Staying in Monasteries and Convents in Italy
La Dolce Vita
From the rocky shores of Lake Como to the sandy beaches of Sicily, Italy's convents, monasteries, and religious houses are throwing open their doors to bargain-hunting tourists. And visitors not only find bargain prices—usually from $45-$55 a night for a double room—but comfort,
convenience, and conviviality.
The choices seem endless. Stay in a large abbey belonging to a famed monastic order set in rural tranquility. Or choose a small convent in central Rome or Florence. Many guesthouses are now run by religious orders like small hotels.
Whatever your choice, you can be sure your room will be clean, comfortable, and simple. Most have a private bath. Spacious lounge areas and secluded gardens and terraces are standard features. Gone are the days of drafty monastic cells, stone slab beds, and Gregorian chants
echoing down empty corridors.
A continental breakfast ordinarily comes with the room. In addition, many facilities in Italy—particularly the guesthouses—provide lunch and dinner for a reasonable additional charge. Some will even pack a lunch for your day of roaming the Tuscan hills. Dinner will generally be family
style. Facilities that do not serve food often allow their guests use of the kitchen.
Peace and Tranquility
Whether or not you are Catholic, these houses have a peaceful and contemplative atmosphere that is not to be found in a hotel. You inevitably meet other guests from countries like Australia and England who discovered the charms of Italy's religious houses years ago. You can
get acquainted over a glass of wine while reviewing the day's activities and watching the sunset from the monastery garden.
A few things to consider when choosing a religious facility in Italy: First, as mentioned above, there are true monasteries or convents on the one hand and religious guesthouses on the other. In the former you are essentially a houseguest of the religious order, and their life goes
on around you-morning mass, prayers in the chapel, ordinary domestic chores. It is interesting to be even a passing interloper in a life so different from your own.
Guesthouses, on the other hand, are operated by religious orders for the benefit of pilgrims and travelers. They often will be more attentive to their guests and more inclined to provide the extras, like packed lunches.
Larger facilities are likely to attract groups of pilgrims and visitors more than the smaller, intimate ones. In any case, reservations should be made early, particularly during the tourist season. In the off-season, from November to March or April, many facilities are closed
to guests. And, lamentably, those that stay open may ration the heat.
Then there is the matter of curfews. If Italian nightlife turns you on, a religious facility is not your kind of place. Most have a curfew of 10 or 11—barely time for late dinner in a nearby restaurant. There is nothing quite so humbling as straining your fractured Italian
to explain to a censorious nun in her nightrobe just what you were doing out at all hours of the night.
Closing the Deal
Religious houses have only recently caught the attention of Americans, due mainly to the publication of the two books listed below. The biggest challenge for Americans is making reservations. Judged by my recent experience, some perseverance may be required.
My effort began with a form letter in Italian that I copied from the book Bed and Blessings and sent to nine facilities in Rome and Assisi. (Lodgings in Italy's Monasteries has a similar form letter.) I received just two responses from Rome, one saying they had no availability.
Alas, it became necessary to pull out my tattered Italian phrase book and embark on a tortuous telephone conversation with a very patient lady whose English was on par with my Italian. At long last, the happy result was reservations for an 8-night stay in a magnificent old villa that once belonged
to Assisi nobility, a short walk from the town's main square. No deposit or credit card was needed. Likewise, at the end of our stay our credit card wasn't of use. Almost all the religious houses, it seems, have adopted as their motto "In God we trust; the rest pay cash."
It was worth it. Our $45-a-night room, which had been completely refurbished following Assisi's devastating 1997 earthquake, was decorated with antiques. It sported a newly remodeled bathroom and an oversized window overlooking
the garden and the beautiful Umbrian countryside beyond. For more than a week this was our home and Assisi was our hometown. It was, indeed, La Dolce Vita.
Bed and Blessings
Bed and Blessings Italy: A Guide to Convents and Monasteries Available for Overnight Lodging by June and Anne Walsh gives detailed information on 131 religious facilities in Italy. The Guide to Lodging in Italy's Monasteries by Eileen Barish provides information and numerous pictures for more
than 400 locations. It can also be ordered at www.monasteriesofitaly.com. Interestingly, the books do not totally overlap.