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Saint Bernards: Gentle giants of the pilgrim trails

Among the breathtaking mountain passes of the Via Francigena lives a breed of dog renowned for its heroism and gentle spirit: the noble Saint Bernard. These iconic dogs hold a special place in the history of pilgrimages, their legacy forever intertwined with the snowy paths trodden by countless travelers seeking spiritual and physical journeys.

Perro San bernardo
Dog of St Bernard and other Stories, Public Domain

The name Saint Bernard has a deep historical meaning. In the 11th century, a monk named Bernard of Menthon established a hospice high atop the treacherous Great St. Bernard Pass, a key route on the Via Francigena –the famed pilgrimage route between Canterbury and Rome. The hospice offered refuge and sanctuary to weary pilgrims braving the harsh alpine conditions.

Guardians of the pass

Over the centuries, the monks of the Great St. Bernard Hospice began breeding large, powerful dogs to assist them in their rescue missions. By the mid-17th century, these dogs were renowned for their uncanny ability to detect impending avalanches and locate lost travelers buried under the snow. With their thick coats, incredible strength and seemingly innate sense of direction, Saint Bernards became invaluable companions and lifesavers along the perilous mountain routes.

Great St Bernard Hospice

A symbol of selfless service

The image of a Saint Bernard carrying a small barrel of brandy around its neck is a popular one –but, alas, it is largely a myth created by 19th century artists. But even without the brandy, their acts of heroism are undeniably real. Stories abound of these gentle giants braving blizzards, tirelessly searching for stranded pilgrims and carrying the weak or injured to the safety of the hospice. They became a symbol of selfless service and dedication –qualities that resonate deeply with the spirit of pilgrimage.

Sustainable tourism and the Saint Bernard

Perro san bernardo
Painting by Edwin Landseer, Washington, National Gallery of Art Photo : Matthiesen Gallery

Today, the legacy of the Saint Bernard continues to inspire pilgrims and travelers alike. While modern technology has largely replaced their role in mountain rescue, these dogs remain treasured ambassadors of hospitality and guardians of historic passes.

If you’re a pilgrim looking for a sustainable and meaningful travel experience, consider incorporating a visit to the Great St. Bernard Hospice into your journey. Meet the descendants of these legendary dogs and learn about their historic connection to the pilgrim routes. Reflect on their selfless acts of compassion, a reminder that even in the face of challenges, a helping hand (or, well, a paw) can make all the difference.

From Canterbury to Rome: The birth of the Via Francigena


This post is also available in: Español Italiano

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