Great St. Bernard Pass
Because of the danger of avalanches and road blockage, most winter drivers headed between the Valais and northern Italy travel through the 6km (4-mile) Great St. Bernard Tunnel instead of negotiating overland roads that are treacherous or impassable. In the summer, however, many visitors make the pilgrimage over the St. Bernard Pass instead, often to conclude that the drive is one of the highlights of their trip. The overland road is usually open only from mid-June to early October; its highest point lies about an hour's drive from Martigny, 40km (25 miles) away. If you're staying in Verbier and you'd like to visit the pass, you can drive east from Verbier along a winding road until you come to the village of Sembranchen. From here, E21 leads directly south to this historic pass. Follow the signs pointing uphill to Hospice St-Bernard. Travel time by car from Verbier is about 1 1/4 hours.
St. Bernard dogs used to be bred by Augustinian monks in one of the oldest monasteries in Europe, the Great St. Bernard Hospice, Le Grand-St-Bernard, 1946 Bourg-Saint-Pierre (tel. 027/787-12-36; www.gsbernard.net). Set on the Swiss side of the vertiginous Swiss-Italian border, it was founded in 1050 and was mostly rebuilt of somber-looking gray stone in the 1600s. Year-round, the hospice houses only four or five Franciscan monks, many native to the Valais, as well as monks from other parts of Europe who stay for short-term bouts of meditation and prayer. Visitors can arrive by car only between June 15 and early October; the rest of the year, all roads are snowbound and transit is possible only via special skis.
The monastery shelters a treasury of religious artifacts, a museum showcasing the often-tragic history of the pass, and historic kennels that used to be devoted to the perpetuation of the bloodlines of the St. Bernard breed of dog (thanks to such modern technology as helicopters and heat sensors rendering them obsolete for search and rescue missions, the dogs are no longer kept here). During the winter, visitors are forced to make a strenuous 6km (4-mile) uphill trek, on specially accessorized skis, from a parking lot near the Swiss entrance to the St. Bernard Tunnel. Don't even think of trying this without warning the monastery of your plans in advance, as the brothers will discourage you in the event of impending storms or avalanches. Proper equipment is required, including sealskin sheathing for your skis for traction during the uphill trek. In the event of an emergency, midwinter guests must be evacuated by snowmobile or helicopter.
In June and September, hours are daily 9am to noon and 1 to 6pm; July and August hours are daily 9am to 7pm. Admission to the public areas of the monastery and its chapel is free; admission to the museum and the former kennels costs 10F per person. The rest of the year, visits can be made only by special arrangement.
During limited warm-weather periods, you can stay in the wood-sheathed interior of the Hôtel de l'Hospice du Grand-St-Bernard, Le Grand-St-Bernard, 1946 Bourg-Saint-Pierre (tel. 027/787-12-36; www.hotelhospice.ch). The four-story, gray-stone building was built in 1899. It's owned by the monastery, leased to a private entrepreneur, and contains 33 rooms. None has a TV or phone, and furnishings are simple and vaguely monastic. But views sweep out over both the Swiss and Italian Alps, and the food in the in-house restaurant is plentiful and reasonably priced. The hotel is open from early June to mid-October, when it welcomes hill climbers, nature lovers, and members of religious organizations. The rest of the year it's locked tight, and the intrepid visitors who make the uphill trek on skis are housed, space and circumstances permitting, in the monastery itself. Per-person rates are 75F, single or double occupancy, with breakfast and dinner included. MasterCard and Visa are accepted.