Grand Saint Bernard Pass, Switzerland to Italy

The Saint Bernard Pass is one of the main routes from Western Switzerland to Italy. The road to it starts at Martigny, travels through the Dranse River valley with its numerous vineyards and orchards growing apricots. Keeping to the main road instead of forking left for Verbier is a little traumatic for me, but to get to Italy I’ve no choice. The road goes up the right hand valley until we reach the terminus of the Saint Bernard Express train at Orsieres. It then climbs through tiny villages with half wooden buildings and window boxes with bright red flowers, past hydroelectric dams of azure glacier melt water until it enters an avalanche tunnel. Then after a couple of kilometres the road forks into the Saint Bernard Tunnel or right to the pass. After half a kilometre you could be on the on a pass in Welsh, Snowdonia. But the snowcapped mountains behind remind us that we are in the Alps as this is September. Another strong clue was ice in the shadows under the large rocks at 11 am.
St Bernard Pass, Swiss side
Eventually the summit is reached at the Hospice. Here a sign informs all that the altitude is 2473 m or 8114 feet. There are also signs recording how Napoleon took an army of 46292 men in May 1800 on his way to attack the Austrians who were besieging French held Genoa. But over the millennia many armies have used the pass. It is believed that the pass has been an important crossing point since the Bronze Age. It is possible to make out the old Roman Road from the current road on the climb.
The hospice for travellers was set up by Saint Bernard of Menthon in 1049. The pass has carried his name since the 16 th century.  St Bernard’s concern in the first instance was to make the pass safe from bandits for travellers. From this initial role they moved on to providing a rescue service. To this end the Saint Bernard dog was bred large enough to cross deep snow and locate missing persons. The story of them carrying brandy is a myth.  Saint Bernard was made Patron Saint of the Alps in 1923 by Pope Pius XI.

 St Bernard Pass
A statue of Saint Bernard can be viewed below the summit of the pass on Italian territory. It is built on the site of old Roman ruins.

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Not shaken, but stirred – a weekend in Martigny

We were there for the 50th birthday party of George, a friend of Joelle, from her time in Prague. Following on the theme of the last post, although this is not a Gran Tourismo competition entry, we stayed with locals and celebrated with them. We stayed at the top floor apartment of George’s sister with views from her kitchen looking North at the imposing château de la Bâtiaz. The balcony and windows on the other side were equally as impressive with the “V” of South to the Col de Forclaz carving its way between the high Alps, towards Chamonix. It was mid October the grapes had been harvested and there was already snow on the tops of the surrounding mountains. It pleased me to see even more snow falling over the course of the weekend.

For the celebration of George’s 50th we dined at a Table d’Hote. Located at a house in the next village on the road towards Verbier and the Grand St Bernard Pass. The food was to a very high standard and locally sourced. One of George’s friend’s joked that the Foie Gras was from local geese, that had been anaesthetised to ensure not suffer as they were force fed. The courses were accompanied by wines from the Valais, Switzerland which are amongst my favourite in the world, certainly a very underrated wine region.


Château de la Bâtiaz, HDR


Château de la Bâtiaz


Château de la Bâtiaz


The only car carrying wooden bridge in the Valais (HDR)




One of the many works of art adorning the roundabouts. This one is by Hans Erni.


More artwork in a roundabout

With only a weekend and lots of folks to catch up with, we didn’t have time for much tourist activity, but we managed a walk around the town. We did a little shopping and sat down in a café for a hot chocolate.

The later photos are from earlier visits to the Foundation Gianadda. It is built on the foundations of a Celtic temple found when the area was being developed in the 1970’s. It now houses an art museum with a world class Sculpture Park and regular exhibitions by artists including Picasso, Hans Erni, Rodin. In fact they have a major exhibition every six months or so. The building also houses a motor museum which is included with the admission price.


Foundation Gianadda


Foundation Gianadda


Roman Amphitheatre


There are substantial Roman remains in the town. The amphitheatre being the most rewarding to see. My imagination is always fired by images of fighting gladiators and the less lucky fighting wild animals. I suppose it’s more likely that it was used mainly for the Roman Army to carry out endless drill practice. Either way it is either haunted by the dead gladiators or foot soldiers who were bored to death.

However in the case of the Martigny there is still an event that gets the spectators’ blood racing.  A cow fighting competition is held there early October. Unfortunately I have never witnessed it but this YouTube video gives an idea of the event:

The sound of the cow bells ringing as the cows lock horns gives it a very Alpine feel. NB. No cows were harmed in the making of the video, as their horns are filed down if they are too sharp and a vet is on hand at all times.