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Convent Stays in Rome

“If you’re not a Catholic already, become one for your visit.” This was Rick Steves’ suggestion to travelers to Italy, and since we trusted Rick on European travel, my wife, my 13-year-old daughter, and I decided to follow his advice once more on a recent trip to Rome. We began our temporary conversion by lodging in one of the many convents tucked into almost every corner of the Eternal City.

Convents are starting to show up in guidebooks (see sidebar), but they are still largely unexplored by American travelers. In fact, there were no Americans among our two dozen or so fellow lodgers. Like hotels, convents will accommodate individuals, families, and groups of any or no religious affiliation. They are usually considerably less expensive than comparable hotels, and they provide a cultural experience that is unique (where else can you wake up to a chorus of nuns softly chanting matins?). Our budget- and culture-minded family wound up giving convents an enthusiastic three thumbs up as a lodging choice for the independent traveler.

Reservations: The first step is to choose among the nearly 120 religious “houses of hospitality” in Rome (see below). Then there is the challenge of booking. We found at once that, far from being a second language, English was barely on the list for several of the convents that we were interested in, so we relied on several strategies for communication. The most successful one was to ask an Italian-speaking friend to serve as a go-between.

When our Italian-speaking friend wasn’t available we tried a different approach. In the France-based Istituto San Giuseppe di Cluny the nuns speak both Italian and French, and I decided to brave the international call myself. With considerable help from the sisters’ English, we were able to determine that the convent was available for the nights we needed. We faxed a request and received by mail a written confirmation—posted from France. (The Italian mail, as the nuns repeatedly warned us, is unsuited to business correspondence.) We reserved approximately four months prior to arrival, but during the Jubilee Year, when Rome will be packed, it would be advisable to start even earlier.

The Rooms: Quiet, safe, and beautifully appointed, our rooms overlooked the convent garden. There were no “matrimonial” beds, but at less than $75 per night for a double with bath, it felt like a royal bargain.

Curfew: The major drawback to convent lodging is the almost ubiquitous curfew. One night we took an evening walk, and, not thinking of the curfew, suddenly found ourselves at the Capitoline Hill less than half an hour before the 10:30 lockdown. Through a combination of bus-hopping and all-out running we made it in time. This one experience aside, the curfew simply wasn’t an issue. Most nights we were not only in bed but asleep well before the doors were locked. That way we were ready to get out and watch Rome wake up shortly after the doors were opened at 6 a.m.

Food: All of the convents we investigated include breakfast in the rate. In addition, many of them served noon and evening meals as well. San Giuseppe di Cluny requested that we reserve at either full pension (three meals) or half pension (two meals) rates, but it turned out to be negotiable. The food was institutional, but it was Italian institutional food, a significant improvement over its American counterpart. And dinners were bargain-priced at under $12. Since we were traveling with a 13-year-old, most evenings we were glad to be “at home.”

These days, according to Fathers Paul Robichaud and Greg Apparcel of Rome’s Santa Susanna Church, “The price of a double room in a moderately-priced hotel in Rome can change blood pressure readings in a minute.” And after having become Catholics for our recent visit we have no hesitation in passing on their advice: “Get thee to a nunnery.”

For More Information

Convent lodging is starting to show up in some of the budget guidebooks such as Rick Steves’ books and the “Cheap Sleeps” series. The following sources cover convent lodging in more detail:

Bed and Blessings Italy: A Guide to Convents and Monasteries Available for Overnight Lodging by June Walsh and Anne Walsh. This helpful and up-to-date book lists convents and monasteries from around Italy, and its nearly 40 listings for Rome are almost uniformly good.

The Guide to Lodging in Italy's Monasteries by Eileen Barish. This guide lists more convents and monasteries in Italy than Bed and Blessings in Italy, but only a dozen in Rome. Still it is a worthwhile resource for those traveling to Rome.

Santa Susanna Church, the American Parish in Rome, www.santasusanna.org, is helpful website for visitors to Rome. Included are numerous recommendations for dining and convent accommodations.

Vicariato di Roma, Piazza San Giovanni 6, 00184, Rome, Italy. For a complete but unannotated list of all of the convents and monasteries that provide hospitality to travelers in Rome write (no email) to Vicariato di Roma at the above address.

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