Sunday, February 16, 2014

Mountain Dogs of Martigny

When I was a child, I remember reading a book about the St. Bernard dogs from the monastery in Martigny, in the southeastern part of Switzerland.  The book was about one dog in particular, Barry, who worked, like all the dogs at the monastery, with the monks rescuing travelers and pilgrims caught in the snowy mountain passes.  Barry was a special dog because in his few years of working as a rescue dog, he saved over 40 people.
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Today, I had the chance to go to Martigny (map), the place where Barry is from where the monastery still breeds St. Bernard dogs.  Martigny is located at the valley of the Saint Bernard Pass in the Alps and is right at the convergence of roads from France and Italy leading through Switzerland.  This pass is the oldest known pass used in the Western Alps.  Overlooking the town, is the Chateau de la Batiaz, built in the 13th Century and was strategically located to control the Alpine Pass.
Traditionally, the Great Saint Bernard Pass was part of the pilgrimage route from Canterbury to Rome, but often travelers would not know how to cross the Alps.  The unfortunate pilgrims would find themselves victims of dangerous avalanches, unpredictable and changing alpine weather, and improperly dressed for the freezing temperatures.
At the base of the mountain pass, sat a monastery.  It was called the Great Saint Bernard Hospice, founded in 1049 AD.  For centuries, the monks who lived here were completely self-sufficient.  The Hospice opened its doors to everyone, offering travelers and pilgrims a place to stay and some food.  Because of Martigny's unique location at the convergence of so many important routes, the hospice would have all kinds of people crossing its doors, including pilgrims, travelers, tradesmen, nobility, and even smugglers all staying under its roof!
Map of Martigny and the Saint Bernard Pass
Because of the dangers of crossing the Alps even in this pass, the monks at the monastery began breeding St. Bernard dogs.  The monks raised and trained the dogs and, every day, took teams of dogs up into the mountains to look for lost pilgrims and travelers.  The teams would rescue those they found and bring them back to the monastery before they continued along their way, either back on the pilgrimage route or wherever else their path may lead.  The dogs are impressive and would blaze a trail through the snow, cutting through the huge drifts with their broad chests.  The dogs could track a person's scent through 20 inches (50 cm) of snow!
You can still see the dogs that are the direct descendants from those that the monks bred.  At the Musée et Chiens du Saint-Bernard, you can learn about the history of the hospice and see the kennels with some of the dogs.  The dogs here are typically less than three years old, but still massive animals who love the attention and belly rubs they get when trainers take them out to show visitors.  Like all big dogs, they love to lean up against your legs, meaning that you have to be prepared for a dog that might weigh more than you all of a sudden crashing up against your legs just to be pet a little more.  So cute, but watch out for the drool!
The museum also had a really great temporary exhibit of Inuit soapstone carvings from Yellowknife, Canada (map).  I've always wanted to go there and see some of these carvings and, if I'm lucky, watch an artist at work.  The collection was pretty cool, and I especially enjoyed the different polar bear carvings.
There is also the ruins of an old Roman amphitheatre just outside the museum's location, at the base of the mountain pass. It was raining and no one was there, so I had the whole amphitheatre to myself.  There are also small remains of temples, civilian living quarters, and thermal baths from the Roman era scattered throughout the town.
The town of Martigny itself is not so impressive or as nice as other Swiss villages, but it was a great stop for the morning.  I feel so fortunate to now be able to see the far-away places that I read about as a child come to life!


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