International travel expert, John Newton braved the icy conditions up on the Saint Bernard Pass to catch up with some friendly giants for a walk in the Swiss Alps. He was relieved to swap the mountains for level ground where he mingled with younger, mischievous furry friends. All 10 of them.
It’s that time of year again when locals and tourists alike get the chance to take a walk on the wild side with the Swiss national dog, some of which have achieved worldwide fame as movie stars, starred in a host of advertisements and featured on postage stamps.
Every weekend from the end of December until the end of February, the Barry Foundation – based in Martigny, Switzerland – organises leisurely walks accompanied by Saint Bernard dogs in the mountain village of Champex-Lac.
The 90-minute walks take dog lovers around the idyllic, snow-covered alpine lake, with participants taking it in turns to hold the Saint Bernard’s on a lead, while youngsters can enjoy a ride in a sledge pulled by the dogs.
“The walks are beautiful. Our Saint Bernard’s love going out in the snow and coming into contact with the visitors,” said animal keeper, Leah Fluckiger. “The participants sense that too. And what’s more, the walks lead through the spectacular scenery of the snowy alpine plateau.”
Each walk in Champex-Lac is accompanied by three Saint Bernard’s. One of the heavyweight dogs pulls a specially-designed sledge for children under the age of 10 to ride on.
“As long ago as in historical times, the Saint Bernard’s used to pull carts. This remains a very suitable activity for the dogs, even today,” said Manuel Gaillard, who is in charge of the dogs. “We have adapted the work of pulling the dogs a little, and replaced the traditional carts with sledges.”
Ideally, the walk should be combined with a visit to the Saint Bernard museum, which is the only one of its kind in Switzerland and tells the story of the dogs, the Great Saint Bernard Pass and hospice. “The museum in Martigny is open every day. Visitors can find out more about the history of the hospice dogs and meet other dogs from our breeding kennels,” said Rudolph Thomann, managing director the Barry Foundation which, as owner of the breeding kennels, is responsible for the continued management of the 300-year-old breed and the preservation of the special type of hospice Saint Bernard dog.
The Barry Foundation is named after the legendary Barry, who lived at the hospice in 1800 until 1812 and is considered the most famous of all the dogs who ever provided rescue services on the Great Saint Bernard Pass. He saved the lives of more than 40 people.
The many legends surrounding his name greatly contributed to the Saint Bernard’s reputation. As a result, there is always a dog named Barry at the hospice, which was founded by monks in the 11th century as a refuge for travellers and pilgrims on the 2469-metre high Great Saint Bernard Pass – for centuries an important traffic route between the economic centres of northern Italy and North West Europe – and for pilgrims on their Via Francigena route to Rome.
Large mountain dogs have been kept at the hospice since the mid-17th century to guard and protect those staying there. The Saint Bernard’s were rapidly adopted as companion dogs and above all as rescue dogs for travellers who lost their way in the snow and mist. The dogs from the Great Saint Bernard Pass saved the lives of many people, averting countless deaths in the snow. The reputation of the Saint Bernard’s (then called ‘Barry dogs’) grew throughout Europe in the 19th century – thanks to chronicles published in many languages and to reports passed on by word of mouth by the soldiers who had crossed the pass with Napoleon Bonaparte in 1800. The legendary Barry became the archetype of the rescue dog.
Today, Saint Bernard’s no longer play a key role in mountain rescues. Helicopters and faster, smaller dogs get to the accident scene much quicker.
In Switzerland, the writer received a good licking at the Saint Bernard Museum and Hospice. After travelling to Martigny by train on a Eurail pass provided by Rail Plus, Australasia’s leading international rail specialist. For more information on European train journeys, itineraries and pricing, go to www.railplus or call (In Australia) 1300 555 003.