Detours: Saint Bernard

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 14 January, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 14 January, 2009, 12:00am

With big smiles, huge noses and tongues that can clear an avalanche with a few licks, Saint Bernard dogs romp around like small loveable trucks, perpetually in fifth gear. The best place to visit these amazing hounds is where they originated - in the town they were named after in southern Switzerland.

For 300 years, cowled hermits bred and cared for St Bernard dogs in the Grand St Bernard Hospice, built around AD1050 by a cleric, Bernard de Menthon, who was later declared a saint. The monks started breeding a large dog to accompany them on their travels. Thus evolved a dog with a broad chest to push through snow, rolls of fat to keep it warm and a keen nose to find the trail.

The hospice stands at the centre of an ancient travellers' path that crossed Europe, a road often used by armies and bandits, so the monastery became a refuge for many travellers - not all of whom made it without mishap. The dogs' keen noses began to find people lost in the mountains or buried in avalanches and so the tag of 'rescue hound' snowballed into legend.

The most famous St Bernard dog was Barry the First - each subsequent generation has had a Barry. During the early 1800s Barry I found more than 40 people buried in snow. But now there are now only four monks left at the hospice - not enough to care for the dogs, each the size of a miniature horse. When the monks sent out a distress call a few years ago the nearby town of Martigny answered. The Barry Foundation (named after Barry I) was set up to take over the dogs' breeding and care, although the hounds still spend the summer with the monks.

At the Barry Foundation's kennels, visitors can pat the dogs and watch them at play and training and even go for a 'picnic with the Saints'.

The dogs are friendly and love to be with people; they're slobbering, gentle giants that enjoy playing, training and cuddles.

The history of the dogs can be seen at the nearby St Bernard museum, which features information, displays, toys, statues and artwork. Movies are shown on a 7-metre screen, including the not-to-be-missed 'Francois the Pilgrim' crossing the St Bernard, and hyper-realist scenes show the dogs at work and play.

The museum also delves into the history of the monks, known as canons, who played such a critical role in the breed's development. The kennels are close enough to their ancestral monastery on the Saint Bernard Pass to contemplate a visit to the hospice, which is reachable from Martigny in summer by train and bus. Boarding the little red train, called the Saint Bernard Express (above), in Martigny takes you on a picturesque ride through the stereotypical image of Switzerland: gingerbread villages and houses roofed with marzipan and iced steepled churches backed by terraced vineyards. A bus leaves from the town of Ossiere in the St Bernard region to the monastery where accommodation, a museum and a restaurant are open to visitors.

Impressive views of a lake and the Swiss Alps are a drawcard and you can even bring your own dog. Stay long enough in the area and you are sure to see a helicopter buzz by carrying a stretcher attached by a cable. Rescue in the Swiss Alps now takes a more modern form, but the legendary dogs live on.