Our turbo tour of Switzerland’s Alps ended too soon. From Tasch near Zermatt we’d head to Chamonix France. On the way out of Switzerland, we’d reach the final two passes described in the Frommer’s article, the de facto template for this portion of our road trip. Next up were the Simplon and St. Bernard passes.
A short hour-long back track from Tasch is Simplon Pass. The modern wide road to the pass crosses the mountains at a lower altitude than all of the other Frommer’s passes. Pastoral terrain and forests are at the top instead of the alpine landscapes we’d come to expect.
The next pass we visited required a longer detour. Rather speeding directly across the Swiss-French border to Chamonix, we strayed to Italy via the Great St. Bernard Pass. We would return to France by the Mont Blanc Tunnel.
If there was any concern that we were on the correct course, the abundance of stuffed toy St. Bernard dogs available in all sizes at every roadside stop erased all doubt. We were headed to the Great St. Bernard Pass, home of the large namesake dogs.
About seven kilometers from the col, most of the traffic diverts to a long tunnel through the Alps. The old road becomes quiet and is minimally used.
At the top, the Great St. Bernard Pass is 1,500 feet higher than Simplon. The tarmac climbs the last few miles past alpine grasses coping with a short green season and the abundance of rocks. This section of old road, continuing down from the top some distance into Italy, is attractive for road cycling. At least it is attractive if you like punishing, long, and torturous climbs.
Napoleon’s Army famously used the Great St. Bernard Pass in 1800 to enter Italy. Alongside the road plaques topped by cut outs of Napoleon’s bicorne hat show scenes of the expedition. Slab rock bridges and other remnants of the old road used in the invasion still stand.
At the col, straddling the high point of the road, is a hospice whose origins date back to 1049. This hospice is famous, in part, for its use of St. Bernard dogs in rescue operations. Amongst the other buildings at the pass are souvenir shops. In the stores spent bicyclists contemplate oversized stuffed namesake dogs many far too large to carry down the hill on their backs.
Back in the Kangoo we continued past the customs officers and down the Italian side of the pass. The descent into Italy was every bit as spectacular and even more remote than the climb from Switzerland. From the bottom we connected to Courmayeur, Italy and the Italian side of the Traforo del Monte Biano or the Mont Blanc Tunnel.
The Mont Blanc Tunnel is one of the longest tunnels in the world. Connecting Italy and France underneath the Mont Blanc massif, the road bore is the deepest in the world. At a maximum of 8,136 feet, it is likely the furthest below the surface of the Earth that we will ever get. Being so far underground seems scary. In reality, though, the true risk comes from fires and not from the extreme depth. Indeed, a Belgian transport truck caught fire on March 24th, 1999 and killed 39 people. Just to be safe for our transit of the tunnel, we kept our distance from all Belgian transport trucks.
Finally we escaped the tunnel into the outskirts of Chamonix France. It would be our last road border crossing of our summer’s European trip. We’d cross the border again and return to Italy ever so briefly in the next few days, but it would not be by car, foot, boat, or even plane.