Pays du Grand-St-Bernard
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Champex Lake (©_OTV)

South of Martigny is the Pays du Grand-St-Bernard, wild valleys hemmed in by the giant Pennine Alps marking the Italian border. Branch-line trains from Martigny station follow the Dranse valley and divide; one branch serves Le Châble, tucked beneath the famous ski resort of Verbier, while the other is the gateway to the Val d’Entremont, leading south to the Grand-St-Bernard Pass, beyond which is Italy. If you plan to explore in the area, you’d do well to pick up the excellent 1:40,000 map and English guidebook Au Pays du Grand-St-Bernard (Fr.20), which recommends some good walking routes and is available from the Martigny tourist office.

The Grand-St-Bernard road

Trains, and the road, from Martigny divide at Sembrancher, long a staging post on the route up to the Grand-St-Bernard. It’s an attractive, medieval village, with a Baroque church and street fountains flowing with water that is unusually high in natural fluoride. About 6km south – and up – is Orsières, where trains terminate and buses take over. Orsières is notable for the exquisitely beautiful Gothic bell-tower alongside its relatively modern church, featuring double- and triple-arched windows and grotesque gargoyles. A branch road from here penetrates the lonesome Val Ferret, extending for some 20km between towering peaks and acclaimed as an excellent birdwatching area, where you might spot the rare red-billed chough, along with yellowhammers, kestrels and more. As one visitor wrote in 1876, the valley has “infernal beauties which are well worth seeing… There are few valleys in the Alps so fearsomely wild, where the sombre grey of the rocks, the white of the snow and the blue of the sky merge.”

On a zigzagging road above Orsières lies the tranquil little resort of CHAMPEX, ranged around its tiny lakelet and well known as a mountaineering centre and trailhead for a host of mountain walks, including the famous Circuit of Mont-Blanc. Two hotels stand out, both country inns in idyllic woodland settings: down-to-earth Belvédère (027/783 11 14, fax 783 25 76; b) is renowned for its organic, home-produced cuisine, while Au Vieux-Champex (Phone & fax 027/783 12 16; b) is more up-market, with a gourmet edge and five comfortable apartments.

The main road from Orsières continues to climb amidst increasingly spectacular scenery up to the village of Bourg-St-Pierre, residence from the eighth century onwards of the guardians of the pass; the old church, rebuilt in 1739, has at its northeastern corner a Roman milestone dating from about 310 AD. Above the village, the main road is roofed over to limit problems with driving snow in winter. Shortly afterwards, traffic shoots into the Grand-St-Bernardtunnel, emerging 5.9km on in Italy, but a tiny winding road to one side continues up the mountainside, past a ski lift serving the small Super-St-Bernard peak (part of the Four Valleys ski area – see p.305 – with a couple of red runs and a wild and lonesome black), before it eventually arrives at the dramatic Grand-St-Bernard Pass itself, at 2470m.

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