One of the oldest passes through the Western Alps, the Great St. Bernard Pass has served as a way to cross the treacherous landscape since Julius Caesar crossed it with his Roman troops in 57 BC. Today, the pass is a tourist destination for motorists to experience the majestic vistas at 2,469 meters above sea level.
Behind the scenery, there’s an enchanting story about a kind monk who became the patron saint of skiers and mountain climbers, a hospice, and a pack of rescue dogs.
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The Great St. Bernard Pass is situated on the Italian-Swiss border high in the Pennine Alps. It links the Swiss canton of Valais to the Aosta Valley region of northwestern Italy. The famous motorway is 290 km southwest of Zurich, 150 km southeast of Geneva, and 172 km south of Bern.
The History of St. Bernard Hospice
For almost 1,000 years, the Hospice du Grand-Saint Bernard has offered its legendary hospitality every season. It was founded in 1050 by Saint Bernard of Aosta to rescue and accommodate travelers over the Great Pass. Today, four canons and an oblate reside there to welcome individuals and small groups. Meals are served at specific times, but it is still a monastery, not a hotel.
Bernard of Monijoux (also known as Bernard of Menthon) was born in Italy around 923 AD. Early in life, he decided to devote himself to the service of the church. His faith progressed rapidly under the direction of Peter the Archdeacon of Aosta and he became an ordained Priest. In his position as Archdeacon, Bernard’s duties included caring for the poor and travelers.
During Bernard’s time of service, German and French pilgrims often used what is now the St. Bernard Pass on the way to the Holy Land (Rome). It was a dangerous path to take. Travelers were exposed to robbers and the snow drifts were up to 8 feet in depth. Bernard founded the hospice at the highest altitude of the pass 8,000 feet above sea level to care for travelers and the poor.
The hospice still exists today as a rescue service and a resting place for travelers. Today, the dangerous crossing can be completed via a new road and tunnel, and mostly helicopters are used for rescue.
The Origin of the St. Bernard Dog Breed
The story of St. Bernard Pass and Hospice isn’t complete without mentioning the famous Saint Bernard dog breed. Since the hospice is located far up in the Alps, it’s cold most of the year. The winters are severe, and snow drifts are deep. Travelers making their way across the pass had more than robbers to worry about. It was easy to get lost in the drifting snow.
The breed of dog we know today as Saint Bernard was developed at the hospice in the 1660s and 1670s by cross-breeding other dogs. It is thought that the dogs were donated by families living in Valais. The breed was used as guard dogs for the hospice before becoming rescue dogs in the mountains. Bred and trained for the role of rescue, they were strong enough to cross the deep snow and could track the scent of lost people.
The first documentation of the Saint Bernards at the monastery is from two paintings done by Salvatore Roas in 1690. Research has shown that about 2,000 people have been rescued by the dogs at the hospice during a span of 200 years. The last documented rescue is that of a 12-year-old boy who had fallen into a crevice in 1897.
The descendants of the monastery’s Saint Bernards can be found around the Great St. Bernard Hospice. Tourists love to pet the dogs and take a photo with them.
The St. Bernard Pass is mainly a stop-over that attracts travelers between Switzerland and Italy to marvel at the scenery and get a whiff of the fresh mountain air. However, many varying Swiss hiking trails lead to the popular Lacs de Fenêtre, including a family-friendly one.
The hike starts on the Italian side about a kilometer from the border at the Freres Diemoz cheese maker. You’ll find about 15 parking spaces some of which are free. Some steep peaks are close by, but you won’t pass them on the way to the 3-lake area. All you need are good sturdy shoes. You’ll enjoy breathtaking views of the Mont Blanc ranges. Pack a picnic for when you reach the lakes.
For more great outdoor adventures, the alpine village of Verbier is less than 40 km from St. Bernard Pass. It’s the gateway to the vast 4 Vallées ski area.
Perhaps the most amazing attraction near St. Bernard Pass is the Skyway Monte Bianco cable car that links the town of Courmayeur in Italy with Punta Herbronner on Mont Blanc’s southern side. It’s a thrilling excursion aboard a heated cabin that rotates.
Divided into two parts, the first climb reaches Pavillon du Mont Frety at 2,000 meters where you can have lunch. The second climb goes to Punta Helbronner where you’ll find several observation decks. Altogether, the Skyway covers three futuristic stations featuring restaurants, bars, and cultural entertainment.
Nearby Mont Blanc, the second-highest mountain in Europe, features cable cars, private tours, tandem paragliding, and more.
Most travelers also find their way to Mont Dolent which is the point where Italy, France, and Switzerland meet.
How to Get There
A train goes from Milan Malpensa (MXP) to St. Bernard Pass via several towns in France and Italy in around 6 hours. A bus from Lyon-Saint-Exupéry Airport to Chamonix Sud makes the 3-hour journey to the Pass 5 times a day. The bus is operated by Blablabus. FlixBus does this route once daily.
If you want to go by car, take the A9/E62 highway to Martigny. Continue to Orsières on the Great St. Bernard road. Continue to Vichères-Liddes, Bourg-St-Pierre, and the hospice or the St. Bernard Pass.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is the pass open year-round?
The road to the summit is open from the end of May to mid-October. This can change due to snowfall.
What is the best time to visit?
June to September is the best time to visit the St. Bernard Pass. The weather is favorable and the views of the surrounding Alps are clear.
Is there a fee to access the pass?
There is a fee to go through the tunnel that leads to the St. Bernard Pass.