Catching Breath on The Grand St-Bernard Pass

St Bernards being walked past Dave. Sadly no barrels of Brandy though.

Dave the motorhome’s hauled his 200,000km (nearly!), 20 year old, non-turbo butt up the Grand St Bernard Pass and is parked up on the Swiss side of the col, the very top of the pass, about 100m from the Italian border (N45.86847 E7.17024). We’ve checked with the small Tourist Info office here and they’re fine with us staying a night in one of the car parks overlooking the lake, for no charge, in August, can you believe it? We even got a free sticker!

Dave's sleeping spot at the top of the Grand St Bernard Pass, 2469m above sea level.
Our sleeping spot at the top of the Grand St Bernard Pass, 2469m above sea level.

Last night we fired up the laptop to watch Palin complete his wanderings of ‘New Europe’ when this appeared in the view from the window:

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We’re not sure what is was, but it scooted above near-vertical rock surfaces for a bit, appearing glued-on, then pottered off about the corner of the hillside. This being the kind of animal we only ever see on Nature Park signs, we were both really chuffed to get to watch it for a few minutes, staring at the empty space it had left in the skyline for minutes after it had gone.

6:50am this morning I jumped out of bed to check out the sky. Pretty clear, just a few small clouds, and the sun was slowing coming up over the edge of the valley. We both togged-up sharpish and, leaving a doe-eyed Charlie kipping, took a ten minute ramble to a viewpoint I’d scouted out yesterday. This was our rewarding view of Mt Blanc and the surround massif:

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The clouds swept in and rubbed much of the display away, so we tootled back to Dave, ate some breakfast and took off down the 700m tunnel again to take a look at the dam in the morning light. If you click on the photo to zoom in, you might just make out the mining works to the far-right. They kept us on our toes until the evening with periodic explosions, minus the expected clouds of dust.

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Back down the tunnel we pointed Dave at the valley floor, whining his way east on the narrow, twisting road along the valley edge. Having said that, there were a fair few passing points and with Dave popped in 2nd gear engine-braking position for about 4km, we cruised off the hill grabbing a photo or two on the way.

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Our overall plan for today was to head for Italy, avoiding Swiss motorways so we didn’t have to buy the yearly vignette for a whole 2 days in the country. Our map shows the Grand St-Bernard pass could be cleared via either long pencil-straight tunnel, or an intestinal yellow road splayed either side of the dotted underground route. Our sat nav refused to believe the above-ground route existed though, or maybe thought it was winter (the snow gets 10m deep here so the road is unsurprisingly shut), and attempted to direct us on a 5 hour detour around France and Italy when we told it we didn’t want to pay the tunnel toll.

We chose to ignore her, and headed up over the huh-is-this-a-mountain-pass Col de la Forclaz and down into Martigny. Pulling into lay byes every few minutes, we managed to keep our dog-slow-Dave tail down to a minimum. One incident left me a bit shook up though. As we dropped through the vibrant green vineyards above Martigny, a car which had only been behind us about 5 minutes pulled off a sharp overtake. He’d already incurred the air-horn wrath of an oncoming lorry, but was perhaps deaf. Within a millisecond he chose to swing in front of us, thought better of it and went to over take the car in front as well. Only problem being he’d not seen the motorbike who was in the process of overtaking every man and his dog. With a jig against the edge of the road and tucking elbows in the biker avoided being greased. Yep, I used to ride like that from time to time, so am a hypocrite when I say these guys were both nuts, and don’t deserve to be angry at the risk they placed not just themselves but us poor follow-on muppets who’d have nowhere to go but hit them if they crashed. From my experience most Swiss drivers are fabulous, very controlled and smooth.

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Cooling Dave’s brakes above Martigny, Switzerland

From our previous foray into Switzerland a few months ago Ju found we’d got 17 Swiss Francs knocking about in some dark corner. As we’d also a craving for Rosti, a sort of Swiss grated spud, we headed into a Co-Op and stocked up, while Dave’s chemical-stinking brakes cooled off. Everyone speaks French here in this bit of Swiss paradise, and they even take Euro notes should you run out of the local currency, so it’s as easy to be here as France for us.

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Back on’t’road we started the long haul south along the Val d’Entremont. Although not a match for the neck-craning views of the Mont Blanc massif, the green-grey-blue countryside around us kept us nicely entertained as Dave crawled along, gasping for breath in 2nd gear half the time.

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Finally the road threw a blanket of concrete over itself, an open-sided tunnel which went on for mile upon mile and then suddenly split: the Mt Blanc tunnel straight on, the old col road to the right. We got it right, swinging off and mentally steeling ourselves for the climb.

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Once the tunnel was opened in 1964, the winding col route flipped from a commercial to tourist route, with the Tour De France using it five times in the past. We didn’t know it, we were following in the footsteps of Napoleon and his army, who came over here back in 1800 on the way into Italy. Way back before that, the Romans had a road through here, even building a couple of villas over to our left by 43AD. Oooeee, it’s a tough climb up here mind, maybe the hardest one for our vehicle to get over in the past couple of years. It’s first-gear steep for maybe 2 or 3km at the end, plus we got intermingled in a train of hero novice Italian cyclists which had us almost stopping, and me fearing we’d never get going again!

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As the cyclists reached the top after us they let out whoops of delight, at least those not about to sick up their breakfast did. Once more than ten had made it, a good old sing song broke out, I love the Italians, they know how to live! We scouted the place out for somewhere to park, checked with Tourist Info we could stay and decided we’d be fools to pass up on a night in this awesome place.

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It’s not just the views, or the history (which we were totally unaware of), but the electrical buzz of the place. It was fairly well packed with cars, motorbikes and the odd motorhome. No-one knows which language to speak but everyone says hello anyway, in whichever tongue feels right. A woman wanders about walking St Bernard dogs in 2s and 3s from a training centre behind the 1000 year old hospice here (you have to pay to get in to see the puppies, or just walk up the path behind the hospice).

St Bernards being walked past Dave. Sadly no barrels of Brandy though.
St Bernards being walked past Dave. Sadly no barrels of Brandy though.

Since getting here we’ve had a walk around the lake, marvelling at the small building along the road, and a stone stood on the path, marking the Swiss-Italian border. Most vehicles just drove straight past, we guess some were blissfully unaware of the international foray they’d just made. Although Switzerland’s part of the Schengen Zone, so no passports need to be shown here, they are not part of the EU so there are restrictions on what you can import and export. No-one seems much fussed.

One hand in Italy, one in Switzerland!
One hand in Italy, one in Switzerland!

After getting back from the lake route, and having observed the madcap route south into Italy with a wee bit of trepidation, we munched some lunch, chilled for a while, then headed off up the mountain side.

Tomorrow's Dave test, the southern side of the Grand St-Bernard pass.
Tomorrow’s Dave brake-test, the southern side of the Grand St-Bernard pass.

Yup. Like Mount Vesuvius above Naples in Italy, there used to be a cable car here up the valley side, but it’s long-since gone. Only the winding station at the bottom remains, plus a few concrete slabs at the upper station and along the route upwards. Unlike Vesuvius, you can’t drive up though, the only option’s a stumbling zig-zag stone path up the hillside. Fortunately Charlie stayed behind as it would have been too much for the short-legged fella, and we observed from high above people pointing into Dave’s cab as he kipped on the dashboard in the sun. Ju did me proud, as I gave up part way up with lead-legs and a vague fear of the cloud closing in, and with some encouragement we both made it up to yet another wonderful mountain view.

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We’re back in Dave now and the cloud and mist has closed in around us. We can just about make out a most unhappy horse which is tethered to the hillside above us and hollers like a kicked mule every 15 minutes. A few other motorhomes have just arrived and are clustering around us, which is cool, strength in numbers! It’s cooling off too, not likely to hit the -30°C which has been recorded up here, but the heating is going on and we’re digging out the last bottle of gluhwein from the back of Dave’s cupboard!

Cheers, Jay

P.S. A few last photos I forgot to pop in above:

The grass around us is covered in loads of brightly coloured flowers - these were our favourites.
The grass around us is covered in loads of brightly coloured flowers – these were our favourites.
This chap spends his day hanging around the lake up here (which is only unfrozen for 100 days a year)
This chap spends his day hanging around the lake up here (which is only unfrozen for 100 days a year)

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Hanging out with St Bernard on his pass (he's pointing right at Dave!)
Hanging out with St Bernard on his pass (he’s pointing right at Dave!)
In the old days the priests used to help shovel the snow once winter had passed so people could get up here and visit them
In the old days the priests used to help shovel the snow once winter had passed so people could get up here and visit them

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There were loads of these along the road today, didn't spot on Apricot tree though, so not sure where they've all come from!
There were loads of these along the road today, didn’t spot on Apricot tree though, so not sure where they’ve all come from!

10 Comments

  1. Hi,
    A truly awesome report, We rate it as your best yet stuning scenery, perfect script, variety, drama and a shot of Charlie……priceless.

    (two weeks to to go and we’re off, too)

    Mike n June

  2. Hi you two, think the animal in your photo could well be a Chamois, it’s a fabulous area your’re in at present! Last time I drove over that pass must be 15 years ago. Brings back very happy memories for the wife and I.
    Take care, and happy travelling wherever Dave takes you.
    Regards. Mike.

  3. Two Italians died overnight Tuesday 13 August 2013, after they were swept away by an avalanche while climbing in the Mont Blanc massif in the French Alps, local officials said. Six climbers were caught up in the avalanche as they were ascending Mont Blanc du Tacul, at an altitude of 4,200 metres (13,780 feet), the gendarmerie in the Haute-Savoie region said.

    Three of the six were buried under the snow, including the two Italians, who were later found dead, and a third climber who was rescued alive.

    No further details regarding the identities of the victims were immediately available.Thousands of tourists flock to the French Alps annually for sports including mountain climbing and skiing, but every year some fall victim to accidents.

    How Sad,

    Mike n June

    • We saw that on the news, so sad. Also the chap that parachutes into the 2012 Olympic stadium as James Bond was killed in the mountains above us on Wednesday. We’re keeping Dave’s wheels firmly on the ground, mountains are beautiful but deadly places. Ju x

  4. Hi you two,
    You are not far from my sister who stays in Charrat Vision.
    It is a beautiful wee town. They would make you very welcome. If you want their full address please email me. They have a washing machine LOL and Karen is a great cook.

    Regards Roger

    • Thanks for the offer Roger, but we’re on the move! We’re meeting someone around Moulins in a couple of days, so we need to get a wriggle on – France is a lot bigger than it looks!

      Cheers

      Julie

  5. Hy Guys Well done ..we have toured Europe 4 times in Camper van……doing the same this year amazing holiday ever,,France Italy Austria Germany………..You must go to Eagles Nest its really Amazing hope you like hights..This year touring in Vintage cars going same plases but this time Berlin is on the map going for three months saving like hell…….What was the Best part of your adventure All of it I bet……….Nothing is so adventurous that just going and not stopping is there……we didunt want to come home after two months of travelling………….You look like you had a whale of a time..Just like us ….Good Luck with your next adventure orovuaxxx

    • Hi

      We did have an amazing time. For me the best part was the people that we met – everyone has their own fab story to tell!

      We made it up to the Eagles nest, and into Berlin, but I think my favourite places are all different for different reasons:

      For chilling out and feeling like you’re on holiday – Greece
      For passion and something happening all the time – Italy
      For challenging my comfort zone – Morocco

      I guess I could go on, but each country bought it’s own adventure – it was a blast!

      Enjoy your next adventure.

      Julie :)

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