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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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 literally 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…