A howling wind creates snow devils that swirl around me as I seek shelter just a few hundred yards from the Swiss-Italian border. I enter the Auberge de l’Hospice du Grand Saint Bernard and feel a welcome sense of refuge.
It’s only September, but it’s freezing outside. After all, I’m high up on a mountain pass at the western end of the Swiss Alps.
This hotel and hostel at 2,473 m was founded by Saint Bernard almost 1,000 years ago (in 1045) as simple accommodation for pilgrims crossing the Alps. Today it is a key stop on the most famous stage of the Via Francigena, a long-distance footpath that takes pilgrims from Canterbury in England to Rome in Italy.
The building has been beautifully restored and when I tumble into bed after a day of hiking there is absolute silence and a sense of security no matter how hard the wind howls outside.
I’ve just returned from the Swiss municipality of Bourg-Saint-Pierre with local mountain guide Marie Berazategui (wildanimalpes.ch), which covers 11.5 km with a climb of more than 800 m. It is the final leg of our journey and makes for a spectacular conclusion.
If legend has it that Hannibal and his elephants died in 219 B.C. It is a fact that Napoleon crossed the Col in 1800 with 46,000 soldiers, 5,000 pieces of artillery and thousands of horses in tow.
Marie not only knows the story, she lives it. Their 18th-century house was home to Pierre Nicholas Dorsaz, the local who guided Napoleon and his troops across one of the most important passes in the Alps. More than 200 years later, the story still resonates with locals.
Napoleon brought his troops and cannon up the mountain with the blood, sweat and tears of the people of Valais – who were promised, but never received, payment for their efforts. In 1984, then-President Francois Mitterrand made a token payment to the region, finally paying off historic debt.
Today Marie only has to lead three backpacking women up the mountain – our main luggage was brought to the Auberge by Eurotrek, a company that organizes hikes along the route.
We pass the Toules dam, where original sections of the Via Francigena lie under water and, higher up, sections used by the Romans in the third century.
The Col du Grand Saint Bernard was an important trade and pilgrimage route – and a treacherous one, particularly a section known as the Combe des Morts. Travelers faced injury, disease, starvation, attacks, avalanches, and tolls.
Today we only have to worry about walking uphill for four hours in the rain. Luckily we have Marie’s clever collie as a second companion.
In the Middle Ages, monks employed marronniers – guides whose job it was to help struggling pilgrims. They, in turn, were assisted by St. Bernard dogs in carrying loads and rescuing avalanche victims, most notably a canine hero named Barry, who helped rescue more than 40 stricken pilgrims.
This history of the St. Bernard as a mountain dog led to it becoming the national symbol of Switzerland in 1887, and the dogs are still kept at the hospice today as part of the Barry Foundation.
We had started our Swiss section of the Via Francigena – designated as an Important Cultural Route – in Vevey, an easy train ride south of Zurich via Bern and Lausanne.
Popular with movie stars, artists and musicians – from Charlie Chaplin to Freddie Mercury – Vevey enjoys an enviable location on the Montreux Riviera with lake and alpine backdrops. It is also home to the Unesco World Heritage-listed Lavaux wine region, characterized by vines stretching down to the water and delicious varietals such as Chasselas.
We hop off the train in Vevey and across the road to the four star Hotel Astra for a fine dining menu (astra-hotel.ch; 78 CHF, approx. 77 €) prepares us for the next day’s hike and activities.
Switzerland has been at the forefront of eco-friendly public transport for years, so the next day we take the bus to Chateau Chillon (chillon.ch), the most visited monument in the country.
Immortalized by Lord Byron in his poem The Prisoner of Chillon, this castle is beautifully preserved and a great example of how a medieval castle functioned as both a fortress and royal residence. However, next time I’ll take the equally eco-friendly steamboat to reach its fairytale setting.
We leave Chillon and drive to Aigle where the Chateau d’Aigle exceeds my expectations. it houses a wine museum (chateauaigle.ch), with an entire room dedicated to wine labels that will keep wine lovers entertained for hours.
With a magnificent view of the Vaud region, we will have lunch at La Pinte du Paradis (lapinteduparadis.ch; 38 CHF – approx. 37 € – for three courses), before you walk part of the way to Ollon with the local hiking guide Katrin Weber.
We meander through vineyards and learn about the geology of the area, the formation of the Alps and of course local viticulture. For part of the hike we look out over the impressive Dents du Midi mountain range, which is part of the Portes du Soleil ski area.
During our trek, we move from the canton of Vaud into Valais and towards the upper Rhône Valley, arriving at a cultural jewel of a city – Saint-Maurice – just in time for a post-trek refreshment and dinner. The annual “Monastery Market” — where dozens of religious orders set up stalls to sell their produce — is a little giveaway; This is a holy city in the heart of the Alps with a history that is at the core of Christianity.
Our accommodation for the night at the Hôtellerie Franciscaine is simple (heytellerie-franciscaine.ch; 35 CHF per person – around €34 – including breakfast), but just across the charming main street is the star of the show from Saint-Maurice – the abbey dating back to the 6th century is an Irish connection – thanks to a medieval monk who, with a gift of precious stones arrived from Jerusalem.
We are shown around the abbey by local Jean-Paul Roullier, who works in counter-terrorism but has a fascinating knowledge of his hometown. Even if you are tired after a day of walking, you should not miss a visit to this special place – you will discover ancient preserved Christian history and walk in the footsteps of pilgrims from the 6th century (abbaye-stmaurice.ch for guides).
You can also stay in rooms next to the abbey (25-35 CHF per person; around €25-35), but as there are only 10 beds you need to book in advance and have a pilgrim’s pass to stay there.
From Saint-Maurice we hike a 17 km route to Martigny, passing the tiny chapel of Verolliere before reaching forest trails. While parts of this route include views of the Dents du Midi and the Trento Gorges, it is on mostly flat paths with a section alongside a busy road, which disappointed my walking companions.
But since this is the stage before the Col du Grand Saint Bernard hike, my tip is to take it as an easy hiking day, get to Martigny early and explore what this art city has to offer.
We travel with the Swiss Pass, which gives us unlimited access to public transport and free entry to hundreds of museums. From the comfortable Campanile hotel in the center of Martigny, you can go directly to the Fondation Pierre Gianadda (gianedda.ch) to see a Gustave Caillebotte exhibition before returning to the hotel for an unexpected American dining experience at the rooftop restaurant.
The next morning we visit Marigny’s Barryland (barryland.ch), a museum dedicated to the St. Bernard. If you’re walking the route with kids this is a must, with lots of interactive elements that kids will love – but even the big kids among us enjoy walking some of the dogs and walking away from an educational and enchanted fun experience.
The end point of our Via Francigena – a hike from the town of Martigny to the Auberge de l’Hospice du Grand Saint Bernard – offers pilgrims the opportunity to book a hotel and a hostel, with the hostel open all year round.
Guests of the hostel are woken up early in the morning by choral music. All guests can visit the Baroque Chapel, the Museum of Ancient Religious Manuscripts, the Art Gallery and hopefully meet the Saint Bernards at this remarkable en route to Rome sanctuary.
- Catherine Murphy traveled to Switzerland as a guest from Vaud and Valais. valais.ch; region-du-leman.ch; myswitzerland.com
- Swiss.com offers regular connections to Zurich and Geneva. Catherine used public transport with the Swiss Pass (swiss-pass.ch) and their luggage was transported along the Via Francigena eurotrek.ch.
- The Via Francigena is less frequented than other well-known pilgrimage routes. While prices are higher than other European pilgrimage destinations, there are plans for more affordable pilgrim accommodation and dining options as the route becomes more popular. Mix it up with four star hotels in Vevey and cheaper options in smaller villages.
- A double room in abergehospiz.ch costs around CHF 149 on a B&B basis with a three-course evening meal for CHF 29 per person.
https://www.independent.ie/life/travel/europe/wine-and-walkies-let-off-the-leash-on-st-bernards-pilgrim-route-41535407.html Wine and a walk: Let go of the leash on the St. Bernard pilgrimage route