After a wonderful two days in the Aosta Valley of Italy, it was time to get back on track for our Tour de Mont Blanc (TMB). We had ventured slightly off route to spend time in the small Italian village of Pollein and did a gorgeous hike to Lac Long in the Alps near Bionaz. While it was a lovely break, we wanted to continue on our own tour of the TMB thus it was time to head over the Grand-Saint-Bernard Pass into Switzerland where we would pick up the TMB in Champex-Lac. Of course, before doing our hike in Champex, we had to make a stop at the famous Col du Grand-Saint-Bernard to visit the museum where we would learn all about the fascinating history of one of Europe’s most important ancient thoroughfares.
The Grand-Saint-Bernard Pass is located roughly 38 kilometers north of Aosta at an altitude of 2473 meters (8113 feet) in the Pennine Alps between Italy and Switzerland. For centuries it was the most important and influential transit route in Europe enabling travelers to reach the northwestern provinces of the Roman Empire. Historical records and artifacts indicate that this route was used as early as prehistoric times which is difficult to imagine given its high elevation and dangerous conditions during the winter months of passage.
Since the pass was the best option for connecting the north to the south of Europe, merchants, armies, and even pilgrims took on the perilous, challenging journey on foot despite the risks. Travelers were faced with robbers, excessive tolls, exhaustion, bitter cold, avalanches, blizzards and fog making the journey quite dangerous. At the time there was no place to take shelter or refuge so many got lost or perished.
In 1035, a Hospice was built at the pass by Saint-Bernard d’Aosta as a place for refuge for the thousands of travelers who used the pass throughout the year. While the Hospice has gone through some changes over the centuries, it still stands today in a grander form. There is also a museum located at the pass that shares the entire history. I would highly recommend at least an hour to go through it. You can also pay a visit to the kennels of the famous St. Bernard dogs which are the national dog of Switzerland and were bred for their ability to help travelers with the pass and to guard the hospice.
When you arrive at the pass, you will instantly notice a drastic change in temperature. It is much cooler at 2473 meters and there is often a stiff wind. It is quite a beautiful place.
During the summer months, a handful of Saint Bernards stay at the kennel thanks to The Barry Foundation of the Great St. Bernard whose responsibility is the continued management and conservation of these incredible dogs. The Foundation is named after the sire, Barry (1800-1814) who is believed to have saved the lives of 40 travelers during his reign.
Perhaps the most fascinating information inside the museum is the history of the Hospice and the Pass throughout the centuries. The discovery of ancient engraved steles at the Grand-Saint-Bernard Pass have led researchers to believe that the area was visited as early as 3200 to 2000 A.C. There also is a detailed list of the most famous people who traversed the pass including the May 1800 passage of Napoleon with his army of 40,000 men, 500 horses, and 50 guns.
After the museum, we got to meet a few of the dogs. I also loved these photos (the second and third of the group) of the dogs in the wintertime. Some dogs were even able to rescue travelers trapped beneath snow after an avalanche. Pretty incredible story!
After our visit, we headed 30 kilometers north to Champex-Lax where we picked up the Tour de Mont Blanc for a short afternoon hike. If only we would have had time to stay and hike around the pass. The landscape was quite divine.