A heavy wooden door separated the convent from the outside world. As it closed behind me, I stood surrounded by silence. Flying anywhere from Australia takes a long time, and after a night and a day and a night I was exhausted. In true Roman style the taxi driver had careened down tiny streets where footpaths were more a suggestion than reality, before double-parking on the wrong side of the road.
The convent Le Soure di Lourdes was just a short walk from the top of the Spanish Steps. Once inside, the world became peaceful. Large wooden doors shut out the chaos of the street, and I stood in the quiet of a marble foyer.
Convents and monasteries have offered hospitality for centuries, and are usually more economical than most hotels. Italy especially offers a plethora of choices. The vast majority accept guests of both sexes, married or single, of any denomination – although some still pose a nightly curfew.
Simplicity does not imply austerity. Convents and monasteries are often in Renaissance palaces, Medieval walled towns or set amongst lavender fields and vineyards. Some are equivalent to five star hotels. Many hide artistic treasures; a painting by Rubens, or walls adorned by Fra Angelico. Each religious house has its own character, such as the monastery Convento Sant’Agostino in San Gimigiano which refused entry to HRH The Prince of Wales because he arrived after closing time. (Although probably apocryphal, the story alone makes the place worth a detour.)
In Rome, my room overlooked a cloister, and of a morning the singing of the nuns in their private chapel woke me in time for breakfast. My morning meal was simple: rolls, cold meats, and lots of hot coffee.
In Florence, the Casa Santo Nome di Jesu is in a 15th C palazzo. I reached my room via a marble staircase, complete with trompe l’oil ceiling of putti and plaster relief. The window overlooked a large garden, complete with kiwi fruit, persimmons, pomegranates, grape vines and wisterias, with trunks as thick as my body. The arbour was a perfect place to sit and pass the afternoon when exhausted by sight-seeing.
One evening, while sipping prosecco and dining off a host of delicacies from the markets, (plus some grapes purloined from the garden) I sat listening to a baroque choir (who were also guests) practicing for an upcoming performance.
Most convents provide breakfast – fresh rolls and strong coffee are a staple – and often dinner as well. Some may have a restaurant attached. Italian nuns have a canny knowledge of which local restaurants offer the best value; some monks still make wine to recipes centuries-old.
In Venice, my convent lay at the end of a maze of cobble-stoned side streets and piazzas. Chairs and tables spilled from the restaurants and cafes, their aromas filling the air. The Istituto San Giuseppe stands beside a canal, with a door opening directly onto the water. As we crossed a small limestone bridge a gondola came to a boisterous stop to collect passengers.
The way to my room proved another maze of grand staircases and marble halls. Paintings covered the ceilings and walls – in a room large enough to host a masked ball, a fresco peeked out from under the scaffolding of restoration – and everywhere lay bathed in peace. Occasionally a nun in a black habit would wonder by, smile and give us a blessing, then continue on her way.
My room was simple and clean. The windows opened onto a terracotta skyline, with clothes strung on a line between two buildings. Across a flower-strewn courtyard a woman in black was busy in her kitchen, filling the air with delicious aromas. Every evening an extended family materialised for dinner. Geraniums hung everywhere in pots. In the distance a camponile tolled away the hours while towering (at a slight angle) over the other buildings,
Another convent where I stated in Venice is the Canossian Institute San Trovaso. Originally a monastery, now a convent, the building dates back to the 1600s. It stands beside a quiet canal in the Dorsoduro area of Venice, away from tourists but close to the Fondamenta Gherardini, reputedly the most beautiful street in Venice. Plus cafes and taverns abound, the prices much lower than in the more popular areas of Venice.
Next morning I woke to the sound of seagulls, followed shortly by the first bells of the day. As is the way all over Italy, each church keeps its own, strict time, and the bells chime a few minutes apart, never quite in unison.
In Rome, there is a convent or monastery in whatever quarter of the city you choose to stay. The rooms of Domus Carmelitana overlook the Castel Sant’ Angelo, while from those of Casa da Accoglienze Tabor you can see the Vatican. Near the Colesseum, the Cistercian Monastery of Santa Croce is in a 10th C building. Some of the balconies overlook ancient ruins and ongoing archaeological digs.
Convents and monastery are not only in cities, but also in idyllic countryside settings. Stays are not restricted to Italy, and some are to be found in the most unexpected of places. An example is the 12th C monastery Kriva Palanka, hidden in the Osogovo mountains of Macedonia. It is worth a visit for the medieval frescoes alone.
I have never been, but the L’Hospice du Great St. Bernard in the Swiss Alps sounds delightful. Until recently, the Augustine monks bred and trained St Bernard dogs for mountain retrieval work; now they provide a home for the animals over the summer months.
A convent stay may not initially appeal to everyone, but it is something well worth experiencing, not simply as a cheaper substitute for a hotel, but as a travel adventure in its own right. Seen as such, staying in one can only add to a holiday.
The Literary Traveller
Galileo’s Daughter, by Dave Sobel
Not far from Florence is the hamlet of Arcetri. Here, in 1616, Galileo’s first child adopted the veil and entered the Convent San Matteo, taking the rather appropriate name of Suor Maria Celeste. She kept a regular correspondence with her father, which Sobel translates from their archaic Italian. Under her hand Galileo (who Einstein saw as the father of modern science) becomes a living person, and Florence – and Italy – of the late 16th and early 17th centuries spring to life.
Maria Celeste fills her letters with personal detail, opening a door on her harsh life in the convent (she was to die of dysentery at the age of 34). Her world contrasts so markedly with Galileo’s public life, the world of the Medici and of popes. A perfect read when staying in a convent.
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