The biggest disappointment on our recent trip to Switzerland was learning that St. Bernards, those adorable iconic dogs of the Swiss Alps, never ever carried little barrels filled with brandy under their necks.
It was like learning there was no Santa Claus.
To cope with my despair, I buried my head in the furry neckline of a 4-year-old sweetie named Hoxane, who, in return slobbered all over my face. Hoxane then took me for a walk/run that, in the course of an hour, displaced all of life’s disappointments, big and small, with the immeasurable joy of watching one of the world’s largest dogs chase a butterfly through an open meadow in the Swiss Alps.
Who needs Santa Claus when you’ve got Hoxane?
The author, Diana Lambdin Meyer, gets acquainted with Hoxane and Rangoon before their walk in the woods behind Barryland in Martigny, Switzerland.
Welcome to Barryland
We were in Martigny, Switzerland, a city in the canton of Valais known as the Gateway to the Great St. Bernard Pass. It is here that in 2006 a museum and animal care facility opened called Barryland.
Named for a famous St. Bernard named Barry who reportedly rescued more than 45 people lost in the snowy pass, Barryland must be a starting point for anyone intent upon learning about and appreciating this lovable breed of dogs.
It starts out reminding us that there was a real man, a missionary in the Alps in the 11th century, named Bernard of Montjoux. He built schools and churches throughout the region, but is most remembered for a little hospice he built for travelers on a particularly treacherous mountain pass.
Today, it is known as the Great St. Bernard Pass. Bernard became a saint in 1681.
The St. Bernard Pass, an ancient roadway between northern Europe and the Roman Empire, sits on the border of the canton of Valais, Switzerland, and Italy’s Aosta Valley.
A legend begins
As Bernard and others in his religious community worked in the mountains, they befriended and were befriended by a number of big dogs living in the wild. The dogs were noted for their large feet and broad chests that helped them navigate deep snow with ease.
Soon, the dogs and the missionaries were working together to rescue lost travelers, and the legend of the St. Bernards began. However, they never carried little barrels of brandy under their necks.
A number of stories hint at why that image evolved, but most agree that some artists centuries ago took a little creative license in some early drawings that now are eternally bound to the St. Bernard image.
For more than 1,000 years, the religious community at the St. Bernard Hospice bred and raised St. Bernard dogs until the foundation was established that created Barryland.
The museum includes a wonderful restaurant and outdoor café, as well as a gift shop that allowed me to get all of my Christmas shopping done with one swipe of the credit card. Seriously, if you’re going to buy St. Bernard souvenirs, do it here because it supports the foundation that cares for these animals.
The Barryland Museum, opened in 2006, is operated by the Barry Foundation, whose purpose is to ensure the ethical care and breeding of St. Bernards.
Treated like saints
But most people don’t come for the museum or lunch or shopping. They come for what’s downstairs. There you’ll find the kennels and playground for about 40 St. Bernards of various ages and sizes.
Clementine, the dog handler who greeted us, apologized if the zoo-like setting bothered us, but I assured her no one who loves or cares about animals would be upset at these conditions.
Each dog has a spacious indoor play area of its own, bigger than my office at home, complete with fresh running water, a big comfy bed and lots of chew toys. A doggy door allows them to go outside to lie in the sun or play in a grassy, shaded playground whenever they like.
A staff veterinarian along with an army of trained caregivers assures that these fur balls are indeed treated like saints.
Visitors may watch the dogs for as long as they like, but for a few extra francs, you can take a dog out for one of its daily walks.
Clementine Coquoz is one of several trained staff members at Barryland who accompany guests on daily walks with St. Bernards.
As Clementine introduced me to Hoxane, we began our walk that, as soon as I took complete control of the leash, turned into a very quick trot along a wood-lined path next to a flowing stream. I was only able to catch my breath when Hoxane paused to sniff this and that, or stuck her face in the creek for a drink of water.
An hour later, we were both exhausted, and I, happily, was covered in Hoxane slobbers. St. Bernards really slobber a lot.
Walking with a St. Bernard is an activity usually available at the St. Bernard Pass each summer, but when we visited in July, new kennels and facilities were under construction that kept the foundation dogs at Barryland later than usual.
Nonetheless, we continued up the pass to see this famous hospice started more than a millennium ago. Today, the religious community is just four people who, along with paid staff and volunteers, run two restaurants, a gift shop, a hotel and a hostel.
Sansone, a 2-year-old St. Bernard from Lusevera, Italy, was right at home posing for pictures on the St. Bernard Pass.
We had dinner, complete with beer from a nearby Franciscan monastery, and then went for a walk along the pass into Italy. Standing with one foot in Switzerland and the other in Italy is one of the goofy things you do at this elevation.
And that’s when we met Sansone, (pronounced săn·sōn·ā), a beautiful 2-year-old, 200-pound St. Bernard owned by a couple from Lusevera, Italy. She was waiting patiently with her head on her massive paws as her owner shopped for a souvenir of this special visit.
Emerging from the gift shop with a sheepish smile, her owner placed the souvenir on Sansone — a beautiful dog collar adorned with a little wooden barrel for brandy.
Although my Italian is non-existent and her English broken, we laughed together in our mutual understanding of the inaccurate stereotype.
"I just think they look better this way," she said.
Diana Lambdin Meyer is a writer in Parkville, Mo.
If you go
Barryland Museum, Martigny: Daily 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; $12.50 for adults. fondation-barry.ch/en. A once-daily bus from Orsières is the only public transportation to the pass.
The St. Bernard Hospice: $150 per night for two people; open year-round. aubergehospice.ch.
St. Bernard Country: saint-bernard.ch
Switzerland Tourism: myswitzerland.com