What’s so special about the Dolomites?
Rugged cliffs, vertical walls and a rolling green landscape that stretches as far as the eye can see – the UNESCO-protected Dolomites are one of the world’s most beautiful mountain ranges.
This region in northern Italy attracts visitors who wander its valleys and flower-filled meadows before stopping for lunch at age-old wooden mountain huts. However, there’s a lot more to the Dolomites than what’s on the surface. As well as its scenery, this former Austrian territory is home to the ancient, and relatively isolated, Ladin people. The communities, whose history is somewhat unknown, live near an area called South Tyrol – which borders Austria to the north and east, Switzerland to the west, and Italy to the south – creating a melting pot of culture, tradition and food.
Surrounded by all these different influences, the Ladin people have lived a unique lifestyle in the Dolomiti valleys. For one, they don’t speak Italian. Recognised as one of South Tyrol’s three official languages, Ladin is said to be the oldest language in the Alpine region, born 1,000 years before Italian. It’s a mix between Vulgar Latin, German and the ancient Rhaetic language, and today is spoken by around 30,000 people. This means you’ll find villages with three different names, catering to all the region’s languages.
On a stroll through the Gardena, Badia or Fassa valleys, you’ll probably come across shops selling intricate, hand-crafted wooden toys and religious figures. The local people began wood carving in the 17th century as a way of keeping themselves busy during the long winters, but it soon became one of their main sources of income. As production has depleted over the years, these beautifully designed figurines have become some of the most authentic souvenirs you can take home.
Traditionally, the Dolomites’ villagers have lived humble lifestyles, which is reflected in their simple, yet distinctive, cooking. Potato, polenta, mushroom and beans are typical of many dishes, as well as melt-in-the-mouth speck – a local prosciutto – and unique mountain cheeses. Spressa, for example, is a semi-hard cheese made from the milk of Rendena cows, a breed found on the mountains around Madonna di Campiglio.
Lots of the mountain and valley restaurants serve up authentic meals, and yes, you’ll find pasta, though not as you know it. These first-course dishes include the popular casunziei – ravioli stuffed with pumpkin or spinach – and strangolapreti. The latter literally means ‘priest stranglers’ and consists of cheese and spinach-flavoured potato and flour gnocchi. Austrian influences aren’t unheard of either, as canederli – the Italian version of bread dumplings – made from stale bread and mixed with cheese and ham, can be found on menus in Val di Fassa.
The Ladin costume is said to be one of the finest, most jewelled clothing in the Alps. Who wears what depends on marriage status, with betrothed women wearing black hats and yellow lace shoulder cloths, while single women wear green hats and red shoulder cloths. The most important item is ‘la centa’ – an iron belt which, on the left-hand side, holds an iron lamb to symbolise a woman’s beauty, and on the back, small iron bowls that represent each of her children.
The costume is still worn on Sundays and for ceremonial occasions like religious feast days, parades and weddings.
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