Col Du Grand St Bernard and The St Bernard Dogs of Switzerland
[Post Updated 5 June 2019]
He was handsome.
Not in the traditional sense. His eyelids were droopy, his feet a tad too hairy. And he drooled a lot.
He had good qualities, of course. He was loyal, brave, gentle, and good-natured, just like the rest of his family. He was the reason we drove the endless hairpin turns along the road from Verbier to the monastery at Col du Grand St. Bernard.
I was on a mission to see the dogs and monastery famous for saving thousands of travelers who crossed the treacherous Alps between Switzerland and Italy.
In 1049, an Augustinian monk, St. Bernard de Menthon established a monastery and hospice (not the American kind. Hospice = hostel) at the highest point of passage in the Italian/Swiss Alps. The monastery supported the spiritual needs of both the monks and travelers. The hospice provided a warm bed, food, and comfort for travelers, pilgrims, traders, and soldiers who made the treacherous journey through the Pass.
The dogs, now famously known as St Bernards, were initially given to the monastery in the 1670s as companions and watchdogs for the monks. The monks immediately noticed the dogs had a keen sense of smell, excellent sense of direction, and an uncanny ability to find people buried in the snow.
It wasn’t long before the dogs accompanied travelers through the most challenging parts of the pass, guided them to the hospice and rescued the stranded, desperate and buried. The dogs and monks were instrumental in supporting trade and pilgrimage routes through the Alps and proved invaluable when Napoleon’s 40,000 soldiers crossed the Alps without any loss of life.
Alpine Mastiffs Reanimating a Distressed Traveller by Sir Edwin Landseer
There are endless stories (and a few legends) about these incredible dogs digging out buried travelers and lying close to them to provide warmth while another dog ran to the monastery to summon the monks. The monks and dogs became an integral and invaluable part of life and survival in the Pass.
The most famous St. Bernard dog was Barry, who lived at the monastery from 1800 – 1812. Barry saved the lives of over 40 people and was so beloved and revered as a symbol of Switzerland, they stuffed him and placed him on display in the Bern Natural History Museum. Poor Barry.
Many dogs perished in the line of duty, and their numbers dwindled over time. The original St. Bernard dog (shorter hair, smaller head, longer legs) was crossed-bred with other breeds (Newfoundlands, Mastiffs, and Swiss alpine dogs) resulting in the shaggy-hair, jowl-faced handsome breed it is today.
After 350+ years, the dogs of Col Du Grand St Bernard ceased their Alpine search and rescue work. Helicopters and lighter, more agile breeds eventually replaced the St. Bernards.
But all is not lost. The dogs, now supported by a private foundation, live at the monastery kennels during the summer and in Martigny during the rest of the year. Their legacy of rugged beauty, loyalty, and strength live on as one of the most favorite symbols of Switzerland.
The monastery still welcomes, feeds and comforts travelers who come to enjoy the area’s spectacular, yet treacherous natural beauty. The beautiful chapel holds service for visitors and staff three times a day and volunteers work alongside the monks maintain the tradition of Augustinian hospitality at the top of the St. Bernard Pass.
Visiting Col Du Grand St. Bernard
Things to Know
The Col Du Grand St. Bernard is open for motor traffic from the end of May until mid-October, depending on weather conditions. The Pass is accessible by ski or snowshoe at all other times. Check for avalanche and weather dangers before attempting to visit.
The dogs are kept and kenneled in Col Du Grand St. Bernard in the summer and Martigny during the rest of the year. Visitors to the interesting museum (fee) have an opportunity to visit with the dogs. Dedicated dog lovers can walk with the dogs for 48 CHF p/person. The money raised goes to kennel upkeep and dog care. It’s wise to book ahead for this incredible and memorable experience.
The chapel, located in the hospice (hostel) is a peaceful, beautiful place. Make sure you visit. The museum gives a good overview of the history and mission of the Hospice.
The hospice (hostel) is open year-round to provide basic shelter and food for pilgrims, sports enthusiasts and travelers passing through. The accommodations are simple but clean, and meals are delicious and communal. You can book here or by calling+41 27 787 12 36. The front desk phone clerks accommodate French, Italian and German speakers. English speakers may have to hold for English speaking personnel. There is a hotel on site as well, make sure you understand which you are booking when you call.
It’s fun to walk down the hill to see the St. Bernard (the saint, not the dog) statue and play the “Look, I’m in Switzerland, now I’m in Italy” game by hopping back and forth along the border of the two countries. This amused us for a good ten minutes, but the border was unmanned. Probably less amusing when the guards are there.
We had lunch at the cafe near the gift shop. The food was good, but a friend recommended the restaurant on the Italian “side” for our next visit.
Let me know if you have any questions and I’ll do my best to answer them!
If you’re feeling up to a challenge, you can hike over the pass. Check the weather first as late-season snow, and challenging conditions are common.