Great St. Bernard Pass

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Hospice at the Great St Bernard, with ancient road in foreground.
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Hospice at the Great St Bernard, with ancient road in foreground.

The Great St Bernard Pass (Fr. Col du Grand-Saint-Bernard) is the most ancient pass through the Western Alps, with evidence of use as far back as the Bronze Age, surviving traces of the Roman road and more recently the path of Napoleon's army into Italy in 1800. Saint Bernard of Menthon founded a hospice for travellers in 1049, which later became famous for its St. Bernard dogs. The hospice still functions, occupying two buildings, of 1560 and 1898 (illustration, right). Pope Pius XI confirmed Bernard as patron saint of the Alps in 1923.

The pass runs northeast-southwest through the Valais Alps at an elevation of 2,469 m (8,101 ft). From the north (Switzerland), the route to the pass follows the Dranse River valley above Martigny, then into the wild and desolate valley of the Dranse d'Entremont. The Great St Bernard Tunnel (and the main road) plunges through the mountains at the 1,915 m level; after the construction of the Simplon Tunnel further east in 1905, railroad traffic partly superseded the St Bernard road. The much smaller historic road winding over the pass itself, which is part of the Swiss border with Italy is only passable June to September. On the south side of the pass, the Great St Bernard Valley is drained by the Artanavaz River, which runs down to Aosta.

Just below the pass is a small lake, and several buildings making up the hospice straddle the pass itself. The old road may still be seen, above the paved road. The minor peaks Mont Mort and Pic de Drona flank the pass. The elevation is such that snow may keep the pass closed until June, and indeed the motivation for the hospice was to aid travellers overcome by the difficulties of the crossing.

Likewise, the dogs from this area, known as St. Bernards, were bred to be large enough to handle deep snow and to scent out lost persons. It is often said that they carried small casks of brandy around their necks (although this might be only a legend), in the belief that the liquor had medicinal properties (in reality, the effect would have been more psychological than physiological, as alcohol even increases the rate of heat loss in persons suffering from hypothermia).

External links

fr:Grand-Saint-Bernard it:Gran San Bernardo

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