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Although we have lived in Switzerland for a few years and are only about 2 hours from this famous mountain pass, we crossed the Alps via the Great St Bernard Pass (Colle del Gran San Bernardo or Col du Grand-Saint-Bernard) to Italy for the first time this summer.

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The pass was at an elevation of 8100 feet or 2469 meters. We used the Italian name here because most of the pictures shown below were taken while climbing the Alps (by car) on the Italian side on our return trip back to Switzerland. Visibility was very poor when we were descending on the Swiss side and thus no photos were possible.

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Most of the information below came from Wikipedia.

The pass is the third highest paved mountain road pass (E27 or SS27) in Switzerland. It connects Martigny in the Canton of Valais to Aosta in Italy. We were coming back from a weekend trip to Aosta with F and A.

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For a long time, however, the road was only passable for a few months during summer due to the unfavourable climate conditions. The Great St Bernard Tunnel, opened in 1964, allows year-round passage and enters the mountains at the 1,915 m (6,283 ft).

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It is the lowest pass lying on the ridge between the two highest summits of the Alps, Mont Blanc and Monte Rosa. The pass itself is located in Switzerland.

sanbernado-5We passed the tunnel entrance and continued further up. From this point, there are no trees due to the altitude.

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The winter snow in the pass may be as much as 10 metres deep. The temperature may drop as low as -30°C. The natural lake at the pass is frozen for 265 days in a year. We did not see any snow at this late summer time of the year.

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The pass appeared in history books as early as the Roman Empire. In May 1800, Napoleon marched 40,000 men and artillery over the still snowed-in pass to defeat the Austrians in Aosta and Genoa.

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Straddling the highest point of the road, the Great St Bernard Hospice was founded in 1049. The hospice later became famous for its use of St. Bernard dogs in rescue operations. We posted here about a kennel and museum (Fondation Barry du Grand Saint Bernard) dedicated to St. Bernard dogs in Martigny.

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We thought this little square building visible soon after the tunnel entrance was the hospice but we were wrong. There were quite a few more turns before the pass.

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The landscape is dramatic every way you turn. Love the view from below of the road zigzagging its way up the mountain.

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As we drove higher, visibility got worse. As you can see in the photo, despite the ruggedness of the environment, the road surface is extremely well-maintained.

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We knew cattle were left to roam in the mountain during summer but did not expect to see them at this elevation. Cheese made from milk collected at this time of year are supposed to taste slightly different (more floral and fruity) from those made in winter because the cow eats alpine grass and flowers in the summer but dried hay in the winter. This distinction, its recognition and control of the practice is the basis for appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC), and an extension of the terroir argument. So, cheese, which is a form of preserved food, is also seasonal.

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On the Italian side of the border, there is a hotel. Again, from a distance, we thought this is the famed St Bernard Hospice. Nope.

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The fog was so dense on that day that we could not see the hospice across the pond. Nor can we see the peaks and ridges of the mountains on either side of the pass.

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Next summer, we will come back and have a proper look of the hospice and mountains. I like mountain passes – there is something inspiring about the passage of a barrier at the lowest point which is itself already a high obstacle to overcome.

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There are some historical pictures (immagini storiche) of the hotel from the 1930’s when it was built. Browse around on the hotel web site for some pictures of the area taken on a sunny day.

 

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