Italy’s Most Mysterious Region Has Warrior Princesses and a Marmot Obsession
The Ladins have lived in the Dolomites for millennia and count the founder of electronic dance music among their tribe. But who exactly are they?
The valleys of the Alps hold many secrets, but perhaps none quite as fascinating as the Ladins. With their origins shrouded in myth and mystery and their language virtually unintelligible to anyone outside their remote villages, they have somehow clung on as a distinct ethno-linguistic group, resisting the incursion of the Italian and German cultures which surround them.
From a past of poverty and discrimination, today they reside in some of the wealthiest municipalities in Italy—plush ski resorts and enviable agricultural lands—and enjoy an autonomous status within the country that has seen their cultural and economic situation flourish. Numbering just 30,000, they count electronic dance music pioneer Giorgio Moroder and Turner Prize-winning artist Gilbert Prousch (the Gilbert from Gilbert & George) among their rank—as well as a dizzying array of Winter Olympic gold medalists.
So, who exactly are they?
I am in South Tyrol, Italy’s northernmost province, which lies secluded and castellated within the Alps. South Tyrol is an oddity; the majority language here is German, Italian is spoken mainly in the two cities of Bolzano and Merano, and Ladin—the province’s third official language—survives in the isolated villages of the Dolomites. This ambiguous mix of cultures and languages is what makes this corner of Italy particularly interesting.
It’s a beguiling bus journey from the town of Brunico, through tunnels, across rivers, down narrow roads with sheer cliffs, through forests so thick they engulf the whole road in a black pall. At a certain point the road signs change from bilingual to trilingual, signaling that you are now entering somewhere different: a cultural and linguistic realm known as Ladinia.
Ladinia. You won’t find it on any maps, but to the people here it’s as real as anything. The region is made up of five lofty valleys—Badia, Gardena, Fassa, Livinallongo, and Ampezzo—which meet at the haunting rock massif of Sella, from where they radiate out like spokes on a wheel, cut off from the rest of the world by a maze of interlocking mountains, rivers, ravines and thick, near black, forests.
“Italy is my citizenship, but Ladinia is my nation,” says Mattia Maldonado as I meet him outside the Ladin Museum in the village of San Martino in Badia, an otherworldly landscape of green pastures hemmed in by tall mountains with cream-colored houses and sleepy, long-haired cows. The Ladin Museum is housed in the Ćiastel de Tor, a quirky 13th-century castle that is still partially inhabited by a couple of families.
Who knows why the first settlers came to these remote valleys, where the climate is harsh and the cultivatable land scarce? When the Romans first breached the Alps, they encountered a mysterious people they called the Rhaetians, about whom little is known, not even their language.
In 15 B.C., the Rhaetians were subjugated into the Roman Empire, leading to a long period of contact with Roman administrators, soldiers, and traders who passed through, resulting in the development of an idiosyncratic Rhaetian-Romance language, combining elements of Vulgar Latin and whatever the Rhaetians were speaking (theories range from an Etruscan dialect to a form of Celtic).
Pressure from invading Italian, Germanic, and Slavic tribes ultimately reduced this language family from a vast Alpine sprachbund to disparate pockets cut off from each other. In the Dolomites, the Ladins coalesced around the Sella Massif, rarely venturing outside their isolated kingdom. They began to develop a rich mythology full of warrior princesses, mischievous dwarves and—weirdly—marmots. Lots and lots of marmots. They feature heavily in the Ladin national epic, “The Kingdom of Fanes,” which tells of a legendary realm that sinks beneath the earth, its human and marmot inhabitants destined to wait forever in the mountains for its return.
“These mountains saved us from assimilation,” says Mattia. “You can understand why we have such a mystical attachment to them. Without them, we would not be Ladins.”
By the early 19th century, Ladins had come to think of themselves as a distinct nation. As Italian and German nationalisms swirled around them, the Ladins remained unperturbed. In 1833, the Ladin language was codified by Micurà de Rü, a priest from Val Badia. In the late 19th century, intrepid travellers had begun to make inroads into the Ladin valleys, among them the British writer Amelia Edwards, who passed through in 1872, describing them as a “lost, out of this world spot” full of singing peasants, mercurial artists, and ornate houses gilded with intricate, colorful frescoes.
This nascent tourism was abruptly interrupted by World War I, which saw Ladinia wrenched from the crumbling Austro-Hungarian Empire and handed over to Italy. Under Austria, the Ladins had been classified as Italians. Under Mussolini, they were not Italian enough, and language teachers were summoned from the plains to wean schoolchildren off their aberrant dialect. When the Nazis occupied the region in 1943, they classified Ladins as Latinized Germans, replacing the Italian teachers with Nazi functionaries who banned their language and forced them to speak only German.
This whole experience left the Ladins—ironically—with an even stronger sense of their national identity. After World War II, they demonstrated for their cultural and linguistic rights, managing to extract a substantial amount of autonomy from the Italian state. Ladin schools were established, a flag was adopted and the Ladin village of Cortina played host to the 1956 Winter Olympics (and will do so again in 2026). The growth of tourism in particular has turned Ladinia into one of Italy’s wealthiest places.
Yet from the turret of the Ćiastel de Tor, you can still make out remnants from the region’s impoverished past. If you spend enough time in Ladinia, you’ll notice them: these strange clusters of top-heavy brown barns, so closely built they appear to be tripping over one another. Often they’re the only manmade structure in sight, surreally bunched together in the middle of a vast, sloping meadow. They’re called viles, and arose from the need for villagers in these valleys to live cooperatively in order to survive. “Each viles functioned as a kind of micro-village,” explains Mattia. “Everything was done and shared communally, with many families living together. In one viles, you could find bedrooms, kitchens, wells, storage rooms and stables. This was necessary to make it through the harsh winters in such an isolated environment.” Today, they have either reverted to barns or been restored as plush hotels, but they remain one of the most striking visual motifs in Ladinia.
So enigmatically remote are the Ladin valleys, that it’s almost impossible to travel between them with public transport, so I catch the bus back down to Brunico, catch another bus to Bressanone, and then onto Val Gardena. Like Val Badia, there is a strong sense of not just changing locations, but worlds. As the bus creeps further into the Dolomites, you pass those remarkable green slopes, cleared of trees, with one lonely house standing watch. The road gradually darkens and narrows before suddenly emerging at the town of Ortisei (or Urtijëi in Ladin, or St. Ulrich in Gröden in German—all three names are officially used, which can make bus timetables resemble the Rosetta Stone).
It’s a beautiful place, not just in its majestic setting surrounded by some of the most photographed peaks of the Dolomites, but architecturally too. Its centro storico is a whimsical melange of Alpine townhouses, pastel-colored cafes and grand hotels covered in frilly ornaments and vibrant frescoes.
Ortisei is also the birthplace of Giorgio Moroder, the godfather of electronic dance music, who grew up here and attended the local art college. In fact, the town has a long artistic pedigree, being renowned for its carpentry and woodcraft. Woodworking remains not just a source of pride, but a viable profession in Ladinia. I was told there were 3,000 woodcarvers in Val Gardena alone.
And of course you’ll hear Ladin spoken everywhere. It’s classified as a Romance language, and if you understand Italian you can sometimes get the gist of articles in the local Ladin newspaper. The word for sky, for example, is ciel. Snow is nëif. Other words however are inscrutable, likely hangovers from the original Rhaetian language, such as aiscöda (spring) or dlasena (blackberry). As well as a Ladin newspaper, there’s also Ladin radio and RAI Ladinia, a subset of the Italian state broadcaster, which screens two hours of Ladin TV a week. The language maintains a presence in all spheres of life here—home, school, church—and I noticed a genuine sense of pride when people spoke it, as if this simple act epitomized their attachment to their Ladin identity, land, and ancestors.
From the centre of Ortisei, a series of cable cars whisks you up to the Seceda plateau. Here you can get a panoramic view of Ladinia and its extraordinary ensemble of natural monuments. There’s the crisscrossing ridgeback of Seceda itself, along with the flat pedestals of the Sella Massif and jagged peaks of the Sassolungo, which rise out of the ground like the petrified spires of a sunken kingdom.
Is there something especially beautiful about this part of the Dolomites, or is there just an added layer of romanticism evoked by the Ladins, sequestered in their pocket paradise, defiantly holding onto their ancient tongue, rich mythology and unique identity against all the odds? I ponder this as I gaze upon the Sassolungo, waiting for the Kingdom of Fanes to re-emerge.