Monastery Stays in Spain
Room With a Pew
Viaceli is one of many monasteries in Spain where guests are welcome.
After attending a weekend teachers’ hiring fair in London, I received two offers. One was in Switzerland. The second was from a bilingual school on the coast of Spain. The pay and benefits packages were the same. Which to choose? I had not been to Switzerland, but I liked the idea of its order and cleanliness. I had been to Spain a couple of times but I was a non-smoker and disliked noise, and Spain is a country that makes a fetish out of noise. During the midday week-long fireworks celebration of the Fallas mascletas, for example, there seems to be a competition to produce the loudest explosions using pyrotechnics. Yet, in the end, the answer seemed easy enough. I packed my sunscreen and swimsuit and moved to Valencia, Spain.
While I might be a non-smoker, I appreciate good food, sun, and a laid-back way of living. Yet the school schedule included many week-long holidays. What to do to escape the noise and chaos of the festivals? The answer was—so to speak—heaven sent.
A Brief History of Spanish Monasteries
Spain has a long history of monasticism. It developed along with the Way of St. James beginning in the 10th century, but there were small monastic groups in Spain even in earlier times. Over the course of time, the orders grew in size and built great churches while acquiring increasing land and power. The more developed orders took in pilgrims, kept learning alive, and sang Gregorian chants daily.
But in 1835, Spanish authorities—jealous of their growing wealth—dissolved the monasteries, claimed the land and property, and forced the monks out. But the monasteries slowly returned over time to become centers of art, refuge, and hospitality.
Today, the Benedictines, Cistercians, Augustinians, and others no longer boast their earlier riches. But their buildings survive—for the most part—along with their hospitality.
In modern times, Orders have to not only pray for their daily bread, but they must earn money to pay for it as well. Many of the female Orders create excellent embroidery or simply take in ecclesiastical laundry. Many also make and sell organically grown produce, pastries, or make wine. Some have earned money from their choral singing or having resident choirs.
The answer to my need for quiet and order lay inside these ancient monasteries. Over my twenty years in Spain I have visited many monasteries and stayed in eight—often more than once.
Guestroom in the Viaceli monastery in Spain
Monastery Stays in Spain in Vogue
Monastic visits are almost in vogue. The BBC2’s fly-on-the-cloister program followed five men living in a monastery for 40 days. It was a surprise hit. The English food writer, Delia Smith, a U.K. food writer, spoke about how she spends an hour a day in silence, seeking “union with God.”
Given the pressures of contemporary life, there are many articles which discuss how a time away from known surroundings can do wonders for both the body and the soul. And Spain’s many monastic hotels and guest houses can be the perfect balm for the hassled expat teacher. But the experience is not for everyone. It is also not so easy to find your 1-person cell.
Finding a Monastery
The monastic guides (see the box-out below) list many in Europe, but 25% of all such lodgings in Europe for women are in Spain. There are just 42 for men. The monasteries consist of basically three types:
- Monasteries which run retreat or prayer centers. These are for established prayer groups on retreat. They are not designed for the single traveler or teacher.
- Monasteries which have turned part of their huge buildings into hotels. For a budget price, they offer a room and meals, many of which are excellent. The Benedictine Glenstal Abbey in southern Ireland could pass for a Swiss ski resort. But at a price. This type of accommodation welcomes singles, couples, and children.
- Finally, and not for everyone, are the monasteries which host both men and women. Such monasteries welcome very few people inside the walls, usually singles, to share the closest experience to monastic life.
Some writers speak of monasteries as if they where centuries ago. There is an inference that you just stumble up to the door, knock three times, and you are in. In my experience, this is not the case.
Who Should Lodge in a Monastery?
For those who take the needed time to research, monasteries can offer the tired, stressed teacher—or any other adult—balm for the body, the mind, and the soul.
Just what is the profile of the average guest? You do not have to be Catholic—though some expectation of involvement with Mass and prayers are appreciated. You probably are used to receiving a daily electronic fix of email or surfing the internet. But if you cannot leave the mobile phone, internet, and iPod behind, a monastery stay is not for you. Today’s monks are not Luddites. There are cell phones, computers etc. But the Great Silence of St. Benedict is respected. It is a myth that all monks take a vow of silence. They do not. But they respect silence and the joy it brings. Unfortunately, monastery stays are also not for those with mobility handicaps or special dietary needs.
Monks do take a vow of poverty, but that does not mean that they do not eat well. Some of the best meals I have enjoyed in Spain have been while sitting in silence in the refectory wiping my plate clean—all the while enjoying the wine bottle that is at every place-setting for every meal.
A monastery stay is for the person who is happy to spend the day reading, strolling through the grounds, or praying. The cells are basic, yet warm and clean. And almost all are en suite. Many books and newspaper articles on monastic visits emphasize the enjoyment of the silence. One night at the excellent monastery of Poblet near Barcelona (a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a Site of Special Historical Interest in Spain), I went up to the walkway surrounding the old walls. I looked at a star-filled sky. It was so quiet one could almost hear the sound of the spheres spinning above.
Just as the monastic life is not for everyone, neither is a stay inside the walls. But if a person thinks it is for them, it can be an unforgettable experience.
For more on what a person needs to do to visit a monastery, and what is expected of them, see the section below.
Suggested Behavior at a Spanish Monastery
Welcoming guests is an important part of the work of many monasteries as it helps them pay for the time to pray for their daily bread. The founder of European monasticism, St Benedict wrote, “Let all guests who arrive be received as Christ.” But he also he wrote, “On no account let anyone who is not ordered to do so, associate or speak with guests...”
There are hotels run by religious groups or as an adjunct to a monastery. But staying inside, following a monastic regime, and accepting a certain discipline is what the religious orders ask those who wish to stay.
Many of the monasteries will accept a guest who wants to follow, to some extent, the daily schedule. They might need to rise for Matins at 5:15—-though truth be told, I usually missed it. Laudes is at 7:00. It is interesting to be up in the choir stalls with monks who are trying to juggle the two books that are used during services—one for the prayers that change according to the hour, and the other for those that are constant.
Breakfast follows after morning services. The simplest meal of the day, it consists of a cold buffet of cereal, yogurt, bread and butter, and coffee. You bus your own dishes to the kitchen and make sure to separate organic and non-organic waste. Monastic orders are very conscious of their environment.
The guest master does not take attendance at the prayers and mass, but he appreciates guests attending at least some of the prayers, especially the daily mass and vespers. Even if you cannot follow the Gregorian chant, being in the still of the monastery and listening to the medieval music is a wonderful experience. Many of the better choirs have made money from selling chant CDs.
In reality the majority of the other guests will be attending most of the services. But you are not expected to walk around the cloister with head bowed and doing penance. Some of the most beautiful Spanish monasteries: Poblet near Tarragona, Montserrat near Barcelona, and Samos in Galicia are on the tourist track or The Camino de Santiago. Tourists are kept out until visiting hours, and guests will be enclosed along with the monks.
By 10 a.m.—at the latest—the doors open. They close again by 2 p.m. for prayers and lunch. You might miss the prayer. but you are expected to be a regular at meals. And lunch is the often the best meal of the day.
Monasteries are divided into three zones. During the day, there will be the areas where tourists may visit (often in guided tours). Tourists usually are shown the church, cloister, and are allowed to take a look through the doors of the library and the dining room.
Guests have their room (sparsely furnished but with heating and full shower) a small library, and perhaps a sitting room or chapel. While you can enjoy seeing more than a tourist, the monks will disappear to their own private area where guests are not permitted.
Even when the guest stays in their own room, there are still norms. The following are typical for those guests in a monastic regime:
- You are asked not to use radios or TVs. Mobile phones should be on quiet mode. I have used my laptop with no problem, but without any internet connection.
- Any conversations amongst guests should be in the guest area and conducted in a low voice. Individual rooms should not be used for chats.
- The only person who should be in a single room is the person who is using it.
- Even though it’s Spain, there is no smoking inside. Some monasteries will have a designated place for smoking outside or off grounds.
Spain offers a variety of monastic experiences. There are also a variety of types of guests allowed. Some are for men only, while others allow only women. Some will accept married couples, while others will accept partners. It is rare to see children involved in a monastic regime.
Some monasteries will have an established price for a stay. The Cistercians ask only for a donation. I try to offer at least 20 euros a night.
A monastic kitchen is not designed to provide special meals. But depending upon the location of the monastery, there might be a restaurant off the grounds offering a greater variety of meals.
If you have a chance, visit a monastic graveyard. Most of the monks have lived a long life. So the Mediterranean diet and a low-stress lifestyle do have own their rewards.
Two of the biggest obstacles that I have found when experiencing a monastic stay are making a reservation and actually finding some of them without a car.
Many monasteries are closed during Easter or Christmas. Some might be closed for no obvious reason, perhaps a conference or a religious or political event. Another reason might be making the grounds or church available for a TV documentary or even a movie. And if a room is available, preference is always given to other religious members or the families of the resident monks.
St. Benedict, the founder or European monastic life, directed new communities of monks to establish themselves near forests for wood, near water for brewing and wine making, and near good land for growing and pasturage. Many modern monasteries are on plots of land for which developers would pay millions. But the monks generally seek isolation. Therefore, many of monasteries remain hard to access without a car.
After reading all the above, and if you still wish to try a monastic break, how do you find one? One immediately thinks of “googling.“ Some of the better known monasteries have their own website, but many do not. The national tourist offices might be of some help. For specific suggestions see the contact sidebar below:
Monastery Resources and Contact Information
A Room with a Pew: Sleeping Our Way Through Spain's Ancient Monasteries by Richard Starks, Miriam Murcutt
The Guide to Lodging in Spain's Monasteries by Eileen Barish.
Barish lists over 150 monasteries with a black and white photo, contact information, and some background history of the monastery being reviewed. The emphasis is on how a traveler can use monasteries or guest houses as cheap lodgings while also enjoying tours in the local areas. The book offers a quantity of listings but lacks quality concerning the specific monastery. The book is part of a series covering French and Italian monasteries.
If you look up Paradores in Spain, you will find many there are former monasteries where you can stay.