When we think of Switzerland we naturally picture soaring snow-capped mountains, lush green fields, cows with cowbells, chocolate, watches and possibly, St Bernard dogs with their trusty brandy barrels fastened below their chins.
But did you know that the dogs have been named after their home? The Great Saint Bernard Pass.
The Great Saint Bernard Pass is perched precariously on a small patch of roughly level ground between the Matterhorn and Mont Blanc, deep in the Swiss Alps. I visited the region very briefly as it was my chosen starting point for the Italian stage of the pilgrimage route, the via Francigena. While I seemed to be the only person setting out on the via Francigena that day, the place was buzzing with families, tourists and both cyclists and motorbikers making the most of the sweeping curves and hairpin bends. Heading downhill would be fine, but I would definitely prefer to be on a motorbike than on a bicycle when it came to slogging up those mountains.
The Pass has been in use for thousands of years and in the year 1050 a hospice was established to provide shelter for pilgrims making their way to and from Rome. I cannot imagine how the pilgrims walked these mountains, especially in Winter when the snow can fall up to 16m deep!
Today it is so much easier and it is possible to arrive by car or a public bus service that operates twice per day in Summer, from both the Swiss and Italian sides. You do need to have a head for heights as the nose of the bus swings around sheer corners and temporarily over nothingness.
It is a stunning part of the world with breathtaking views at every turn. I am not sure how you can hike up those mountains let alone ski down them! But hike they do and I met many Swiss and French families enjoying their Summer ‘vacation’ by heading across country. Even the young children were booted and rucksacked! I can’t see Aussie kids doing this.
There are more things to do than just hike in these mountains. On the Swiss side there is the hospice, a hotel, a café, and tourist information stand. The Saint Bernard dogs are featured in a museum (CHF10 per adult) and you are able to meet the real thing (ie. a dog) in the display showcasing the history of the dogs and their connection to the region.
The Hospice has a church, a crypt and a museum that is open to the public and contains a large range of religious treasures that have been collected over the years.
A short 100m down the road, you stroll into Italy. No border control or passport checks required. This part of the Pass also has a good selection of cafes and places to stay.
I stayed at the cheapest option on the Swiss side, the Hospice (CHF67 – dinner, bed and breakfast or around $AUD95), and it was very comfortable. My room had three beds and there was the chance that I would have to share, but I had the room to myself. The bathroom was just down the hall. The whole place was all sparkling clean and warm – just like the welcome. Anyone can stay in the hospice and I recommend you book well in advance as it was very busy, even in late Summer.
For a more upmarket experience, simply stroll across the suspended walkway to the Auberge. Nothing is cheap in Switzerland so you have to be prepared to spend quite a few extra dollars to get luxuries such as privacy and ensuites.
I recommend you dress for all seasons if you are visiting Great Saint Bernard Pass. The terrain is so mountainous that even at the end of Summer, pockets of snow still dotted the high gullies and ravines. I was thankful for the thick doona on the bed and happily snuggled under in an attempt to offset some of the jetlag.
Great Saint Bernard Pass is perfect for a day visit, especially if you are on the way to/from Switzerland. It is also the perfect starting point for the Italian leg of the Via Francigena. A nice dose of comfort in readiness for the +1000km journey ahead.
In hindsight, perhaps I should have trained a Saint Bernard dog to discard her brandy barrel and carry my backpack instead?
What other mountain passes do you think are worth a visit?
What: I stayed at the Hospice and enjoyed a short stroll around the Pass and its sights.
Where: Great Saint Bernard Pass, Switzerland and Italy.
When: 7 August. It was clear, cool and crisp.
Why: It was a convenient, welcoming and cost-effective starting point for the via Francigena pilgrimage.
How: I flew into Zurich and then caught three trains and a bus up to the Pass.
Who: Me, myself and I.
Related Posts: For what happened next, have a look at my post about Day 1 of 40 days on my way to Rome.
Related Blogs: For some lovely photos, stories and perspectives on the via Francigena and Gran San Bernardo, have a look at Tom Redmond’s journey.
Read About it: For a fabulous read about the Alps and Italy during WW2, have a look at ‘Beneath a Scarlet Sky’ by Mark Sullivan. It is a novel, however it’s loosely based on the experience of a young man who lived in Milan and smuggled Jewish people over the mountains and into Switzerland. I warn you it does get a bit fluffy in places, but if you can overlook that, it is a ripping read. Check it out on Book Depository.
#swissalps, #pilgrimage, # viafrancigena