At the top of the Roman world, monks to the rescue!

It’s that time of year when Italians flee en masse to the shore. Cities are hot ghost towns with few stores or restaurants open. Since I took my summer trip to the US early, my intention upon my return was to settle down and get some work done. Yet this week it was so quiet (and hot) that it was hard to concentrate.

So when a friend called and offered a day trip to the mountains near Aosta, I jumped at the chance. I admit that just escaping the heat would have been motivation enough, but my friend Ben has a particular talent for getting to know strangers, often with interesting results. Besides, he wanted to visit a monastery high up on an Alpine mountain pass where he had done an archeology dig 20 years ago. Everything about the trip called me to join in.

Our group (Ben, his wife and baby son, and a common friend) ate lunch on the way up to the pass at a rustic stone restaurant perched on the side of a steep incline, its balconies lined with bright red geraniums. Naturally Ben knew the restaurant owner, an extroverted man with white curls and sparkly blue eyes who was aptly named Felice. We sat down on the terrace to a perfect Aostan lunch–mushrooms in cream, chestnuts in honey with lard, soft toma cheese with hazelnuts sprinkled on top, melon, and mocetta (a lean cured meat), among other things. And that was just the appetizer course! Then came gnocchi wrapped in strings of melted fontina, and polenta accompanied by sausage, veal, and rabbit, the last of which was cooked in a mustard sauce. After lunch we split a homemade tiramisù, then drank the obligatory coffee required to be able get up from the table, and complementary homemade genepì as a digestivo. I really would have been perfectly happy with the day just as it was.

Our view from the terrace at lunch

But then we drove up and just across the Swiss border to the Col, or pass, du Grand-Saint-Bernard, named for the founder of a monastery that has ministered to pilgrims there since 1050. This monastery replaced an even an older one nearby which had been destroyed during the Saracen invasions. And before that, the Romans ran a hotel of their own on the site. The pass is so high up that it’s closed for much of the year, with the snow sometimes reaching the second story of the monastery so that the monks have to ski out the windows. Modern travelers usually cross the Alps in winter by tunnel.

But August is high tourist season. Most people come to hike and to see the place that gave the world the St. Bernard rescue dog (some dogs remain there in summer, but now rescues are made by helicopter). Helping stranded travelers is still part of the monks’ vows. And they still risk, and at times even lose, their lives when people hike precariously along the crumbly schist rock or get trapped in the deep snow. We met one of these monks, a friend of Ben’s from his archeology days.

The Roman road (top) and the adjacent foundations of the temple to Jupiter (bottom)

On the Italian side of the monastery, Ben pointed out the old Roman road through the pass, dug out of the rock, and the remains of a temple to Jupiter (the high altitude made the site a sort of Mt. Olympus of the Roman Empire). Most of the temple’s stone had long since been re-appropriated, leaving only traces of foundation and steps carved into the side of the mountain, as well as a human skeleton of unknown origin. On the far side of the monastery and around the peak towards Switzerland, a vast valley opened up with nothing in it but a winding road, some hiking trails, and a sort of ventilation tower for the long mountain tunnel underneath. Here Ben led us to the other site his team had excavated, the Roman hotel. There was still lots of Roman terra cotta scattered about, and the team had discovered Celtic beads there as well.

The Col de Grand-St. Bernard may not be the pass that Hannibal came through with his elephants, but it was certainly used by Napoleon, and was described by Dickens in Little Dorrit. Above, Ben shows me a piece of Roman terra cotta at the site of the archeological dig.

Once the monastery ran a hospice for pilgrims stopping along the Via Francigena, a medieval road from Canterbury to Rome. Now it’s more of a starting point for local hikers. But some of the the hikers we saw that day were also modern day pilgrims, attending the French-speaking evening mass in the basement chapel, its low, vaulted ceiling lit by constellations of tiny halogen lights. My French was so rusty that I could only follow along because I knew what was coming next.

One of the texts from the monastery’s library

We had hoped to eat dinner there, but the refectory was full of hikers and we were out of daylight, so we went home. Even though summer tourists at peak season had overwhelmed the dining room, Col du Grand-Saint-Bernard still felt like an outpost. It’s so inaccessible in winter that the monks have to rely on stored provisions and anyone of their order who dies has to be kept in a nearby outbuilding until the ground thaws enough to bury them. I can only imagine what it must have looked like centuries, even millennia, before, when it was the only place of welcome anywhere around.

Here’s a video (from the hospice’s website linked above) with a nice overview of the monastery, in French with English subtitles. You even see Ben’s monk friend Frederic sitting at the refectory table!

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