The Great Saint Bernard Pass

Marie-Madeleine & Giuseppe Renauld | Live the World

November 23, 2022

The 2,473 meter high Great Saint Bernard Pass, formerly known as the Mont-Joux Pass, is a natural border between Italy and Switzerland. A road runs, sometimes very narrowly, through the pass connecting Martigny in the Swiss Canton Valais and Aosta in Aosta Valley (Italy). It is an accessible way for non-alpinists to observe the mountains from above, and to enjoy spectacular views on the western Alps across France, Italy and Switzerland, not far away from the Italian valley of Mont-Blanc.

Because of its high altitude in the Alps, the pass and its road are accessible to travellers by car only between the 1st of June and the 15th of October. In some years, the open period has been even shorter. Several meters of snow hide the pass; you can only reach it with skis or snowshoes.

© Marie-Madeleine & Giuseppe

The Great Saint Bernard Pass and its way through the Alps has a long history. In the Neolithic age, the first inhabitants of the Swiss Canton Valais already used this way. Later the Romans built an important road snaking through the pass to overcome the Alps and to conquer continental Europe.

During the Medieval times, the Great Saint Bernard Pass was known as the Mont-Joux Pass (Mons Iovis). The pass was a key milestone of the Via Francigena, an important pilgrim’s way from Canterbury to Rome. Part of this historical trail was restored for the 2000 CE Jubilee in Rome. At the time, succeeding the pass was dangerous: Not only the challenging natural conditions (altitude, wind, cold and snow) but also the frequent robberies were a severe threat to travellers. Saint Bernard of Menthon (also called of Aosta or of Mont-Joux), an archbishop of Aosta had the ambition to restore the safety of this way: Hence, the Great Saint Bernard Hospice was built around 1050. It still operates as a hospice for today’s travellers.

© Marie-Madeleine & Giuseppe
© Marie-Madeleine & Giuseppe

This place also saw the passing of Napoleon Bonaparte on 1st May 1800 with an army of 40,000 men and heavy artillery to surprise the Austro-Hungarian army. They succeeded and defeated the Austro-Hungarian army in June in the battles of Montebello and Marengo. This historical moment was depicted in a painting by the famous Jacques-Louis David entitled “Napoleon Bonaparte crossing the Alps at the Great Saint Bernard Pass”.

Picture © Credits to Pshenichka

The Saint Bernard dog breed is well-known around the world but only a few people know its story. This breed was created at the beginning of the 18th century at the Great Saint Bernard Hospice. These dogs were originally raised to guard the hospice. However, they are mainly famous for being one of the best mountain rescue dogs. The small alcohol barrel hanging around their neck is only a legend for tourists!

Picture © Credits to Emmepiphoto

If you fancy a walk up to the Great Saint Bernard Pass, please do not forget that it is at high altitude. Please check the weather conditions before climbing up there and make sure that you are equipped accordingly. Walkers will be rewarded with magnificent views over the Val d’Entremont (Switzerland) and Valley of the Great Saint-Bernard (Italy). Reaching the pass takes approximately 2h30 from Bourg-Saint-Bernard and Saint-Rhémy en Bosses, the latest villages respectively on the Swiss and Italian sides. You will always be welcome to stop over at the Great Saint Bernard Hospice or just for a break on your way. Sleeping and having a hot meal at the hospice is quite affordable.

© Marie-Madeleine & Giuseppe

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