Autumn in South Tyrol. The beauty of the season here leaves you breathless. But imagine for a moment that it’s 900 years ago. The Dark Ages. When the death rattle of summer awoke one’s most primal fears.
A time when autumn’s vanishing daylight meant the rustling behind you was no longer leaves rippling in the wind, but the lurking of all things wicked. A shadow twisting across the ground no longer a swaying tree branch, but an evil spirit grasping for your soul.
In the Dolomites of South Tyrol such mental conjurings were not without justification. This mountainous region of northern Italy is a land where nightmares took real form.
With craggy mountain peaks breaking the horizon like weathered gravestones, it’s no wonder the area is home to myths and legends that could be torn from the pages of Stephen King.
A part of the Dolomites with haunting tales particularly ripe for October is Schlern Mountain. Schlern (also known as “Sciliar” in Italian) storms skyward from the yawning pastures of Seiser Alm (“Alpe di Siusi”) – Europe’s largest Alpine prairie. The mountain manifests a jarring contrast against the sleepy landscape. A beautiful yet brooding image for any trekker. But all who come this way should know they follow in the footsteps of actual witches who once held gatherings on the massif.
According to local legend, witches long ago met every Thursday on the mountain where they partook in black magic rituals and danced with the devil. The witches were thought to summon torturous thunderstorms around the mountain.
Hikers can visit the hallowed site, referred to as “Witches’ Benches”, where rock formations resemble spell-binding benches, chairs and other creepy contortions. Surely once the wicked seats of a witches’ coven. Interestingly, it is not known if these are natural formations or the work of ancient people. Mystery forever mars the mountainside.
A Witch’s Curse
A story still told today in Seiser Alm is the tale of a local man named Hansel, who once shot a witch with his rifle. Hansel and his wife were simple farmers who lived in a mountain hut on the prairie. One day, while performing their daily chores an eerie silence fell on the land and a dreadfulness filled the air. They noticed a heathen’s shadow sweep across the sky.
Hansel grabbed his rifle, blessed it with Holy Water and fired at the witch. The bullet knocked the witch off her broom and she thundered to the ground. When Hansel approached the dead witch, the sight of her hideousness cursed him until his death.
Not all the legends of this area are rooted in fantastical fables. Sitting in the shadow of Schlern lies the Prösels Castle. Erected more than 800 years ago, this South Tyrolean medieval stronghold bears a horrific history. In the 16th century, the Lord of the castle accused nine local women of practicing witchcraft. He had them tortured until they confessed to stealing babies and riding their brooms to Schlern where they feasted on the flesh of newborns with the devil. After their trial, the Lord had them burnt at the stake.
Today, the castle is a feast for the eyes. A remarkable example of late Gothic architecture. Tourists can enjoy guided visits during the summer and over the Christmas holidays.
Have Broom Will Travel
Getting to the Schlern Mountain is easy…especially if you have a broom. However, those opting for less ghoulish means of travel can take a cable car near the villages of Ortisei (Mont Seuc cable car) or Castelrotto (Alpe Di Siusi cable car).
Castelrotto (also known as “Kastelruth” in German) heavily promotes the area’s witch heritage. Visitors to this Alpine village can find witch wood carvings and many themed shops and restaurants not to mention the occasional black cat wandering its cobblestone streets.
The best time to hike all around Seiser Alm without snow is late May through September. Although it is accessible year round. The witching hours of October make an ideal time to explore how land and legend weave together to create stories that stir one’s darkest fears.
The immense Schlern massif forms an unforgettable background for a walk to the Witches’ Benches. It’s easy to see why this mountain casts a shadow of mysticism over the land. The Benches are about 1.5 hours from Compaccio, a settlement on the west end of the prairie near Castelrotto.
While we hope you don’t spot any witches soaring on brooms during your visit, you can count on the culture and natural beauty of South Tyrol to cast a spell that forever touches your wanderlust heart. But in the foreboding words of Ray Bradbury…
“Beware the autumn people…Where do they come from? The dust. Where do they go? The grave. Does blood stir in their veins? No: the night wind. What ticks in their head? The worm. What speaks from their mouth? The toad. What sees from their eyes? The snake. What hears with their ear? The abyss between the stars. They sift the human storm for souls, eat flesh of reason, fill tombs with sinners. They frenzy forth. In gusts they beetle-scurry, creep, thread, filter, motion, make all moons sullen, and surely cloud all clear-run waters. The spider-web hears them, trembles- breaks. Such are the autumn people. Beware of them.”
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