‘Compagnons de la Via Francigena’ 20 Year Celebration at Grand St-Bernard Hospice

On 2nd September the friends of the ‘Compagnons de la Via Francigena’ met at Grand St-Bernard Pass for a big celebration! It was 20 years ago that work began on the alpine segment connecting Martigny and Aosta. Their hard work enabled pilgrims to cross the Alps, paving the way for the Via Francigena linking Canterbury with Rome.

Despite the blizzard-like conditions, the celebrations began with the Swiss group walking from Bourg St-Pierre and the Italian group from San Rhémy. Those of us travelling by bus were totally amazed when the bus driver stopped at Bourg St-Pierre and discovered that the walkers were ready to go. So, several very excitedly people tumbled out of the bus and disappeared into the rain and mists. It was an awesome journey on the bus with the bus driver skillfully negotiating the narrow road and hairpin bends.   Glimpses of alpine scenery were occasionally visible through the mists and I marveled at the skills of those out there walking.

There is an air of mystery about this terrain that causes my imagination to run wild with images of Hannibal crossing the Alps with his elephants, or Napoleon with his armies, or countless pilgrims journeying to Rome. But, today, it was the Roman legions that captured my imagination. As the Italian group made their way from San Rhémy to the Italian border, around the lake to the Hospice, it was a Roman legion that I saw with their red cloaks, flags, and pilgrim and eagle standards.

Excitement pierced the air as the Swiss and Italian groups met outside the Hospice and for a brief moment even the sun shone. Then, into the magnificent chapel and under the watching eye of St Bernard chaining the devil i.e. the perils of the mountains, ten officials shared memories and expressed their gratitude for the opening, twenty years ago, of the alpine segment making pilgrimage possible.  The President of the EAVF, Massimo Tedeschi, gave the closing address, responding to many memories that had been shared.

St Bernard of Menthon, Archdeacon of Aosta, founded the Grand St Bernard Hospice in 1050 for the safety and protection of travellers. Today, the Congregation of Canons of Grand St-Bernard still offers exactly the same hospitality to travellers. Somehow, this very busy place managed to cater for our large group, a large parish group, a wedding and all the pilgrims. And, we enjoyed our community meal with a very talkative pilgrim.

Warmed by the local Fendant wine we ventured outside to discover it was snowing. This gave us a very authentic taste of the conditions faced by pilgrims for over a millennium. Even more so, with the very proud St Bernard dogs out walking. My imagination went wild with visions of snow rescues and that welcome sip of brandy.

Next we visited the Museum with its amazing displays covering the history of the Pass. In Roman times Alpis Poenina led to the Pal of Jupiter, a sacred rock near the statue of St Bernard, on the Italian side. Here there was a Temple to the Roman god Poeninus to whom people made offerings to obtain safe passage. Very interesting displays lead the viewer right through the ensuing history and into the present day.

And so our day of celebration drew to a close and we all went our separate ways. But, the magic of the Via Francigena pilgrimage is that you can always visit again. Or you can volunteer at the Hospice https://gsbernard.com/fr/ or become a ‘Companion of the Via Francigena Valais-Aosta Valley’.  There are also more photos on my website http://carolneville.com.au/photojournal/.

Carol Neville