The Great Saint Bernard Pass

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Day 37: Saint Maurice to Martigny (18 km)

I knew before I opened my eyes that it was windy and rainy.  I could still hear the banners outside the window of my room flapping wildly in the wind.  I was quite looking forward to going to Martigny and was not going to let a little rain get me down.  It was only supposed to last through the morning and compared to the day’s rain I had walked through from Vevey it was rainy very lightly. I was having breakfast with Father Thomas at 7.30 am so I walked from the pilgrim house to the Abbey just as the church bells rang.  The receptionist was already in the office and we chatted for a few minutes until Father Thomas, dressed for the service he would give at 9am, arrived to pick me up.  He was as friendly as the day before but seemed a little distracted as he informed me that I would be joined at breakfast by twelve German teenagers who were there on a trip for the weekend.  We entered a large room with a wooden table running the full length, seated at which were the group of twelve-year-olds, a priest and a lady who was accompanying them on the trip.  I sat next to the lady who spoke some English and we talked about the Abbey and my walk to Rome.  Breakfast was very simple – bread and butter with strawberry jam and coffee or tea.  The teenagers were very sweet and dutifully munched on their bread and jam and sipped coffee looking around self-consciously.  It was Father Thomas who served us, and once all our needs were tended to he sat at the large table to join us.  The German priest was very good-humoured and had the students laughing at his jokes, breaking the silence of the group.  Once we had finished breakfast the students and their chaperones left the breakfast room and Father Thomas stayed behind to speak with me about the day’s walk.  I asked him if he knew anything about the Great Saint Bernard Pass and he replied confidently that he thought it would be possible for me to cross.  He told me that two days before a French couple on the Via Francigena had stayed at the Abbey and that they too were going to walk the Pass.  His confidence relieved my fears and feeling much more positive than I had the night before I put on my rucksack and walked with Father Thomas to the front door.  He blessed my journey before I left and I thanked him for my wonderful stay at the Abbey. 

As I had hoped the rain was very light as I walked out of Martigny.  The way was well-marked and I was soon walking through woods and on grassy paths making my way further up the valley into the heart of the mountains.  At one point I had quite a surprise as a small deer jumped out of the brush to my right side and landed directly in front of me clearly unaware of my presence.  I thought it was going to run right into me but it changed its course at the last moment when it realised I was there and leapt off through the fields.  When I entered the first village after Martigny I was surprised to see a boulangerie was open as it was Sunday.  I didn’t have much food with me, so decided to stop for some lovely fresh bread.  Although it wasn’t raining hard my outer layers were quite wet and when I walked into the boulangerie I was greeted by another customer who commended me for my bravery in walking in this weather.  She knew all about the Via Francigena and her eyes sparkled with excitement as we spoke about where I was going to today and my plans to reach Rome in June.  The lady behind the counter shook her head in disbelief and disapproval at my endeavour, but greeted me with a sweet smile nonetheless when she turned to serve me.  Armed with a beautiful fresh baguette I left the bakery and continued through the centre of the village.  I passed the lady from the bakery as she was returning to her house and she came out to tell me something that had occurred to her while walking home.  She told me that the section of the Via Francigena after Martigny was incredibly dangerous to walk on, particularly as it would be wet and slippery.  I thanked her for her concern, but she was really only confirming what I had already read in my guide book.  According to Alison Raju the ten kilometres between Martigny Bourg and Sembrancher were the most dangerous on the entire route from Canterbury to Rome.  She explains in the guidebook that this part of the valley is so narrow that there is only room for the main road and the railroad, which means that the footpaths wrap around the sides of the mountains and are very narrow and slippery.  I had already decided that it was not worth the risk. I could easily take the train for this 10 km section and continue on my way from Sembrancher.  I thanked this kind lady for her concern, again thinking how incredibly friendly all of the Swiss people I had met so far had been. 

I had been walking entirely through fields and forest since leaving Saint Maurice and although I could hear the road and railroad at times I had not seen either.  I was therefore quite surprised at one point when I was looking at the mountains to my right to see a train of two carriages wrapping along the sheer side of the mountain.  It looked so incredibly out of place.  I was just thinking how it resembled a snake as it wound around the mountain when it disappeared into a dark hole.  I couldn’t understand how they had ever laid the tracks so high up and was marvelling at this when I crossed the tracks in the valley and traced them as they climbed up the mountainside.  The next astounding sight on the route was a tremendous waterfall, La Cacade de Pissevache (French-speakers will get a chuckle from this name) that came thundering straight down from the mountain top dropping some 65 m, crashing into the valley.  The path veered to the base of the waterfall where I could appreciate the amazing view and the thick mist it created.  I passed a couple who had stopped to see it and they commented how well-dressed I was to deal with the spray and mist.  I was of course at this point still in all my rain gear and too wet to get much wetter. 

Just after the waterfall I continued on a woodland path until I was presented with a new dilemma – the path was under about four inches of water.  At first I tried to walk around the path over rocks and through the brush, but I soon realised that it continued to be flooded as far as I could see and to either side of the path so there was no way to go around.  I stood there for a few minutes unsure of what to do.  The only other option was to continue on the main road, but without a pavement and in the rain it seemed too dangerous.  Deciding then and there what had to be done I sunk first one foot then the other into the icy cold water.  Wincing as the water rushed into my new boots I quickly sloshed my way along the path.  At times the water was over my ankles and I just prayed it would be over soon but I still couldn’t see a point where the path was dry. On I went for what seemed a long time but in retrospect was probably only two minutes until the path raised above the water table and dried out.  My shoes were full of water so I stopped to sit down on a rock where I could empty them out and wring out my socks.  Now was not the time for a break however, as with saturated shoes and wet feet I knew I couldn’t allow my body to cool down.  I pressed on and within half an hour was crossing over a covered bridge into Martigny. A helpful map at the entrance directed me to the campsite I was staying in that night.  It was on the other side of the town, which only took about 10 minutes to reach.  The campsite was quite full but I was the only one staying in the dorm of six beds.  This was very fortunate as it allowed me to spread out my wet shoes and socks over the radiator and pipes to dry out.  While I was passing through the town I had seen numerous signs directing me to the Roman Forum, the amphitheatre and museum. I couldn’t wait to go and explore so I got ready quickly and armed with my camera set out from the campsite to see the amphitheatre. 

Martingy was first the Gaulish settlement of Octodurus in the 1st century BC.  Its position in the valley that leads from the Great Saint Bernard Pass was of great strategic importance to the Romans once Gaul and Britannia had been conquered.  Julius Caesar recounts in his Gallic Wars how he sent Servius Galba with the 12th legion against the Gauls of this area to secure the pass and make it safe for Roman merchants to travel through.  Galba wintered in Octodurus, settling his cohorts in a part of the plain not used by the local Veragri Gauls.  Caesar tells how Galba soon after learns that the Veragri had left their homes in the night and gone into the surrounding mountains to plan an attack.  They believed that the Roman presence in Octodurus meant the Romans intended to unite the pass through the Alps to the province of Gaul and to consequently, take possession of it.  Galba managed to extract his cohorts from this impossible situation and it was only under Augustus at the end of the 1st century BC that the Pass was secured and Octodurus became a Roman settlement as part of the Alpes Poeninae province.  The Roman presence here is clear and is celebrated in Martigny.  The amphitheatre is quite a good size, giving an idea of the population.  The Roman Forum is no longer visible but a set of baths have been excavated and covered in an impressive display with the extract regarding Octodorus in the Gallic Wars displayed in four languages.  Just beyond the baths is the Gianadda Museum where many local Roman finds are displayed.  The artefact that has been taken as the symbol of Roman Martigny is a bronze bull’s head found during excavations in the late 19th century.  I had quite a surprise when I saw the familiar figure of Dea Nutrix.  Just such a figurine was found in Saint Dunstan’s Street in Canterbury and is now on display in the Canterbury Roman Museum.  See here for Professor Ray Laurence’s explanation of the history of this figure https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fC0WL-tNZjs

I spent a good hour looking at the Roman finds in the museum before passing through the rest of the collection which included paintings of the area and very surprisingly, an antique car collection in the basement.  As I looked at the cars I felt myself transported to the world of The Great Gatsby and WWII.  Between the difficult walk in the rain and a few hours of sightseeing I was worn out.  I decided to get to bed early and walk into the city centre before leaving Martigny to go to the tourist office and enquire about hiring snowshoes to cross the Saint Bernard Pass in three days’ time. 

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Day 38: Martigny to Orsieres (10 km)   

It had rained very heavily in the night but was starting to clear when I got up at 8am.  As planned, I got ready and walked back into the centre to ask at the tourist office about renting snowshoes to cross the pass.  I was helped by a friendly young woman who didn’t have any information on renting snowshoes in Orsieres, the last town with sports shops, but wrote down an address for me and tried to call, but unfortunately no one answered.  While I was waiting three men in their thirties, dressed for hiking, came into the tourist office.  They wanted to know the conditions on the Pass.  My ears pricked up as they were certainly trying to cross the Pass as well.  It was comforting to know I was not the only one making an attempt. 

I wasn’t too concerned with time as I had decided to take the train for the 10 km of the most dangerous terrain from Martigny Bourg and Sembrancher as the path was so dangerous.  I sat warm and comfortable in a café for a good part of the morning writing and left for the train station at about 11am.  The train runs every half an hour and takes only 10 minutes.  I boarded the small train just before 12am and looked in fear and wonder and the landscape on the valley as we travelled through it.  Winter snow and spring rains had clearly brought down many trees and created landslides.  I tried to make out where a path could possibly be alongside the mountainsides.  I was so relieved I had not attempted to walk it.  It was clearly dangerous and I doubt I would have managed to walk the route due to the damage I saw. 

In Sembrancher I noticed a great difference in architecture.  All of the houses are made of wood and the are streets lined with raccards – wooden buildings used for storing grain and other cereals.  All of the raccards were dated and one was dated as early as 1690.  The village was very quiet and I passed only two people before I started to climb uphill through another valley to reach Orsieres.  It was surprisingly humid and I was feeling quite hot as I climbed steadily for an hour until I caught sight of Osieres.  My climb was then rewarded with a downward path until I reached the small town set among several mountain peaks. For such a small town there was quite a lot of activity.  The streets were full of children coming home from school and townspeople speaking to each other no doubt enjoying the mild weather.  I walked towards the church to seek out the pilgrim accommodation provided by the parish.  The local priest lived just behind the church and when he did respond to my knock I called him on the phone.  His manner had been a little gruff on the phone but when he opened his front door he was extremely friendly.  We walked the few steps to the pilgrim accommodation next door which included a small kitchen, bathroom and a large room upstairs with several mattresses.  It was basic, but for a 10 euro donation was perfectly adequate for the needs of a pilgrim. 

The sports shop where I could rent snowshoes for the Pass was just around the corner from the accommodation, but unfortunately was not open on Mondays.  It opened the next day at 8.30am, so I planned to go there first thing the next morning before walking to Bourg Saint Pierre.  I took a walk through the town up to the tourist office by the train station where I got a stamp for my credentials and asked about the conditions of the Pass.  I was so encouraged to hear that they were already clearing the snow off the road and that only for the last hour before the Hospice would I need to snowshoe.  The lady said confidently that it was quite easy and I shouldn’t have any problems. 

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Day 39: Orsieres to Bourg Saint Pierre

The next morning I arrived promptly at 8.30am at the sports shop in Orsieres.  There was a bit of a question at first of how I could rent the show shoes for just one direction, as I would need them for three days until I had crossed the snow on the Italian side of the Alps, but a great solution was found in which I would ask at the bus station in Aosta for the bus driver on the line from Aosta to Orsieres to drop them off at the station for me in Orsieres.  I was quite surprised that a bus driver would be willing to do this, but the lady in the shop assured me that this was quite a normal request.  I felt so elated when I strapped the snow shoes to my rucksack and started out of Orsieres.  I was ready!

It rained moderately for the first two hours of the walk which was on forest paths. The trees offered quite a bit of protection, but the trails were slippery from the rain and they were not in particularly good condition.  I had to climb over several trees and the trail was so narrow I did get a little nervous at times that I would find myself tumbling down the steep slope.  I was grateful for my poles that supported me even when I tripped or slipped.  The guide book described the path would soon cross over the raging river that I could see beneath me.  As I approached it I couldn’t help feeling a sense of dread as I saw a wooden bridge with the river thundering partially over it.  The guidebook described it as very secure but as I stepped onto it I tried not to imagine it giving way beneath me.  It was in fact very sturdy, but I still walked quickly along it.  The path afterwards climbed steeply up the side of the valley to reach the road into Liddes.  Once on the road it started to pour with rain and a strong wind coming further up the valley drove the rain into my face.  I struggled into the village and sought refuge in a comfortable-looking café.  The entire interior was of the same lightly-coloured wood – walls, ceiling, floor and furniture.  I left my bag at the door and ordered a coffee looking forward to a rest and some warmth.  I only had 6km more to Bourg Saint Pierre but the rain did not look as if it would stop any time soon.  The lady behind the counter sympathised that I would have to walk in the rain but assured me that the next day would be clear. 

Feeling much warmer I was ready to face the last part of my journey.  The trail was a logging road that ran along the base of the valley straight to Bourg Saint Pierre.  Only for the last section did I have to climb to get up into the village.  It was incredibly silent as I walked through the streets to the church, past wooden houses and barns.  Further up the valley loomed snow-capped mountains that I imagined myself walking though the next day.  The village was so deserted that even at the hostel I was staying in I didn’t find anyone.  There was a number on the door to call and the gentleman who answered told me to just go straight in and choose a room.  The hostel was lovely.  The ceilings were panelled in a lightly-stained pine and the floors were of tile.  There were eight dorm rooms and a large kitchen. Surprisingly, I wasn’t staying on my own.  When I entered the hostel there were three men in their 30s already there.  I immediately recognized them from the tourist office in Martigny.  I remembered they had asked about the Pass so expected that they too would be crossing tomorrow.  I was just thinking how everything was working out so well when the owner of the hostel arrived to check me in.  He asked me what my plans were for the next day and I told him I was hoping to cross the Pass.  He shook his head emphatically and said it was impossible.  He explained that with all the rain the Pass had become incredibly dangerous and that there had been several avalanches.  Just the word ‘avalanche’ made me feel ill.  I really did not understand what triggered avalanches so I asked if this was only because it had rained today and if the conditions would be safe again perhaps the day after when the snow had settled.  He said that it might be possible.  I was again filled with hope.  He kindly called the Hospice on the Pass to see what their opinion was. 

The Hospice that sits at the top of the Great Saint Bernard Pass has been continuously in use since its founding by Saint Bernard d’Aoste in 1050.  It has been a refuge for pilgrims walking to Rome ever since and is most famous for the Saint Bernard dogs which were historically used to find and rescue travellers caught in avalanches on the Pass.  Today the German Shepherd is used instead, as the Saint Bernard is too heavy for the helicopters.  Saint Bernards however, are still kept at the Hospice during the summer months and spend the rest of the year in Martigny at the centre there.  The priests that live year-round at the Hospice are the authority on the conditions of the Pass and I was anxious to hear their verdict.  As the two men spoke on the phone I could overhear that for the next day it was too dangerous but that there was a chance that I could walk the day after.  When the owner of the hostel got off the phone I asked him the plans of the three French men who wanted to walk the Pass as well.  He said they had decided to take the bus to Aosta.  Unwilling to give up so easily if there was any chance, I paid for two nights at the hostel and would wait until the evening the next day to make my final decision.

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Day 40 and 41: Bourg Saint Pierre

I woke the next morning to a misty rain outside and decided to take the bus back to Liddes, 6 km down the valley, to get some supplies from the small supermarket there.  I was the only one to board the bus at Bourg Saint Pierre and when I arrived at Liddes the shop was already closed for lunch.  I went to the cafe and took advantage of the Wi-Fi to do some research on avalanches.  It was difficult for me to conceive of the danger they posed.  I looked up images of avalanches in the Great Saint Bernard Pass.  There were many to look at and each image made my stomach turn.  I sat in the sunshine trying to imagine this scene further up the valley.  After my research I subconsciously decided that I would not be walking to the Pass the next day.  I had been building up the moment when I crossed the Pass into Italy in my mind, but I had no wish to place myself in a potentially dangerous situation.  I called the Hospice again that evening when I returned to Bourg Saint Pierre almost as a formality to ask their opinion.  When I asked if it would be possible to walk to the Hospice the next day I received the reserved answer that it would be very hard.  I wanted to clarify if the priest I was speaking to meant it was just a matter of physical effort or if it was dangerous.  He simply answered again that it would be difficult. I asked more specifically if there had been any avalanches that day.  He answered that there had been several large avalanches.  That was all I needed to hear.  I thanked him for the information and told him I would not be crossing the Pass.         

I was incredibly disappointed.  I had thought of little else since first catching sight of the Alps on the way to Lausanne, but it was time to admit defeat.  The thought of getting on a bus to enter Italy after forty days of walking and experiencing the subtle transition of the landscape and culture region  by region felt overwhelming.  As I lay in bed in the empty hostel, mist hanging heavily over the silent village of Bourg Saint Pierre, I tried to come to terms with the fact that I would be in Italy at 10.30 the next morning.  I couldn’t understand at the time exactly why my mind resisted the idea of this transition but it became clear days later when I had adjusted to being in Italy.  My time in Switzerland had been the most isolating experience of my life.  I had not felt particularly alone as I walked for those 10 days, but this was in part because I was so consumed by the daily challenges.  Each day as I walked up the valley to the Pass I became slowly more and more isolated, arriving in increasingly less populated towns until I stopped in Bourg Saint Pierre.  The village is perhaps busier in the winter during the ski season, or in the summer, but at the beginning of May there were few people living there, and no tourists.  I had spent a further day there on my own and in that time had thought of little else but the Pass and the dangers it posed.  I needed some time to, in a way, recover from the strain of this experience, but I would not receive it.  After a one-hour bus journey I would be deposited in the middle of a city where I would need to adjust to the change in the language, weather and landscape.  The sudden change would be difficult to deal with, but I held on to the fact that walking the Via Francigena in Italy was going to be an amazing experience.  It was time to put thoughts of the daunting Great Saint Bernard Pass behind me and to start imagining how wonderful the next 38 days of my journey would be, and how, on that 80th day I would catch sight of the dome of Saint Peter’s, walk over Monte Mario and enter Piazza San Pietro as thousands of pilgrims over the centuries have done before me.    

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4 Responses to The Great Saint Bernard Pass

  1. Andrea Si says:

    Thank you for sharing. I’m planning a walk from Switzerland to Rome beginning the last part of May (around the same time you were there) so reading your posts will be very helpful. Can’t wait to read the rest of your posts.
    Andrea from the Philippines

  2. Patrick says:

    Hi Julia,

    Je découvre avec bonheur votre blog racontant vos expériences sur la Via Francigena. Avec mon ami américain de San Francisco, Gary, nous avons marché depuis Winchester jusqu’au Col du Grand Saint Bernard où nous sommes arrivés après 45 jours de marche le 8 juillet dernier. Aussi, je comprends votre désappointement, votre tristesse, votre désarroi, quand vous avez été contrainte de vous arrêter à Bourg-Saint-Pierrre à cause des avalanches. Nous avons eu la chance d’être merveilleusement accueilli à l’hospice du Grand Saint Bernard. Nous y retournerons en 2016 pour aller cette fois jusqu’à Rome. Sachez que c’est avec un immense plaisir que je lis votre blog car je retrouve des paysages, des impressions que j’ai moi-même connus sur la Via Francigena. Buen Camino
    Patrick (Versailles)
    PS : excusez-moi de vous avoir écrit en Français alors que je lis l’anglais couramment.

    • Julia says:

      Dear Patrick, I’m so glad you can relive your wonderful memories through my blog. After I arrived in Rome I returned to the Alps and walked the three days from Aosta to Bourg Saint Pierre. It was an unforgettable part of the Via Francigena and not to be missed. Good luck with the next part of your journey to Rome. Buen Camino!

      PS I can read French but my writing is terrible 🙂

  3. marc says:

    I for one am glad you choose the bus! I can only imagine how much you were looking forward to crossing the pass on foot, but avalanches?! Damn! This is such an incredible journey you are making and that is only one small part of the overall experience you are having. Keep trekking, and posting, and we can’t wait to hear more! Much love! Marc

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