect. Unfortunately, the active exploitation of the Alpine territories by the Austrians, Germans, French and Italians has left only three speakers of these languages: the Swiss Romansch, the Friulans, who live in the north-easternmost part of Italy, and the Ladins, who live compactly in the central part of the Italian Dolomite Alps. With their name, the Ladins originally sought to show their kinship with the ancient bearers of classical Latin culture.

Until the middle of the nineteenth century, few people were interested in this little people, despite the fact that the Ladins sometimes took an active part in the life of Austria, which then owned their land. To this day, on the walls of some houses in Ladino towns one can still see murals depicting scenes of the Ladins’ victorious return to their native valleys after the defeat of Napoleon’s army, which had invaded the Austrian Tyrol. And yet for the most part they are a peaceful people. They are a people of peasants and artisans, shepherds and climbers, woodcutters and artists. They are not accustomed to wealth and luxury – and now, as many years ago, most of them do not chase big money, and Ladino merchants and hotel owners are inferior in grasping and turnover to their colleagues – the Italians and Austrians, losing to them even on their territory.

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But they know very well how to survive in the harsh conditions of the mountains, how to live in a constant struggle with the unyielding forces of nature. And in constant unity with it. Like many other peoples forced to live this way of life, they have created a wonderful, unprecedentedly beautiful folklore, populating the Alpine forests, meadows, rivers and lakes with fantastic characters and filling their hard life with colorful tales and legends. Despite the noticeable outflow of young people leaving to study and work in large cities, most Ladins continue to live on their native land as their ancestors did for generations, cultivate it as they did, prepare firewood, sauerkraut, paint the walls of houses and churches with bright paintings. And on long winter evenings, Ladino craftsmen carve various figurines, decorations, sometimes even entire paintings out of wood. There are several special institutes on the territory of Ladinia dedicated to the preservation of Ladino culture, traditions, and language. Because the Ladins understand that no one but themselves will preserve for their descendants what they inherited from their ancestors. After all, their roots and their past are their most precious possessions.

The Ladins are a small but proud Alpine people

The Ladins are a Retoromanian people of about 35,000 people, living in the north-east of Italy, mainly in the province of Bolzano-South Tyrol (about 20,000 people), but also in Trento and Belluno. They speak the language of Ladino, which appeared as a result of the transformation of popular Latin under the influence of Rhetto (the Romans conquered the region of the Dolomite Alps – Recia – in 15 B.C.). The main occupations of the Ladins are still cattle breeding, farming, woodcarving and lace weaving.

Journalist and broadcaster Diego Clara talks about his people.

We are a small people. There are only 18 villages left, scattered in the Alps for tens of kilometers from each other. And almost every village has its own dialect. I speak Mareo. In the Alta Badia valley, they speak Badiot, in Val di Fassa, they speak Fachan. But it’s all one language – Ladino. Despite historical twists and turns, we still speak, write and teach our children in our language. And we are proud of it.

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The Ladins have managed to preserve a cozy world behind the rocky Alps

Ladins have historically had large families. To feed them, men often went to work in neighboring provinces in winter and in summer they went high up into the mountains with their cows. The household and the community were kept entirely by women. It is thanks to women that our people are still alive today.

The Ladin community has always been ruled by men, but at home, behind closed doors, a woman’s word is the law.

My opinion in the family is asked for in the fourth order, after my mother, wife and daughters. It was the same in my parents’ family: my mother had the final say. My mother ran the tavern and the bakery where my father worked as a pastry chef. That was the way of our community.

Married ladies always carry a forged silver purse on their belts, with the symbols of female authority, a knife and a fork, hidden inside. The clothes of married ladies are dark. An ornament – a crown of lace – can only afford a little girl.

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Women even on holiday dress much more modestly.

Our men dress brightly and attractively. For example, in Val Gardena men’s national costume – leather pants and a bright tails with a cylinder. So in nature, for example with birds, the duck is gray, inconspicuous, and the drake is bright and ornate.

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A red vest and surcoat with green brocade trim, a wide-brimmed hat, a kerchief around his neck – the costume of a Ladino man is beautiful in everything

There is a tradition in Val Gardena: if a girl wants to get married, she gives three pears to the man she loves in the fall.

There is a similar custom in Val Badia, but the girl shows her affection with Easter eggs. If the young man receives one egg on Easter, it means he will not go as a groom, two eggs – the girl sees him only as a friend. But the beloved is given three eggs. After that, the guy can go to the girl’s parents to ask for her hand.

The bride’s mother prepares furtaes – a deep-fried omelette pie. She puts the pie to cool in a separate room and the groom’s friends try to steal it. If the mother gets distracted and misses the thieves, it is a great shame for the whole family. The pie symbolizes that the girl’s chastity was preserved by her strict mother until the wedding.

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Our kitchen is very greasy, almost all meals are cooked in a lot of oil. Hard work, cold winters require a lot of energy. The mainstay of the diet is bread. If it is stale, it is not thrown away: it is crumbled, poured with milk and dumplings are made. On good days, meat and game appear on the table. Every housewife knows how to cook dozens of kinds of sausages and frankfurters.

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No matter what the Ladins do today, agriculture is the basis of their life.

All major Ladino holidays are religious.

Before 1905 Ladins didn’t celebrate Christmas. It was imposed on us by the Italians. Our holiday is the Day of the Heart of Christ. We celebrate it on the first Sunday in June. On this day a fire is lit on all the mountain peaks. The holiday originated during the war with Napoleon. Back then, our people promised Jesus in prayers that every year they would burn fires in his honor if he would help the Ladins survive the war. Since then, young people have climbed the mountain every year to build fires. And families with children make a fire simply in the backyard.

On November 1 and 2 we celebrate the Feast of the Dead, commemorating all the fallen. On this holiday, our women prepare kazunzei. This is a special kind of ravioli, square or crescent-shaped, filled with spinach (green) or beets (red). They are fried in oil and left to cool overnight in a bowl. It is believed that deceased relatives come to eat them at night. In the morning, the family finishes the “leftovers” and thanks the dead for their generosity.

We have a relaxed attitude toward death. Our cemeteries are always located in the center of the village, around the church. Now there are expensive hotels in the villages, they are also built in the center. Tourists wonder why the best room always looks out over the cemetery.

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Ladino carnival traditionally begins on January 17. Hand-made wooden masks give a special flavor to the festival.

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No Ladino festival can do without folk music

We believe that in the mountain rivers live vivenes – good female spirits. After all, water, like a woman, gives life and prosperity. The vivens sit near the shore in the evenings and rinse their laundry. If you see a vivena, wish her well – and it will return to you a hundredfold. But if you offend a vivena, her wrath will fall on you with a rapid mountain stream, and even the bravest and strongest man will have no luck then.

Our legends and tales existed only in oral form, passed from mother to daughter. In Ladin epos the main heroines are always women. It is they who make decisions, rule the destinies of the people, even go out on the battlefield. In all tales and legends the main idea is read – the equilibrium of the Ladino world is broken as soon as a man tries to influence the course of events.

The Ladins are a peaceful people, we have never fought against anyone. But we were sent to the front during the wars because we are good marksmen and know the surrounding mountains like the back of our hand. World War I left a huge imprint on people’s consciousness, because it was its events that led to the fact that our lands in 1919 from the Austro-Hungarian Empire went to the Italians. For us, World War I is the main historical event. It is a war we have not yet lived through.

New buildings are now forbidden to be built in our traditional Viles villages. We don’t want the Ladino architecture to be wiped off the face of the earth. Viles are several paired peasant courtyards, perfectly blended with nature. Our houses are like mountains – stone on the bottom, wood on top. The first, stone, floor is the hayloft, cattle stalls and workshop, while the second floor is made of logs and is where the family lives.

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Today the Ladins have all the occupations, while before we were only engaged in agriculture. Up until the 1960s we lived poorly. Even now you can’t make money from farming. When skiing tourism began to develop, the situation improved a bit. You were a farmer in the early morning and an elevator attendant in the afternoon. In the evening you’re a farmer again, you go down from the mountains back to your village, where your wife is waiting for you, and you go milking cows. Just like your grandfather and father.

Orientation Italy, the autonomous province of Bolzano – South Tyrol

Capital city : Bolzano Official languages : Italian (23.4% of the population) and German (62.3%). 4.1% of the population speaks Ladino Area : 7,400 km2 Population : 521,000 Population density : 70.4 people/km2 GDP per capita : ~$40,000 (one of the wealthiest provinces in Italy. By comparison, the country’s per capita GDP is $30,540)

Attractions: The Messner Mountain Museum on Mount Kronplatz, the Archaeological Museum where the mummy of Etsy (5300 years old), the Museum of Modern Art Museion are on display. Traditional dishes: gröstl – potatoes stewed with cabbage and meat, smakafam – buckwheat flour pie with pieces of pork sausage, grey Ladino cheese, kazunzei. Traditional drink : strong fruit and herbal tincture desgropa. Souvenirs : traditional Ladino carved wooden products, lace.

DISTANCE from Moscow ~2090 km (from 3 hours in flight without transfers) TIME is 2 hours behind Moscow in winter, 1 hour in summer VISA “schengen” EUR currency

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