Swiss Passes

Great Saint-Bernard Pass

Valais - Swiss/Italian border

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Great St Bernard Pass Col du Grand St-Bernard Colle del Gran San Bernardo Grosser Sankt Bernhard

The Great Saint-Bernard pass is one of the most famous alpine routes. Travellers have crossed it since the 11th century, thankful to Saint Bernard for building the hospice at its summit as a refuge for those accosted by bandits or storms.

We climb steeply northwards out of the bustling streets of Aosta back into the quiet mountains and towards the most famous of the transalpine routes, the Col du Grand Saint-Bernard, or Colle del Gran San Bernardo from the Italian side. For centuries, this was one of Europe’s most important and strategic transit points. When Augustus was planning the conquest of Britannia, he ordered the track to be widened, making it passable for carts, and so useful for the military and trade.

It was Bernard of Menthon in the eleventh century who came to the rescue of many a traveller by founding the hospice at the summit of the pass. It became a refuge for those accosted by bandits or battered by storms, and Bernard later became a saint and the road his namesake. At 2,469 metres, the Col du Grand Saint-Bernard is the third-highest road in the Alps. The pass was replaced for most traffic by a toll tunnel in 1964, but the old pass road remains and can be accessed before the tunnel.

The old road is high and open only from June to September. Late in May the snowploughs are still at work near the top, creating snowbanks and clearing the road. Come October the snow will retake the pass, leaving the tunnel as the only link between the two countries.

Great Saint Bernard Pass
Summit of the pass

Climbing towards the Col from Aosta, we almost miss the turnoff to the old pass road, the tunnel taking priority for most traffic. Look out for a slip road on the right before the main tunnel signs. Taking the pass road means you don’t get to cross the impressive 305-metre-long Dardanelli Viaduct. Famous for its appearance in the opening sequence of the film The Italian Job (1969), the viaduct was built to access the tunnel and opened in 1964, not long before the film’s release. In the film, Roger Beckermann and his Lamborghini Miura pass over the viaduct and up the Saint-Bernard in the most iconic of film scenes to feature a mountain pass. (That’s a bit odd, as he would have been coming from the tunnel, but it looks good in the movie.) The drive up the pass does mostly take place on the Saint-Bernard, but the part where Beckermann meets his doom in a tunnel was shot on the nearby SS26 road to La Thuile. The classic closing scenes of the film, featuring the bus hanging over the edge of the road, were shot on Colle del Nivolet in Italy.

We stop on the first hairpin of the newly resurfaced pass road to enjoy a look at it. The starting point for the ascent is the village of Saint Rhemy, the last inhabited place on this side of the pass. In bygone times the men of the village, the Marronniers, held the right to accompany travellers and provide safe passage over the pass. From here up the environment takes on a marked change; the road signs and buildings disappear and we are surrounded by trees and mountains.

The road is quiet and climbs relentlessly as Matt Monro’s On Days Like These echoes in our heads. We get occasional glimpses of the tunnel road before it heads into the mountain, and we stop briefly at the head of a beautiful valley before crossing the tree line, where the landscape becomes dramatic. The open pastures are strewn with rocky structures such as the striking Tour des Fous, which, legend holds, was infested by the Saracens before the hospice was built at the summit of the pass. These towers of rock are all overlooked by the towering Aiguille des Sasses, 3015 metres high. We climb through a short tunnel, then a tight left bend resolves at the summit.

The Italian border outpost is nothing but an abandoned booth, but a modern Swiss one sits a short distance away. Today it is empty. We pull into a parking bay overlooking a glacial lake that is frozen 265 days of the year. Today its blue waters shimmer like an oversaturated Instagram photo with the definition set to max. The lake is surrounded by buildings and a few remnants of summer stalls. Behind us, a statue of St Bernard looks back down the Italian side.

The hospice and monastery are on the far side of the lake. The monastery houses a permanent community of monks, and serves as a spiritual centre and retreat for visitors. We can’t forget the St Bernard dog, unfortunately, which was bred here to rescue lost souls on the journey over the pass. If you like big, hairy dogs, you can still find them at the museum. The old tale of casks of brandy around their necks is a myth, but they did rescue many lost travellers, and one in particular, Barry I, became so famous that they had him stuffed and put in a museum. (The dog, not the traveller.) St Bernard escaped such a fate and went on to open another pass, the Col du Petit Saint-Bernard on the French/Italian border. Another worthy visit.

In May 1800 Napoleon’s army used the Col du Grand Saint-Bernard to enter Italy. He chose the shortest route but was still held up by snow and ice. The crossing was compared by writers at the time to Hannibal’s quest, leading to an iconic painting by Jacques-Louis David imaginatively titled Napoleon Crossing the Alps (1801). In it, Napoleon is pictured on a majestic white horse, which rears in defiance. In reality, he went over on a mule after a reconnaissance by one of his generals. The Swiss don’t much care for the story, since Napoleon requisitioned supplies (including 21,000 bottles of wine) and never paid them back. The Swiss, after all, do love their francs.

A cold wind picks up over the lake and we continue our journey, thanking Bernard for his sterling work. As we leave the summit, views of the Swiss mountains fill the windscreen. The Italian SS27 turns into the Swiss E21 and is immediately different from the Italian side. It’s vintage Swiss pass material with the road surrounded by rock-strewn pastures and mountains. Trails snake around the pass road leading two feet, two wheels or four hooves up and down the Swiss side. A series of mysterious towers appears at the side of the road, apparently providing ventilation for the tunnel below. The road tightens and the corners follow suit as we head down the short straights and endless, folding hairpin bends.

The tunnel exit appears on our right and the old pass road merges with the tunnel road. Those majestic views on the horizon are now interrupted by avalanche galleries, part tunnels designed to keep the snow off the road on the way to and from the tunnel. These make the new route usable 365 days a year. As we disappear undercover, glimpses of the large Lac des Toules reservoir come and go until we exit the gallery section. As the valley of Valais heads towards Sembrancher, the E21 tightens to a pinch point and in a final rush, we arrive at Martigny.

The Great Saint-Bernard pass can be enjoyed in both directions and makes for a frontier busting day out with the Col de la Forclaz and the Col des Montets in France.

45°52’08.0”N, 7°10’14.0”E
Profile of the Great Saint Bernard pass
Martigny > Great St-Bernard > Aosta
Distance (km) 82
Altitude (m) 2469
Start Altitude (m) 503
End Altitude (m) 586
Minimum Altitude (m) 503
Maximum Altitude (m) 2478
Ascent (m) 2641
Descent (m) 2568

Read more in SWISS PASSES Issue 4 of the Super Alpine magazine - coming in 2022

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