Despite thinking myself quite au fait with Italian regional identities – I’ve long enjoyed trying to decipher the Neapolitan dialect used in L’Amica Geniale, and have diligently picked up a few Tuscan sayings over the last couple of years – my first encounter with the Ladin language was in a taxi from Bolzano station into the Italian Dolomites.
We were heading to Alta Badia, a cluster of villages and valleys perched between South Tyrol and Trento, for a skiing holiday. Around 30,000 people make up the Ladin-speaking community in this mountainous region, spread across five valleys and three provinces: Val Badia valley and Val Gardena valley in South Tyrol, Livinallongo and Ampezzo in Belluno, as well as the Val di Fassa valley in the province Trento. They’re all in the Dolomites, but quite distinct from the rest of the mountain range.
To give a sense of how isolated this Ladin language is, a throwaway comment from my taxi driver was helpful. He’d been to school in Bolzano, the closest big city to Alta Badia, and yet even he didn’t speak a word of the language. To find the Ladin community, we headed right into the mountains, to the village of Corvara. It’s a prime skiing resort located right on the slopes, with access to the Dolomiti Superski region. Among an impressive network of lifts, however, there are charming nods to traditional life too: compact farmhouses in small clusters called viles, where farmland would once have been shared by the village; a ski-lift pulled along by indiginous Noriker horses in Armentarola; and slopeside bombardini, the Italian version of eggnog.
Unlike previous ski trips, I got a sense that there was a lot more to the culture here than pounding the slopes and drinking mulled wine. An organisation called Nos Ladins (We Ladins) host events like forest bathing, night sledding, farm visits and “wolves night” throughout the winter season, and the history of the region is palpable. Permanent settlements in Alta Badia date back at least 4000 years, with nomadic tribes passing through for millennia before that. When the Alps were integrated into the Roman empire in the first century BC, the native mountain people (known as the Raetians) adopted the vulgar Latin spoken by the Roman soldiers and tradespeople. Over the years, this was transformed into Ladin.
While I was in Alta Badia, I spent a fascinating day skiing with Nicole Dorigo, who grew up speaking Ladin at home. “Ladin is not a dialect, but it’s own language,” Nicole tells me, “one that predates modern Italian by centuries.” She explains that the awareness of having their own language has always been important to the people here: It’s an integral part of their identity, a means of self-assertion towards the outside, but also a link between the five Ladin communities. “Bun de, bëgnodü!” This is how you will be greeted in Alta Badia; not German, not Italian, but something entirely unique. Interestingly, Ladin is closer to Catalan and Provençal than its Swiss-German neighbours.
Beyond being a language, I discovered, Ladin is also a culture with a fascinating history. After the fall of the Roman Empire, the local tribes were constantly under threat from Bavarians, Lombards, Franks and Slavs. During the First World War, violent fighting took place across these mountains, and the region went from the control of the Austro-Hungarian Empire to being an annex of Italy. The region is rich with myths and legends about the Marmot Kingdom of Fanes, the princesses Moltina und Dolasilla, the wicked magician Spina de Mul and the hero Ey de Net. The marmot is still a symbol of peace and modesty here, a fluffy forest creature that you’ll see on postcards and etched into local wood carvings.
Unlike many indiginous communities, Ladin is not in danger of dying out. As with Nicole’s family, it’s still the language spoken at home for most people in the five Alta Badia towns and surrounding countryside. What’s more, you’ll find weekly Ladin newspapers, radio and television programmes. Over the last few years, culture clubs, poetry volumes, musical troupes and theatres have contributed to a re-awakening of the ethnic consciousness of the Dolomite Ladins.
Of course, skiing is also a big part of the culture. “It was our main social activity as a child,” Nicole explains. “We’d ski every weekend in the winter, even if it was just a few slopes before lunch. It wasn’t until I moved to Bolzano for university that I realised I actually enjoy it.” Over a glass of local white wine on the slopes, we say VIVES, or cheers in Ladin.
Like all great Italian things, the Ladin community also centres around food and wine. We tasted this first hand when we drove into the hills for dinner at Maso Runch Hof, close to the village of Badia itself. It was snowing the evening we visited, the steep bends of the roads treacherous. The windows of the farmhouse were aglow, like something from a Swiss fairytale, and we were ushered into the warmth.
The mountain farm is run by a local family, and in the summer months there are horses to ride and eggs to collect from the chickens: a more idyllic scene is hard to imagine. In the snow the animals are safely inside, though, and we’re here to feast by the roaring log fire instead. The dining rooms are split into traditional stuben, with wood-panelled walls and low ceilings to preserve the walls. The waiters and waitresses are dressed in traditional tartan costumes, and the menus are printed in Ladin: the whole purpose of this place is to preserve the ancient Ladin cuisine, but our local guide Nicole assures us it’s as authentic as it gets.
The six-course menu is meat heavy and non-negotiable: we taste a barley broth with smoked pork called panicia, polenta and beef goulash, pork shanks with sauerkraut, interspersed with various iterations of cajinci and tutres, deep fried stuffed ravioli. It’s hard to remember how cut-off we are in Alta Badia even now; it’s an hour and a half drive to Bolzano, three hours to Venice, and unreachable when roads are blocked with snow. Until relatively recently, the region had to be entirely self-sufficient. Vegetables are therefore sparse in winter, other than roots and greens like spinach. Apples would be carefully stored from autumn to last through the winter, and berries preserved in jams and compotes.
There’s been a resurgence in celebrating this unique local cuisine, not just in rustic farmsteads like Maso Runch, but also in Michelin-starred affairs like chef Norbert Niederkofler’s St Hubertus at Rosa Alpina in San Cassiano. Norbert’s strict ‘Cook the Mountains’ philosophy means he’s entirely reliant on Dolomiti and Alpine produce. In practice, that means no olive oil, no lemons, and no fruit out of season; serious limitations that cause seriously creative cooking.
The Ladin people are future-looking when it comes to their community, and are open to shaping tourism into something that suits them. For the last few years, a clever “Taste for Skiing” initiative has seen a flurry of interesting dining concepts come to the slopes, inviting the world into a more gourmet style of skiing. Casual mountainside huts partner up with fine-dining institutions around Italy to create a special dish for the season, with the idea that fair-weather skiers can hop from rifugio to rifugio during their holiday, always eating well.
Some culinary highlights to look out for:
The highest wine cellar in Europe at 2075m at Rifugio Bioch Piz Sorega; world class seafood brought in by skidoo at Club Morizino, and guest chef dishes on the menu at Ütia Lee, Ütia L’Tamá, Las Vegas Lodge, Ütia I Tablá, Ütia Pralongiá and Ütia Jimmy mountain huts too, but you can’t go far wrong with a heart bowl of stew at any refuges in my opinion