Kindly contributed by Stephen O’Shea, a prolific and insightful historian, whose previous books include The Friar of Carcassonne. O'Shea is back with the release of The Alps, A Human History from Hannibal to Heidi and Beyond. In his latest book, O’Shea recounts a 500-mile journey through the Alps while musing on personalities such as Napoleon, Hitler, James Bond and more. Read on to learn about his favorite spot in all of the Alps.
As someone who has traveled extensively in the Alps, I am often asked what range of these marvelous mountains I would most recommend visiting. There can be but one answer: the Dolomites, in northeastern Italy. Magical, musical, mystical – after just a short time in the Dolomites, all of these descriptive words spring to mind. There is absolutely no mystery to why these mountains fire the imagination. They are unearthly, almost lunar. They change color according to the time of day. Violent irruptions of rock glowing pale in the moonlight, the Dolomites inhabit the narratives told by the peoples in the past. The mountains have inspired folk lore among pagan peoples, Celts, Germans, Latins and Christians.
There is the princess of the moon, who came to marry a prince of these mountains. In her trousseau she brought to earth a brilliant moon-flower, the edelweiss, to brighten the severity of the brooding peaks. But soon she fell ill, disheartened by the darkness of the mountains at night, so unlike those of the moon. The prince, in despair, took to wandering the forests of the kingdom. There he came across a Salwan, a cave-dwelling dwarf leader whose scattered people possessed magical powers. On hearing of the prince’s plight, the Salwan summoned his fellow dwarves together and the next night they set to work. Standing on the jagged peaks, groups of Salwans captured the moonlight and wove it into a magical, glowing cloth, which they then draped over the mountains. This is why the Dolomites are also called The Pale Mountains. The moon princess, on seeing this transformation, was overjoyed, and her homesickness vanished.
Then there is the Alp-glow, the roseate blush that suffuses summits just before sunrise and just after sunset. The phenomenon can be seen throughout the Alps, but in the Dolomites the show is stunning. Legend has a dwarf king, Laurin, inhabiting a hollow mountain surrounded by a profusion of rose bushes. When, after a series of misadventures, King Laurin loses his realm, he angrily turns all of the roses into stone, uttering a spell by which they were never to be seen again by night or by day. In his haste, he forgot about dawn and dusk – neither day nor night – which is why the stone roses show their true colors at those two times. The Dolomite massif where Laurin lived is called, in German, Rosengarten.
There are many other legends haunting the Dolomites: maidens turned to stone, witches doing mischief in the woods, sorcerers hurling rainbows into lakes, and a host of other supernatural occurrences. Perhaps the most intriguing concerns the kingdom of the Fanes, a realm unknown to history yet very much alive in multiple folktales. A warrior people led by a Boudica-like princess named Dolasilla, the Fanes conquered the Dolomites in some distant past, aided at different times by different allies – marmots, eagles and a cohort of one-armed men. According to tradition, they will return one day in a promised time and life in the valleys will return to the way it was lived long ago. Until then, the Fanes remain present in many place names in the region.
Visit the Dolomites and relearn how to dream.