Spellbound in the Dolomites: Hiking the Witches’ Mountain

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Kate + Vin

Mountain Witches of Sciliar
dolomites alps icon

One does not simply walk in the Dolomites… without knowing its spine-chilling folklore. In this post, we share a bit of South Tyrol’s witching past and how to visit the fabled sights of “Witches’ Mountain”.

Autumn in South Tyrol. The ravishing beauty of the season here leaves you breathless. But imagine for a moment that it is 900 years ago. The Dark Ages of Europe. When the death rattle of summer summoned dread — awakening one’s most primal fears.

A time when autumn’s vanishing light meant the rustling behind you was no longer leaves fleeting in the wind, but instead the stalking of something vile and wicked. A shadow snaking along the ground, no longer the lurch of a crooked ash, but a grim evil coveting your flesh and bone.

In the Dolomites of South Tyrol, such haunting mental conjurings were not without justification. This mountainous outpost of northern Italy is a land once shackled by superstition. Nightmares manifested into reality when the sun went down. And witchcraft was suspected to be widespread.

When you hike here, especially in the fall, it is easy to see how such deep-seated folkloric beliefs arose. The mountains seem to move with the mist. And when the peaks do finally reveal themselves, their storm-cursed faces growl like godforsaken gravestones of the unloved dead.

The Mountain Witches of Alpe di Siusi

mountain witches dolomites

A corner of the Dolomites with tales particularly ripe for October is Schlern Mountain. Schlern (also known as “Sciliar” in Italian) storms skyward from the yawning pastures of Alpe di Siusi – Europe’s largest Alpine prairie. The mountain manifests a jarring contrast against the sleepy landscape. A beautiful yet unsettling scene for any trekker.

All who hike here should know they follow in the footsteps of actual witches who once held gatherings on the hulking massif. According to local legend, witches long ago met every Thursday on Schlern where they performed black magic rituals and sacrifices in communion with the Devil. Carbonized remains found on the mountain give credence to the ghoulish practice.

The Schlern witches were also thought to spawn savage storms that would descend like packs of wolves from the mountain’s horned peaks. 

mountain witches goats sciliar
Goats gather beneath the Witches’ Mountain (also known as Schlern / Sciliar).

In fact, one legend tells of a bull grazing the rolling hills near the village of Seis, just below the mountain and discovering a bell in the earth. The villagers hung the mysterious bell in the bulbous spire of the ancient St. Valentin Chapel. When storms reigned down, the residents would fervently ring the bell to break the witches’ spell.

Hikers can visit a revered site of the witches known as the “Witches’ Benches” (Hexenbänke in German) located on Mount Bullaccia (Puflatsch). Bullaccia lies to the north of Schlern mountain offering jaw-dropping views of Alpe di Siusi and beyond.

The Witches’ Benches grip the imagination. They are contorted rock formations resembling places for sitting. Upon seeing them, you can find yourself believing they were once the sacred seats of a witches’ coven. Interestingly, it is not known if the stone thrones are natural formations or the work of ancient people. Mystery forever marks the mountainside.

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A Witch’s Curse

witches mountain children

A story still told today in Alpe di Siusi 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 pasture. 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 is Prösels Castle. Built more than 800 years ago, this South Tyrolean medieval stronghold holds a horrid history.

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Prosels Castle in Völs am Schlern
Prösels Castle was once the site of witch trials in South Tyrol.

In the 16th century, the Lord of the castle accused nine women of practicing witchcraft. He had them tortured until they confessed. Their crime? Stealing babies and riding upon 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. 

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Have Broom Will Travel

schlern witch sciliar witch

Getting to Alpe di Siusi is easy…especially if you have a broom. However, those opting for less devilish means of travel can take a cable car in the villages of Ortisei, Seis or Castelrotto. Our guide to hiking Alpe di Siusi provides step-by-step directions to reach the plateau.

If you want to experience South Tyrol’s witch folklore firsthand, we recommend departing from Castelrotto (also known as “Kastelruth” in German). From intricate witch wood carvings to themed shops and restaurants as well as the occasional stray black cat, witchiness abounds from its centuries-old cobblestones. 

Hexenkeller Restaurant in Castelrotto
Restaurants such as Hexenkeller and Schlernhex in Castelrotto pay tribute to the enchanting folklore of the Dolomites.

The best time to hike all around Alpe di Siusi without snow is late May through September. Although the plateau is accessible year-round.

The witching hours of October make a tempting time to explore how land and legend weave together to create folklore that stirs one’s darkest fears. The cable cars still carry adventurers to the top through much of October if the weather allows it.

Another good time to seek out witches on Alpe di Siusi is on Walpurgis Night, which takes place every May 1st. According to locals, Walpurgis Night is when witches, wizards and other wicked spirits meet on Schlern to celebrate the “Witches Sabbath”.

The celebration is said to involve dancing, drinking and feasting until dawn, as well as a guest appearance by the Devil himself in the form of a goat.

For centuries, peasants took measures to protect their cattle on Walpurgis Night. They locked and sealed stable doors with three crosses. In addition, sprigs of ash, hawthorn, juniper, and elder, once sacred to the pagan gods, were used to guard against evil.

However, the night was not filled only with worry. The locals also saw it as a time of omen. Specifically, if it rained. An old saying goes: “On Walpurgis Night rain. Makes good crops of autumn grain.”

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How to Reach the Witches’ Benches

hexenbanke witches benches

Once you are on the Alpe di Siusi, the Witches’ Benches are about a 1-2 hour hike depending on which cable car you choose.

The mighty Schlern massif forms an unforgettable backdrop for the walk. It menaces from every vantage point leaving no doubt as to why the mountain casts a shadow of mysticism over the alp.

From Castelrotto, take the Marizen Chairlift to the Marizen Alp. Then follow trail no. 9 through the forestland of Tiosels until you come to trail no. 8, which leads to the right up to Alpe di Siusi.

witches chairs castelrotto south tyrol
The Witches’ Chairs above Castelrotto make another hex-worthy trek through dense forests.

On Alpe di Siusi, trail no. 8 will intersect with trail no. 14. Follow it to the left and stay on it until reaching the Witches’ Benches.

On your trek back to Castelrotto, you may wish to stay on trail no. 8 descending further down the slope to another mysterious stone formation shrouded in legend: The Witches’ Chairs (Hexenstühle).

Two stones appear as literal chairs facing the valley. Like the Witches’ Benches, it is not known if these are man-made or oddities of nature.

To return to Castelrotto from the Witches’ Chairs, stay on trail no. 8 until you can take a left on trail no. 7 into town. The hike back is less than an hour.

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South Tyrol Casts a Spell

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 touches your soul.

It’s a spell you’ll undoubtedly want to share with others, but keep in mind, such bewitching autumn hexes are best left for some to discover on their own. All alone. In the dead of night. When churchyards yawn and hell itself breathes out contagion to this world


Save the Witches’ Mountain

29 thoughts on “Spellbound in the Dolomites: Hiking the Witches’ Mountain”

  1. What a unique place to visit – I got chills reading this! I would love to visit (but would be a little scared to go by myself!) and your photos look amazing.

  2. I love this! Your writing made me feel like you were sitting beside me telling me the stories. Thanks for sharing!

  3. I have never heard of this mountain range before. It does look really eerie! I love the dramatic black mountains. And also that castle looks amazing. What a great place to explore, definitely need to hike this sometime.

  4. Wow, so spooky! I can see the appeal for travel in October… although I’m a bit of a chicken so it might be too much for me! Hahaha. I’m sure the beautiful landscape would keep me calm though. Beautiful photos 🙂

  5. Love this post!! It’s so well written, sounds like the perfect place to visit on Halloween, had no idea of the history here 🙂

  6. OMG how spooky!! I love this. I’ve been wanting to go to South Tyrol but didn’t know witches once roamed there 😉

  7. This is the coolest thing I’v ever read about South Tyrol! I haven’t yet visited the Dolomites, although I would really love to. And now I know when I want to go! In the fall! I know it’s probably not as great as summer or winter as you miss out on some hikes and skiing, but I love the fall colours and I absolutely loved these witch tales.

  8. This is so cool. When I think of witches I always thibk of Salem Massachusetts!! But this is so fun and creepy. Would love to check out the Dolomites and see where all these stories took place in Tyrol. Also love your descriptive writing!

  9. The culture, the story and the place itself is very interesting. It looks a bit creepy on photo. But I would still love to see this place. 🙂

  10. Looks certainly like a creepy place. But very very interesting, thanks for sharing Vin and Kate – Peng

  11. Oh wow, your photo of Seiser Alm is quite striking – I can definitely imagine that this is a place which has it’s fair share of legends and myths. Schlern looks like it belongs in a Disney movie or storybook – can absolutely imagine a group of witches meeting on this mountain! And yikes – a remarkable example of late Gothic architecture for sure, but Prösels Castle has quite the horrid history!

    What a cool trip – amazing how knowledge of local legends and / or history can completely make a trip, and keep you fascinated throughout, just imagining!

  12. I love all the witches stories from around the world. It is amazing how much legend is based on the concept of witches. It sometimes makes me wonder how all the stories were developed and what truth is in them.

  13. Wow, your post had me at the edge of my seat! Such amazing history in the area. I’d be a little nervous to visit lol, I think I’d be looking over my shoulder every minute!

  14. Awesome story. Fit for the coming halloween. It would be really interesting to visit the castle where witches were tried before. I would love to get the vibe of how it was.

  15. Those truly are breathtaking landscapes! I would love to visit sometime.
    And the history and folklore of the area is horrifying… But i loved getting to hear about it!

  16. This is so cool! We’ve always wanted to go to the Dolomites but didn’t know that South Tirol is associated with witches! Sounds a bit eerie. Perfect for Halloween! Haha..

  17. Spooky!! What a perfect place to visit for Halloween! The mountains there are eerily beautiful, you can just imagine the witches crowded around a clearing casting spells!

  18. What an awesomely creepy post for Halloween! Hiking to the Witches Benches sounds like quite an adventure – and a bit spooky as well! I’ll have to find my way to South Tyrol soon!

  19. Perfect post for this time of year!!! I have always been intrigued by the history of witchcraft, and I love the urban legend. What a fantastic place to visit, thank you sharing as I had never heard of this region before now.

  20. This is so fascinating and a perfect place to visit around Halloween. I’m not a big hiker but I love history, and would definitely be interested in seeing this in person.

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