Thalia & Me: An Alpine Hike With St. Bernards

Childhood memories of Beethoven the St. Bernard are rekindled as a dog-lover is reduced to mush.  
St Bernard Switzerland Dogs
The dog breed and the pass are named after Saint Bernard of Menthon, who established the hospice at the pass. He was declared the patron saint of the Alps in 1923. Photo: Iris Kürschner

I must be in heaven, because there are dogs everywhere. In the few days I’ve spent in this Alpine country, I can see that the Swiss love and cherish their dogs. I’ve spotted Alpine spaniels on immaculate trains, in special holdalls their owners are carrying and in the jackets that they are wearing.

Benji-lookalikes frequent restaurants, and they are on key-rings and other trinkets. In the streets of Zermatt, a ski town that serves as the base for Matterhorn climbers, I stop to play with three different varieties of Sennenhunds, the Swiss mountain dogs characterised by their black, white, and caramel coats. To my canine-crazy friends back home, I text pictures of a spotless Berger Blanc Suisse that resembles an Arctic wolf, shot in the time-capsuled former Roman outpost of Saint-Maurice. All the creatures I have encountered are well-behaved to a fault, save for a lone, skinny Chihuahua, with a perpetual expression of surprise, who snarls at me in Zermatt.

Now, I’m on my way to the Great St. Bernard’s Pass in the Swiss Alps, where my companions and I will meet and hike with a couple of St. Bernard dogs. Switzerland’s national canines, named after this Alpine pass, have been bred here for centuries.

Growing up in the 1990s, my first introduction to these shaggy giants was through the antics of Beethoven, the eponymous hero of a series of movies. A few years later, I returned to the films to help expunge all memories of a frothing Cujo (1983), based on a terrifying Stephen King novel about a deranged, mass-murdering St. Bernard. I’ve seen these trophy dogs transplanted into the searing heat of Delhi and Mumbai, climates they are cruelly unsuited for, and have wished the unthinkable upon their conceited owners.

St Bernard Switzerland Dog

A small museum at the Great St. Bernard Pass has Bronze Age and Roman-period artefacts that point to the pass’ importance through the ages. Photo: Iris Kürschner

Before we set out for the pass, we spend a lovely morning, admiring French Impressionist Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s landscapes and portraits, and the clean right-angled streets and structures of the tiny town of Martigny in Valais canton. We also visit the St. Bernard Museum. Spread across three levels, the museum plots the history of the dogs, via texts, paintings, dioramas, films, and posters. I learn that Augustinian monks set up a hospice in 1049 to aid travellers, who would frequently get lost in the snow (or get robbed by brigands), while attempting to cross into Switzerland from Aosta in Italy. St. Bernards were bred by the monks to aid in rescue operations.

In 2004, however, the hospice announced that it was looking for an alternative home for the canines still in their care, news that, according to the New York Times, struck the European press “as if Switzerland itself were disowning chocolate or… secret bank accounts”. The Barry Foundation—named after a legendary dog around these parts, believed to have saved close to 40 people—then took over the kennels in Martigny and operations at the pass.

Waiting to board the St. Bernard Express train from Matrigny to Orsières, I might have been a little stewed from the wine at breakfast, but I think Fabien from Swiss Tourism, has just warned me against attempting to sit atop the St. Bernard dogs that we are on our way to visit. Maybe my enthusiastic questions set him off, but I frostily assure him that I am dignified enough not to pull such a stunt.

The dogs, about 12 currently, spend the winter months in Martigny on the eastern edge of the Rhône Valley, at the museum’s kennels. Summers are spent granting audience to gawkers like us, at the monastery and hospice at the pass.

From Orsières, a bus takes us past crimson and mauve mountain-faces to the St. Bernard Pass. I snooze for a while in the mostly silent camaraderie of four bicycle boys, who are carting their steel steeds to ride around the pass for a couple of hours. I’m lucky to be experiencing all this on a pitch-perfect, sunny summer day.

Halfway through an elaborate seven-course lunch at Restaurant Mont-Joux at the pass, I get restless. I just want to get to the dogs now. At the Spartan hospice complex, which houses large outdoor kennels and a museum, we are finally introduced to the three St. Bernards we will be walking with—Chill, Thalia, and Bounty, aged between three and seven. My heart melts faster than the fondue I’ve just eaten and there’s a spontaneous explosion of sighs and coos. I think of Fabien’s prescience—because I’m suddenly overcome with the urge to climb on the back of one of the dogs and pretend it’s a horse.

The dogs’ coats mirror two things that, for me, are synonymous with Switzerland: snow and chocolate. None of the dogs is wearing a cask around their necks, as all doggie souvenirs lead you to believe. The neck barrel full of brandy is a throwback to their rescue-ranger days, when the dogs were believed to provide immediate liquid succour to frosted travellers. This is most likely a myth, although Dorothy, our guide tells us that they might have stored hypothermia medicines.

As we start our hike, a couple of people in our group seem a little overwhelmed at the size of the hirsute hulks, so I get to lead the dogs across the lichen-covered slopes. Traditionally, the monks bred short-haired St. Bernards, but these guys seem fairly bushy. In my excitement to pet and hug Thalia, I sometimes forget that I am supposed to be in the front. I am not the only one: Ahead of me, Min, from Singapore, is loudly reassuring herself, chanting, “I’m ok! I’m ok!” as she is taken for a walk by the frisky Chill. In that moment, the dogs seem simultaneously goofy and royal. Despite what I’ve wished on St. Bernard owners in Mumbai, I harbour thoughts of adopting a puppy only to discover there’s a two-year waiting period (and a rigorous background check).

St Bernard Switzerland Dog

Through the centuries, St. Bernards were bred as rescue dogs for travellers lost in avalanches and snowstorms. Now, helicopters are used for rescue missions, while Switzerland’s national dogs aid in therapy and recreation. Photo: Iris Kürschner

After skipping over the mossy rocks for an hour, we arrive at a little lake where the dogs go in for a short dip. For the first time since we’ve met them, I actually lift my head to look at my surroundings. The Alps rise all around us, and clouds glide across the surface of the lake. It’s utterly too pretty. Save for the manicuring, I could be in the Himalayas but I’m obviously in a Windows desktop wallpaper.

Our guide announces that the dogs are now going to pose for pictures. As if on cue, Chill, Thalia, and Bounty trot up against the most picturesque part of the backdrop and I suspect they’ve already taken a light-metre reading. After that, it’s open season. Camera shutters go off all around me, I ignore pleas to shoot others in my group, and focus instead on taking selfies with Thalia. We just can’t get it right. It would be easier if either she could stay still long enough to be in the frame, or I could stop shaking from laughter. Eventually, sensing some hostility from my fellow travellers for hogging Thalia, I resign and tuck my phone away. She chooses just that minute to express a fit of affection and unconditionally slathers my face.

It’s this face-paint job that I keep going back to every time I remember my trip. Since my background check will probably not pass muster with the Swiss authorities, I’ve brought back a grinning wooden miniature Thalia. She’s wearing the colours of the Swiss flag and has a cask full of brandy around her neck.

Appeared in the November 2014 issue as “Thalia & Me”.

Map: Drmakkoy/Getty Images

The Guide

Musée et Chiens du St-Bernard is in Martigny, next to a grand Roman amphitheatre (Tue-Sun, 10 a.m.-6 p.m.;; CHF 12/777 adults, CHF 7/450 children). To get to the Great St. Bernard Pass, board the St. Bernard Express train from Martigny up to Orsières, and transfer to a bus to get up to the pass (open only 1 June to 1 Oct). An eight-day second-class Swiss Travel Pass is priced at CHF 393/₹25,583. It covers the journey and entry to the hospice and museum.


    Karanjeet Kaur was formerly Chief Senior Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. She likes stumbling through small towns and is the last person to board the plane. She will always pick the mountains over the beach. She tweets as @kaju_katri.

Psst. Want a weekly dose of travel inspiration in your inbox?