…continued from Part I
Rafael, being a canon of the Great Saint Bernard Hospice and a genuinely good person to boot, took our misplaced reservation in stride.
“Ah yes, there are still two beds in room three-oh-three!” He sounded victorious, like by finding us beds he had conquered the reservation book. “And tomorrow,” he continued, “You move to room three-oh-TWO!”
Writing deliberately on a scrap of paper, Rafael told us when evening and morning prayers would be held, should we like to attend, and when meals were. Finally, asking Ryan’s name, he repeated it, followed by, “That is a GOOD name!” And with this benediction we were sent up to our room.
Richard nailed the description of the Hospice with his opening paragraph about the pass in his book “Seven League Boots”:
The monks at the St. Bernard Monastery are living half-way to Heaven. Their good works should certainly get them the rest of the way. For a thousand years they have dedicated themselves to service of travelers struggling over the Alps…These monks ask nothing in return.
The Hospice building is very old, though kept spotlessly clean by a small army of diligent volunteers. The wide stone steps leading up to our dormitory were well polished with the feet of centuries. An hour later the dinner bell clanged in the stairwell, and we ate a hearty meal of fresh bread, rich beef broth, and pasta with meat sauce.
Our company during dinner was mostly pilgrims following the Via Francigena from Canterbury to Rome. Just over 1,000 people walk the Francigena each year, though most cover the 1,700 km in multiple stages instead of in one 80-day spurt. Back when Richard visited that number was 20,000 per summer.
The next morning we were awakened by rousing orchestral music over the loudspeakers. We went down to breakfast and to our surprise a woman in blonde braids called us to her end of the table in clear English. Laura-Anne was an American ex-pat in Switzerland lending a hand at the Hospice for the week. She was hilarious, and within minutes we were all laughing together over her stories of life at Great Saint Bernard Pass (GSBP).
After breakfast we all spent a couple hours with our heads together trying to figure out ways to help the Hospice keep afloat. The canons are devoted to giving in a world intent on taking–the math doesn’t add up, and their future is a bit precarious.
“I can’t believe people don’t know about this place,” Laura-Anne said. “It’s been kept a secret, and that needs to change.”
The primary visitors to the Hospice are pilgrims (average tourists don’t usually make it to the pass) and the cost to stay at the Hospice is so low (CHF 50/day including meals) they almost don’t make their money back. So we brainstormed about social media (you can follow the Hospice on Facebook here), ways of taking reservations, and how best to utilize the volunteers. Only three canons, one oblate and one deacon manage the Hospice, and there’s far too much work for them to accomplish alone.
Today’s situation is a far cry from the way of life when Richard visited. Then the Hospice was home to fifteen monks, and was generously supported by the King and Queen of Italy who “saw to it that the monks lack nothing.”
Hours later, and with a far better understanding of the modern Hospice, Ryan and I stepped outside to find the skies clear. We made our way over to the Italian side of the pass and had a great time recreating one of Richard Halliburton’s best photos–Ryan even volunteered to be the elephant!
We then hiked the steep trail to the top of a nearby peak and gazed out over the endless glaciers and mountains. Hiking opportunities abound at GSBP, and in the winter the pass is a backcountry skier’s and snowshoer’s paradise.
Our final activity at GSBP was a visit to see the famous Saint Bernard dogs and the associated museum. The Hospice was founded around 1050 by Saint Bernard so he could help travelers safely negotiate the treacherous pass. The dogs were bred by the Hospice in the late 1600’s to aid in that mission. Their hindquarters are narrow in comparison to their burly chests and powerful front legs, built for swimming through snow. Back before modern advancements enabled people to traverse the pass safely, the dogs and the monks worked hard in the winter saving thousands of souls from an icy death.
Unfortunately, in a generous gesture but a bad business move, the Hospice in 2004 gave up the rights to the very dogs they created, effectively eliminating a potential source of income for themselves.
The “highlight” of our visit to the kennels and museum was seeing the weird embalmed body of Barry III, a Saint Bernard dog that was on display when Richard visited in 1935. It was gross then, and it’s gross now, with googly eyes and a mangy face. I laughed and laughed when I saw it, unable to believe it was still hanging around.
The next morning we again dined with Laura-Anne and we swapped more ideas and stories over coffee and bread. A few hours later we departed on the morning bus (which we were not late for).
I was sad to leave. After just two nights at the Hospice I found myself oddly invested in the place. The people were wonderful, the history amazing, and the setting unbeatable. The Hospice opened their doors to Richard and his elephant in 1935, and for me and Ryan almost eighty years later, and I’m so happy to have that connection with the past. I’ll certainly be keeping tabs on the Hospice and doing what I can to help, and you can guarantee Ryan and I will return!
Accommodation on the pass consists of the Hospice (monastery) and the Hotel (Auberge):
***Book the Hospice by calling +41 27 787 12 36 (French and Germany always spoken, English available if you hold).
***Book the Hotel here