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History and Culture

History and culture in the Dolomites - The Great War

The Great War in the Dolomites


”Few – actually very few grandparents who are today becoming centenarians and who lived through the drama of the First World War on the frontline along the Dolomites as children – remain. However, numerous diaries, stories, and first-hand accounts by their parents – our grandparents who were forced to fight in World War I and were faced with this fatal destiny – have been conserved, recorded, and transcribed.” (Oskar Irsara)


The First World War was so very different from any previous war: the magnitude of military equipment and munitions and, particularly, of men involved made such an event simply unimaginable before it actually occurred. It marked every fighter, refugee, and prisoner’s life in such a singular and devastating way, full of consequences, that it is precise because of its terrible, unique nature that it is a chapter in history difficult to tell.


The Great War hit the Dolomite valleys like a furious gust of wind that uprooted, swept away, and changed everything: mountains, woods, hamlets, and people. (L. Palla)

The war in the Ladin, Trento, and Tyrol valleys which belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire began in August 1914 – a month after the heir to the Habsburg throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, was assassinated in Sarajevo. Men between 21 and 42 years of age were called to arms shortly thereafter and left to go to the front, convinced that they would return home safe and sound after a very quick military campaign against Serbia. Among these men grouped into the “Kaiserjäger” were soldiers from the Ladin valleys that were sent to Galicia, the Russian Front, and the Balkans. Contrary to expectations – earlier than the month of December 1914 – the Austro-Hungarian Army had lost almost half of its fighting force; many others perished after that. On the infamous front – known for the extremely high number of casualties it incurred – the Austro-Hungarian forces were practically decimated.


Meanwhile, the policy of the “interventionists” prevailed in Italy and efforts were intent on “liberating” Trento and Trieste from the foreign yoke of Austria. On 23 May 1915, after signing the Treaty of London and nullifying its alliance with the Central Powers, Italy declared war on Austria-Hungary. This event created a new southwestern front from the Stelvio Pass to the Carinthian border, precisely at the time when Austrian troops were engaged against the Russian offensive. Given the army’s numerical inferiority, the “Standschützen” – Tyrolean sharpshooters from traditional rifle associations – were tasked with the job of stopping the enemy, yet they had received no formal military training and were primarily young boys and the elderly because all other men had already been drafted into the regular army. Among these, the men from Ampezzo and Colle S. Lucia were the most reluctant to leave their homes and families for the most advantageous positions in the mountains, where it would have been easier to face the Italian army. They knew that defending the Ampezzo and Colle S. Lucia basin – that were open towards the south – would have been impossible and the Italian army would soon occupy their villages. On the other hand, the valley of Livinallongo, which fell on the frontline, was completely evacuated. Many women, elderly, and children from Fodom (Livinallongo, in Ladin) fled to the unknown – some even reached Bohemia – taking with them only what was strictly necessary, while the men who were capable of fighting remained to defend their country.


Corvara WWI


The “Schützen” from Livinallongo and Ampezzo that were grouped into the 4th company of the Enneberg Battalion under the command of Major Franz Kostner from Corvara, together with the Standschützen from Val Badia (2nd and 3rd companies) and those from Bruneck (1st company) were dislocated to the front from Passo Pordoi to Travenanzes until a few months later when the elite German Alpenkorps arrived as reinforcement. Most of the Ladin Schützen were subsequently concentrated on the front of Col di Lana until the defeat at Caporetto.


The Austrian military boundary on the Dolomites connected the mountain peaks into an amphitheater formation: it extended from the Lagorai to the Monzoni mountains; from the Marmolada and the Padon to the Col di Lana and the Settsass; from Lagazuoi to the Tofanes. Old fortresses that had lost much of their military protection – including the “Corte” fortress and the “Ruaz” barricade in the Cordevole Valley and the “Tra i Sassi” fort on the Valparola Pass – were located at intervals along this natural line of defense. The significantly inferior numbers in the Austrian defense would certainly have allowed the Italian army to easily overcome the Dolomite passes and conquer the area as far as Brenner, but General Cadorna anticipated that the decisive battle would soon be fought on the Isonzo River. The Tyrolean front was supposed to be of secondary importance and, consequently, the Italian army postponed its attack for this reason. The delay gave the Schützen enough time to reinforce their defensive lines.

On May 29, 1915, the Italian troops occupied Cortina d’Ampezzo and Colle S. Lucia without a shot being fired but soon thereafter, on July 8, the army failed its first great attack against the Son Pouses defensive posts on the mountains of Cortina. On July 5, the 4th Italian Army was mobilized from the Col di Lana to the Tofanes for the great offensive that was to begin two days later. On July 17, the fighting for the Col di Lana peak ended roughly where it had begun: hopes of quickly advancing forward disappeared and slow, extenuating trench warfare soon set in that did not move forward even with the explosion of numerous mines by the Italian and Austrian sides. The Col di Lana peak was mined and exploded the night between the 17th and 18th of April 1916; on July 16 of the same year, the Castelletto peak exploded – both events carried out by the Italian offensive. Likewise, the Austrians detonated several mines on the Lagazuoi to dislodge the Italians clinging to the Cengia Martini. Nothing, however, was decisive in turning the course of the war, not even the famous punitive expedition staged by the Austrian army from the Trentino (Strafexpedition) in May 1916.


Cimitero di guerra Valparola

The most bitterly fought battles occurred on the Col di Lana; its perfect strategic location was one of the most insurmountable obstacles for the Italian advance into Val Cordevole, Val Badia, and Val Gardena. Yet, the winter between 1916 and 1917 was the most lethally inflicting period of all (video): both soldiers and the civilian population began to suffer from hunger and at least 10,000 lives were lost to the extreme temperatures caused by persistent snowfalls and avalanches. In order to survive the natural calamities and the enemy fire of the Austrians, the Austrian engineer, Leo Handl, designed a series of tunnels inside the mountains and deep into the Marmolada Glacier at over 3,000 m of altitude; soldiers carved and drilled into what ultimately grew into a network of several kilometers: an actual “city under the ice”. However, these superhuman efforts did not significantly improve the tactical situation.


WWI Tomba


October 1917 saw the Italian army’s disastrous defeat at Caporetto and its eventual retreat into the distant Piave River. To reinforce this line the Italians withdrew all their troops from the Dolomites farther south, near Monte Grappa. The disintegration of the Hapsburg monarchy was swiftly nearing in October 1918: hunger, equipment, and munitions shortages and disheartened soldiers coincided with a definitive crisis in the multinational army. On the morning of October 29, Italy launched its final, victorious offensive and a cavalry column rode into the town of Vittorio Veneto. The Austrian high command was forced to accept the conditions of the armistice on November 3, 1918.


”The Dolomite mountains have become a legend and will be remembered not only for the blood that was shed there but for the kind of warfare that was engaged: it did not set anonymous armies against each other as it did on the Russian Front – it was a war of man-against-man that valued heroic individual actions.
In addition, the idle moments that soldiers were forced to undergo because of the extreme conditions and severe winters in the high mountains provided time to study the adversary who – during the pauses between one battle and another – sometimes assumed a human face: conversations between “enemies” – the exchange of cigarettes, letters, Christmas wishes – are now the stuff of legends.” (L. Palla)


Nevertheless, these fabled memoirs associated with the Alpine war should not diminish the tragic absurdity of the trench warfare fought on these unforgiving mountains that viciously reaped victims on both sides.



The Ladin language


"Danter nos baiunse ladin, deache chësc é nosc lingaz dla uma. Mo val’ iade ti dunse ince a nüsc ghesc' le bëgnodü por ladin."

These sentences are written in the Ladin language literally mean: “We speak Ladin among ourselves because Ladin is our mother tongue. Sometimes, though, we greet our guests with a Ladin welcome.”
In fact, Ladin is the mother tongue of inhabitants of Val Badia and the nearby valleys of Gardena, Fassa, Livinallongo, and Ampezzo. The five valleys are considered a crossroads between the German-Tyrolean and the Italian Trentino-Veneto worlds due to historical, linguistic, and cultural reasons.


Roughly 35,000 people reside in the four valleys that radiate from the Sella Massif – Val Badia, Val Gardena, Val di Fassa, and Livinallongo – and in Ampezzo; the majority of them speak Ladin as their native language. Language is the main factor that legitimizes historically Ladin-speaking people’s claim to be considered as a separate ethnolinguistic group.


Alunni 1940


What are the origins of Ladin?
Some people wonder about the origins of the Ladin language and when asking Ladins they might receive inaccurate answers. We, therefore, feel it is necessary to give you some information about this on our website.


Despite its ancient origins, official, scientific recognition of Ladin dates back only until the second half of the 19th Century when scholars noticed its presence in three distinct linguistic islands: in the Grisons Canton in Switzerland, in the Dolomites, and in the Friuli area. Linguists observed that the Ladin language retained many of the characteristics of the regional vernacular Latin that had become homogenously widespread in the Padana Plain as well as in the three Roman provinces of Venetia et Histria, Rhaetia, and Noricum. In fact, Ladin retains phonetic and lexicographic substrate of the Rhaetian and Noric languages, as well as distinct Celtic influences. Pre-Latin terminology in use today that dates back to the beginnings of Ladin – for example, baràntl (mountain pine), brama (cream), ciamùrc (chamois), cìer (Swiss pine), crëp (rock), dàscia (fir branch), dlasena (whortleberry), nìda (whey butter), ròa (landslide), aisciöda (Spring) – define mountain characteristics for which colloquial Latin was perhaps inadequate. The Ladin language, with Celtic influences in some areas and pre-Latin Alpine influences in others, is the direct continuation of the regional Vulgar Latin that dates back to Roman Empirical times.


Abbecedario Ladino


The first scholar to demonstrate the linguistic affinity between the three “Ladin” or “Rhaeto-Romanic” islands was the Italian linguist Graziadio Isaia Ascoli. He presented a theory of continuous linguistic unity during the Roman Period that encompassed the entire Alpine region (from the Danube in the North to Lake Garda in the South; from the San Gottardo Mountain Pass in Swizterland in the West to Trieste in the East). Today, this original unity is confirmed by the existing toponymy – well-acknowledged to be the most conservative aspect of the language. In fact, many place names in the Swiss Grisons Canton, in the Dolomites, and in Friuli coincide, whereas their Latin origin indicates how widespread and extensive Romanization had become.


Idiomatic variations of the Ladin language
Similarly to the Grisons Canton, the Ladin-speaking region in the Dolomites can be subdivided into different linguistic branches. The Ladin spoken in Val Badia consists of a group of variants: badiot in the high valley, Ladin de Mesaval in the municipality of San Martino, and marô in Marebbe. On the other hand, gherdëina is the only language spoken in Val Gardena. Val di Fassa also has three distinct idiomatic subdivisions, like Val Badia: cazet in the high valley, brach in the central area (from Soraga to Mazzin), while the language in Moena is known as moenat. Fodom (or Livinallese) is spoken in the Livinallongo Valley, whereas anpezan is spoken in Cortina d’Ampezzo.


Today, all the idiomatic subdivisions of Ladin reflect the influence of extended economic and cultural contact with the two neighboring areas that possess different linguistic frameworks. There are actually many elements that derive from the Italian dialects in the North, as well as medieval Bavarian traces, and Germanic influences assimilated in modern times.


Alongside Ladin, both Italian and German are also acknowledged languages in the Dolomite valleys. Monolingualism – which used to be widespread among the population – has practically disappeared.


Ladin signs Dolomites


Historical and social developments, the location between two linguistically and culturally different areas (Italian and Germanic), as well the sharp rise of the tourism industry in recent years have forced Ladins to become multilingual. The mass media and millions of tourists that regularly invade the Dolomites require linguistic flexibility, which Ladins, fortunately, accomplish through special school curricula. Although Ladins are able to express themselves fairly well in Italian and German, it is interesting to note how the elderly, in particular, express confidence and self-assuredness only when speaking their native language. Many other similar situations reflect the steadfast and unquestionable attachment of Ladins to their own language and identity. (W. Pescosta)



Myths, legends and folk tales


" 'An cunta che...' is the title of a schoolbook for children in elementary school that all of us remember because it tells stories and tales of people who lived many years ago; it is precisely this aspect that kindles the imagination of readers of all ages." (Igor Tavella)


Numerous tales and legends that tell the tale of the far-away Kingdom of Fanes, of princes and princesses and their allegiance to the marmot population (large ground squirrels) are endemic to the Dolomite mountains. Luianta, Dolasìla, Ey de Net, and Spina de Mul are just some of the characters in Dolomite legends that stand out above the more common salvàns or the ganes – men who lived in the wild forest (sometimes identified with gnomes) and female water divinities (also called aguane) that lived outside town boundaries – but that mingled shyly with inhabitants in the Ladin valleys. Both salvàns and ganes are positive heroes of Ladin folk tales as opposed to the ogres and witches who are the convenient scapegoats of all evil.


Some of the folk tales passed on from generation to generation have protagonists who were true, living historical figures such as the Gran Bracun (the Great Bracun) – a nickname for nobleman Wilhelm Brach who rose to fame because of his remarkable and extraordinary actions.

Ladin myths, legends, and folk tales have survived in the Dolomite valleys because of a strong oral tradition. They reflect an unwritten chapter in the history of the Dolomite population and open a door to discovering the socio-cultural nature of the past; they also provide an incentive to searching for the places that are also key players in the legends.




One of the most well-known legends tells the tale of an ancient kingdom where the mountains were as dark and dismal as the Alps. The young prince had married the Moon King’s daughter – a kindhearted maiden of refined beauty who they feared would die of longing for the brilliant silver light of her home on the moon. The troubled prince was desperate and determined to save his beloved wife at all costs, so he made a deal with the salvàns – the wise primordial gnomes that know all of nature’s secrets: he would give their lineage everlasting shelter in the woods and mountains of his kingdom in exchange for a spell to cover the mountain peaks with a pale, lunar light that provided an adequate landscape for his princess. And so it was. The salvàns spun moon rays, wove a thick web of light and silver thread, and covered the entire realm with the soft, pale light of the moon in a single night. The ancient kingdom no longer exists. Nevertheless, the mysterious presence of the salvàns can still be felt today in the forests and mountain pastures, and the mountain summits shine with silvery-white moonlight: people call them “The Pale Mountains”.


Etiological tales similar to this unusual legend do not exist in neighboring areas. Yet, the princess’ sadness seems to have been engraved on the mountains and haunting magic seems to emanate from their shimmering peaks. The lunar landscape is dreamlike – a landscape of the soul that encloses the echoes of faraway times when creation myths generated the Kingdom of Fanes. Founded by a marmot-maiden, it reached its highest splendor under the reign of princess Dolasìla: the enigmatic female warrior clothed in silver and snow-white fur, holding a deadly silver arch that shot arrows made from the silver lacustrine reeds of an enchanted lake that infallibly hit the mark. The legends are imbued in dreams, symbols, mysterious destiny, and silent fate. (U. Kindl, Miti ladini delle Dolomiti)

Just these few lines reveal the fascinating nature of the myths and legends of the Dolomites. They are wonders to be read and listened to that takes us to the imaginary traditions of the Ladin people.


Re del Fanes


The Holimites team doesn’t intend to provide a collection of legends and stories that beautifully describe the Dolomites – that is something that can easily be found in a good bookshop. But, it does offer you expert guides that will take you to the places that originated these legends while you’re here and tell you about the main characters in the pantheon of this ancient poem – the Dolomite’s truest cultural treasure.



Traditions and customs


”Bun dé y bun ann, Chël Bel Dî se lasces vire tröc agn, cun ligrëza y sanité, fortüna y benedisciun, sön chësc monn döt le bun, y ia en l’ater monn le paraîsc. Le bun dé a os y la bambona a mé!”

Children in the Val Badia recite this short rhyme on New Year’s Day. They go from house to house wishing “happiness and good health, fortune and blessings” for the New Year. In exchange, they receive sweets or a small gift. It is one of the many Ladin traditions of the past that are slowly disappearing. In fact, many traditions and customs are no longer observed as they once were due to changing socio-economic structures: traditions strictly reflected the lifestyle and work practices of farmers who are, we might say, an “extinguishing species” in the Dolomite valleys. Particularly following the Second World War, agriculture, grazing, and cattle raising activities have diminished with a subsequent increase in the tourism industry. Today’s “modern world” has left very little room for customs and traditions handed down from previous generations.


Santa Maria dai Ciüf


Religious festivals, worldly celebrations, and country fairs were once the only opportunities to break the monotony of everyday life. Traditions enhanced everyday life, they characterized religious festivals and were a welcome diversion for all rural communities.

Many traditions and customs accompanied the most important events in rural communities: birth, baptism, wedding and death, the seasons of the year, the different activities associated with haymaking (hay and grain harvesting, retting, and dressing flax, threshing), as well as courtship rituals. In fact, on particular occasions, young men went to the “vila”. After timidly approaching the young ladies on Sundays after church, they anxiously awaited opportunities to meet in groups where the prettiest girls might be, to sing, dance, and have fun in someone’s living room, under the ever-vigilant eyes of parents who never left them unaccompanied. On such occasions, the young suitors would ask the young lady they admired for a symbol or token in order to know if their feelings were returned or not.


Re magi


On St. Stephen’s Day (December 26), a young man in Val Badia, for example, would “make an order” to a young lady for a double-heart-shaped cake tied with a red ribbon to be picked up on Epiphany. Later the tradition evolved and, instead of a cake, the young lady would prepare a bouquet of flowers that her suitor would place in his hat. By accepting the “order”, the young lady made it clear that she returned her admirer’s feelings. Similarly on St. Joseph’s Day (March 19), young men would visit young ladies to order colored eggs which they would pick up on Easter Monday. The most beautifully decorated hard-boiled egg would be given to the young man who had caught the young lady’s interest; her preferred suitor would receive three or six eggs, as well as other gifts; the rejected suitor would instead receive an egg with a written rejection on it. There were strict rules of behavior for a young couple that had become engaged, principally getting wed within a short time from the announcement of the engagement. Long engagements were seen as unfavorable by parents as well as the Church. Requesting a young lady’s hand in marriage to her parents, inviting relatives and friends, as well as wearing traditional dress were of utmost importance.


Parada da noza

There are many important calendar events, symbols, and customs that characterize the anthropological heritage of Ladin mountaineers. To name them all would be too much for our limited space. We, therefore, recommend visiting the websites and reading the publications listed in the footnotes. Here below are some of the traditions and customs that are still in use today, which haven’t disappeared with the changing times and economic well-being brought on by the tourist industry, and have survived thanks to the efforts of numerous unions and cultural associations.


Ciora Müla 

The “sarada

One of the customs connected with weddings is the “sarada” or “sief”: On the way to the Church, the wedding procession is delayed by “barriers” (“sarada”) of the bride and groom’s friends. They play out scenes from the lives of the wedding couple, emphasizing their peculiarities and foibles. At the end of the performance, the “mënanovicia” (the man giving the bride away) has to pay a toll so that the wedding procession can continue on its way.


The “ciora müla

On the wedding day, friends and acquaintances of the wedding party are often seen trying to sell the “ciora müla” (goat) to the “möt vedl” (bachelor) or to the “möta vedla” (spinster) – to the bride or groom’s unmarried brother or older sister. The goat is usually made out of wood, cloth, or straw; sometimes it is a live animal.


San Micura

San Micurà

St. Nicholas Day is celebrated on December 5th. Before children go to bed, they anxiously await the Saint’s visit. He is usually accompanied by two angels and a group of devils. “San Micurà” (St. Nicholas) goes from house to house, scolding children who have been naughty and praising those who have been good. Naughty children receive a rod; good children receive a bag of sweets, nuts, and tangerines.



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