• David Roberts

A Story of Mountains, Monks and Dogs (2015)

The St Bernard monastery is only 15 miles from Verbier, though the last part of the road is closed by snow in the winter. But who was Saint Bernard and did he have anything to do with the famous dogs?

Image source: Benduiker/Wikipedia/Creative Commons

The St Bernard hospice is set on top of the Col du Grand St Bernard, on the border between Switzerland and Italy. This place has been an important route for travellers crossing the Alps for thousands of years. A tunnel was built under the mountains in 1964 and is now open all year round. Before the tunnel, people had to travel up the Combe des Morts (the Valley of the Dead) and around Mont Mort. These names came about because travellers would go up into the mountains on urgent journeys in the winter, never to be seen again. The science of studying avalanches only started properly in the 20th century.

The statue of St Bernard of Menthon near the famous monastery
The statue of St Bernard of Menthon near the famous monastery

Saint Bernard of Menthon was born almost a thousand years ago, near Annecy. He escaped an arranged marriage to become a monk and made it his work to bring Christianity into the high Alps. Based in Aosta, he was responsible for founding monasteries in the mountains to provide shelter for travellers. St Bernard established a hospice on the French/Italian border, where the ski areas of La Rosière and La Thuile meet, as well as the famous monastery on the Swiss/Italian border. The monasteries opened around 1050 A.D.

Ross Sampson approaching the monastery on the Col du Grand St Bernard
Ross Sampson approaching the monastery on the Col du Grand St Bernard

Saint Bernard dogs were first bred in the 1600s and were used for guarding the monastery. Breeds dating back to Roman mountain dogs were crossed with large farm dogs that were used for guarding sheep from wolves and bears. The first written records of the dogs date from the early 1700s but there are paintings of the monks and dogs working together from the 1690s. Traditionally, St Bernard dogs were supposed to carry a small barrel of brandy on their collars. This was for reviving frozen avalanche victims. Unfortunately, this is Victorian myth, invented for tourists.

Image source: Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Nowadays, you're most likely to find a St Bernard dog posing for photos on the pistes in Verbier. More nimble breads, such as Collies, have replace St Bernards in the role of avalanche search dogs. Down in Martigny, you'll find Barryland, the museum of the Fondation Barry. This is a charity named after the most famous of all of the rescue dogs. Fondation Barry also has the cutest photos of St Bernard puppies anywhere on Facebook.

Image Source: Fondation Barry on Facebook

People still travel up to the monastery, with its friendly café. In the summer, it's an easy car drive or a challenging climb on a bicycle. In the winter, it can still be a dangerous journey, with four people killed in an avalanche in the Combe des Morts in 2015. Next time you see the St Bernard dogs waiting for photos at Attelas, La Vache or Les Esserts, you'll know a bit more about the centuries of history behind their name and their breed.

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