At 2473 meters the Grand St. Bernard Pass, in a torturous part of the Alps in the no man’s land between the Swiss and Italian border, is not easily accessible. Especially since for the greater part of the year, it is closed due to snow. The pass only opened in mid June this summer, so when visitors arrived, we decided to take them to see the monastery and dogs symbolic with Switzerland.
From June to September the pass may be accessed by road or rail service, but during the rest of the year, it can only be reached by foot or on skis and snowshoes in the winter. Avalanche risks are usually high and the climb is challenging.
In 1050 Bernard Archdeacon of Aosta (Italy) founded the hospice on the Mount Joux pass. For nearly the past one thousand years, travelers have been guided and offered sanctuary by the community of monks. During storms and inclement weather, the monks led by marroniers (guides) search for lost or distressed travelers and lead them to safety at the Hospice.
Open everyday, the Hospice is reserved for those travelers on foot or bicycle or people seeking a spiritual retreat. The Brothers live according to the rule of St. Augustine, who preached the Gospel of the 4th century, yet welcome voyagers of any faith.
Other than a gift store, a café and a museum, the monastery stands alone looking forlorn against a rugged landscape. Austere and isolated, it was hard to imagine anyone crossing by foot and even more incredible that an average of 600 travelers a day were fed and housed in the 1800s. We walked along a trail winding along
edges of precipices, above a lake surrounded by wind swept, desolate view of craggy mountaintops. About a half-mile down the road, we saw the Italian border and a spindly, grey edifice that serves at a hotel and customs crossing.
A visit to the museum reveals time period artifacts, geological information, and historical pieces. One of the most amazing historical facts was trying to fathom how Napoleon’s Army, managed to climb up through the pass. Even more amazing was the adventure of Hannibal, in 218 b.c., crossing the pass with it’s elephants to attack Rome ! Art works and writings depicted countless stories of miraculous rescues by the St. Bernard dogs and monks.
In a spirit of humility and sharing, the legacy of St. Bernard at the Hospice, which continues, offers guidance on life’s journey.
However, far less spectacular than other parts of Switzerland, tourists may feel a bit disappointed in the view of a few grey buildings and desolate landscape. The frolicking, happy go lucky guide dogs are biggest drawing card.
Next week meet Barry the St. Bernard, symbol of Switzerland.