Next morning: an unpleasant awakening. I can only manage the stairs down to the breakfast room backwards. My muscles ache so badly I could scream with every step. But am I about to give up? Hell no! By now I’ve made friends with the mountains, and tonight I want to sleep up there. A storm is in the offing, but hopefully we’ll make it up to the cabin before the thunder and lighting set in. From Campitello it’s flat (woohoo!) all the way to Canazei, then we’ll take the cable car for a bit (cheating) and go from there to the Rifugio Sasso Piatto. I’m a newbie at hiking and I have a sense of direction like a demented compass needle, so I’m extremely glad that Alice from Canazei is coming with me.
Alice was born and brought up here. She speaks Ladin, and is therefore essentially one of the region’s indigenous people. The Val di Fassa, thanks to its high peaks and the nearly impassable landscape through which we’re currently walking, was protected from the outside world, preserving its language – Ladin – for more than two thousand years. This is how it sounds:
Maybe I can learn a bit of Ladin on the go, I think. But Alice soon disabuses me of this notion. ‘Which Ladin do you want to learn?’ she asks. ‘The one from the upper, middle or lower Fassa Valley?’ 30,000 inhabitants can’t agree on a language? Amazing. And being the tradition-conscious people that they are, the Ladins have numerous festivals and rituals to soothe evil spirits and keep the nice ones in a good mood. No wonder: in an environment where hail can abruptly ruin the harvest, where landslides can bury entire villages and storms make the earth tremble, a belief in witches and spirits isn’t unlikely. So even today, the Ladins still tell fairy tales and sagas from the Val di Fassa.
We stop to meet another Ladiner, the sculptor Rinaldo Cigolla. He’s over eighty years old, and still works in his atelier. ‘The view of the mountains from the window,’ he says, ‘gives me so much strength. Whatever happens in the world, it doesn’t worry me. I’m completely carefree.’ Wow. I’d love to be able to say that of myself. ‘And what if somebody promised you a big villa and lots of money somewhere else in the world that was also beautiful? Would you accept?’ I ask.
I think to myself: these people have roots that go deep into the earth. They stand like spruces, swaying in the wind and storms, surviving heavy snows in winter and gazing constantly at the mountains. They’re tough. I’m a bit envious, actually. We continue our hike. Step by step we climb higher and higher. And the higher I get, the lighter feels the weight of the world. My shoulders relax, my upper body light and my lower half heavy. My feet are like lead, but my body is free. Above me, the sky darkens. Is the thunderstorm going to catch us? But then it clears up again, and I’m pretty relieved: getting struck by lightning is not a challenge I’d like to undergo. From the safety of the cabin, however, with a roof over my head, I’ve got no objection to witnessing that kind of natural spectacle. I imagine it would be wonderfully scary. But there’s probably not much chance of that.
By now we’ve reached the Sasso Piatto mountain. We sit, untie our shoes, stretch our legs and look around. Glorious. We’re starving. Ham and cheese, bread and fresh butter – delicious. All homemade, from happy cows and goats. A small bell rings. A marmot whistles. Otherwise all is silent. A sparkling wine spritzer. Life can be so easy.
For the last ten years, Roberto has spent three months every summer working on the mountain. He has 400 sheep, twenty cattle, seventy goats, five pigs, ten horses and ten milking cows. Gosh! That sounds like a lot of work. It is indeed. This is what his mornings look like – and they’re not for the faint-hearted:
4.30am: Fetch and milk the animals
5.30am: Check on the sheep
6am: Light the oven and knead the dough
7am: Eat breakfast, bake the bread
etc. etc. etc.
9pm: Go to bed
Then do the whole thing seven days a week for three months.
Now I’m not envious any more.
Nonetheless, Roberto wouldn’t trade his situation for anything. The mountain is addictive, he says:
It’s beautiful here. But three months on a mountainside! Would I want that? I don’t think so. It looks like pretty hard graft, even though I can imagine that one’s soul and perpetually frantic mind could find peace here. No question.
My time in the mountains has done me good.
Although I nearly gave up on the climb down: I walked down the final bit of sloping path backwards, because my knees were crunching and shrieking with every step. Now I’m sitting on the Piazza in Trento with a glass of wine, thinking about my visit to the Dolomites. It was certainly beautiful – very beautiful, even. I’ve made my peace with the mountains and left the shadows of the past behind me. Walking makes your muscles sore, but it frees your body; it’s as if your inner horizons widen. I feel lighter than when I arrived, and more grounded. There’s no less chaos in the world, no less suffering.
But does carrying all that chaos around with me help the world? No.
So next time I get the chance, I’ll be back – to bring myself back to earth and recharge my batteries.
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Translation by Caroline Waight