The ancient and hospitable Ladin people

The Dolomite mountain range has revealed many of its geological secrets but the origins of an ancient tribe remain shrouded in mystery. The Ladin people, who still live in the area, have their own language, their own culture, their own traditions.

One of the most widespread theories is that people living in Alpine areas in today's Switzerland and the Italian Friuli region once had a single language and culture. When invasions from the north brought Germanic influences to the valleys the Ladin people retreated to the highest, most inaccessible areas.

This migration led to the creation of three Ladin 'enclaves', the Grisons canon in the Swiss Engadin valley, the Dolomite Ladins and the Friuli Ladins. Traces of their ancient unity are said to exist in place names and in some dialects. Graziadio Isaia Ascoli, one of the most respected Italian linguists in the nineteenth century, was the first scholar to defend the theory of the united Ladins. Ascoli believes the Ladin people descended from the ancient Raetians, an Iron Age tribe who lived in Raetia, a part of the eastern Alps that included the Dolomites, starting around 5 BC. After their 15 BC subjugation by Drusus and Tiberius, stepsons of the Roman emperor Augustus, the Raetians adopted Roman ways. The Latin spoken by their conquerors influenced the language spoken in Raetia, and a new Neo-Latin, or Romance language, was created, in much the same way that Latin led to Catalan, French, Italian and the other Romance languages. The term Ladin to indicate this language was adopted much later by Germans to define populations that were not really Italian, and much less German.

After centuries of Roman domination, Raetia was invaded by the Bavarii people who flooded the valleys with Germanic influences. The Latin culture survived only in marginal areas. The most substantial Ladin presence today is in the heart of the Dolomites in the Fassa, Gardena, and Badia valleys in the Trentino Alto Adige Region and the Fodom/Livinallongo valley in the Veneto region where about 40,000 people live, including 30,000 Ladin speakers.

The language however varies noticeably from place to place and the Planning and Elaboration Service for the Ladin Language (SPELL - Servizio di Pianificazione ed Elaborazione della Lingua Ladina) is carrying out studies to standardize written Ladin. Under the Fascist regime everything Ladin was suppressed and the local administrative boundaries of the vast valleys were redesigned. For centuries part of historic region of Tyrol, comprising the Austrian state of Tyrol and the Italian Trentino Alto Adige/Suedtirol, the provincial borders were redrawn to make Cortina d'Ampezzo and Livinallongo part of the Province of Belluno and the Gardena and Badia valleys part of the Province of Bolzano. The Val di Fassa was left as part of the Province of Trento.

Various institutions keep the Ladin culture alive: the Ladin Cultural Institute and the Ladin Museum in Fassa; the Ladin Cultural Institute in San Martino in Badia, with a multimedia annex; the Cultural Institute of the Communities of the Historic Ladins of the Belluno Dolomites; and the Furlan Ladin Cultural Institute. These pro-active associations produce, publish and promote studies and research on the history, language, economy, folklore, mythology and traditions of the Ladin people. Ladin language media also plays an important role in keeping the Ladin culture existent; there are news programmes, talk shows and Internet sites in the various spoken Ladin dialects as well as Ladin pages in the main local newspapers.

These Ladin sources of information are not just in a different language, they also represent a different point of view. Open-minded, hospitable and not afraid of innovation, the Ladin people took immediately to the tourist industry in the Dolomites and have become exceptional hosts in their mountain eyries. Like similar cultures that developed in the Alps - the Walser and Vaudois German speaking people in Switzerland for example - Ladin culture emphasises a deep rooted Alpine culture that separates itself from today's urban culture, and can even seem at odds with popular norms. In this sense their saving grace is the Ladins' habit of considering their position compared to the outside world with a distinct sense of proportion.

The core characteristics in the settlements; their relationship with nature, the language and social ties are actually very contemporary, perhaps even an ideal and alternative ''non-urban modernity''. There are still Ladin clothes, often worn on Sundays and for ceremonial occasions linked to the ancient customs, a typical Ladin building style, Ladin artisan crafts and Ladin agricultural practices. The Ladin oral tradition is especially rich and an infinite number of historic legends and folklore about the natural world, often populated with mysterious beings, are handed down from generation to generation. The Ladin people have very specific ways of expressing their Christianity. There are solemn processions in costume and shrines to the Madonna and other saints are frequently found on local roads. Wooden crosses are set on mountain peaks and along pathways. Pilgrimages on foot sometimes last more than a day, crossing several valleys, and there is great veneration for the Ladin saint, Josef Freinademetz, an early missionary to China who was born in Val Badia in 1852 and canonized in 2003.