Director: Andrea Alborno, Production: Andrea Alborno, Language: Italian/French, Italy, 2019, 25′, Rights: World excluding Italy, San Marino, Vatican & Switzerland.
The Great Saint Bernard pass, culminates at 2.469 meters above sea level, connects Martigny in the Canton of Valais in Switzerland to Aosta in Italy, and follows the human stories of travellers, fugitives, armies and pilgrims who travelled through it over the centuries. From the troubled landscape to the serpentine roads puts the traveller into contact with the ancient and modern realities of a place full of magic and mystery.
There is a place between the sky and the earth where the mountain is so steep that seems one of Dante’s circles and nobody really knows if it is hell or heaven.
The winds caress the sides of the pastures and the mysterious peaks, wrapping them between dark and fleeting clouds. Lightened by iridescent lights, a road full of curves leads to Great Saint Bernard pass or Col du Grand-Saint-Bernard in French, and Colle del Gran San Bernardo in Italian, between Aosta Valley and Switzerland, more than 2,400 metres over the sea.
St Bernard is a place full of history between Switzerland and Italy – in the past, it was a passage for pilgrims, soldiers and smugglers – it is now a destination for tourists and mountain enthusiasts.
When spring comes, the works to remove tonnes of snow begins. In the month of June, the heat of the summer season starts and the Swiss and Italian railway workers celebrate together.
Duchoud Raphaël, canon of the Great Saint Bernard talks about the traditions of hospitability in this region which has a long history. In the past, the pilgrims of the via Francigena were welcomed as mountaineers and tourists are today.
The famous St Bernard hospice of the Canons Regular of St Bernard of Menton is situated at the pass in Switzerland, and has been there for over 1000 years, during which time it has “never closed”. Canons by the way are priests who live in the community, but who are not technically monks.
These priests staff the Hospice and a number of parishes in the mountains around about The Hospice is the beating heart of Great Saint Bernard pass, at 2,473 metres above sea level, it was founded in 1050 by Bernard of Menton, Archdeacon of Aosta and by his companions, members of the Valdosta clergy. Today the purpose is the same: to welcome people coming through, without discriminating due to race, gender, origin or wealth. The small residential community, composed of 4 canons, expands on the occasion of the two great feasts of the congregation: the feast of St.Bernard and the feast of St Augustine. The latter is more intimate, it is celebrated on the 28th of August and more than 40 canons from all over Switzerland participate in it with much religious love and fervour.
The works for the construction of the Great Saint Bernard road began around the middle of the 19th century, Sergio Fumasoli, a descendant of one of the constructors of the modern way of communication between Switzerland and Italy, talks about how his relative worked on the making of the road in 1856.
Giuseppe Vuyet a historian, explains how there was a road here as far back as the 12th century A.D. even if there is no document to prove it. There were already wagons that passed in Roman times, in fact, if you take a little ride up here on the pass, there are some Roman wagon traces passing by so we can deduce that they passed through. However, the great passage that we gladly like to remember is Napoleon’s passage in 1800; with about 40,000 men, which means that it took at least one full week to see them all parade through.
The Great Saint Bernard (originally called “Barry dogs”) dogs are the top attraction here and every year thousands of people come here to see these dogs. Large mountain dogs have been kept at the hospice since the mid 17th century to guard and protect those staying there. The first visual evidence of the presence of mountain dogs dates back to 1695, and the first written document is a hospice memo from the year 1707.
Claudio Rossetti, Director of the Barry Foundation explains why the St Bernard dog is of such importance to the place:
“The Saint Bernard dog, represents an important element on this road that leads to the pass of ‘Great Saint Bernard’ because the history of the canons is linked to our four-legged friends as they played the role of companions, therefore the human bond between the canon or the chestnut tree and the Saint Bernard dog throughout this history, which has lasted for more than 300 years, is a very important element because these dogs, rescued but above all, they lived in close contact with humans.”
Hell or heaven, who can say? The Great Saint Bernard route leads to the sky.
Frédéric Moulin (responsible for the Great Saint Bernard Road, Switzerland)
Luigi Castellone (responsible for ANAS maintenance Aosta Valley)
Duchoud Raphael (Canon of the Great Saint Bernard)
Sergio Fumasoli (descendant of one of Great Saint Bernard modern road constructor)
Giuseppe Vuyet (fine connaisseur of Great Saint Bernard)
Claudio Rossetti (director of Barry Foundation)