Staying in a convent
You don't have to take vows of chastity and poverty or wear those itchy woolen robes to shack up in a European convent for as little as $30. You don't even have to be particularly religious.
There are religious guesthouses scattered all over Europe, including the one attached to the Centro Culturale Don Orione Artigianelli in Venice (+39-041-522-4077, www.donorione-venezia.it). However, it's proof that religious lodgings aren't always the cheapest: this one charges €115 for a double room (still not bad, by Venice standards).
This page covers:
• What convent guest room are like
• What convents cost
• Where to find convents
• Convent rules
• Why stay in a convent
• How to find convents
- Books on convents in Europe
- Books on convents in- the USA
- WebsitesThere are really two types of hospitality at religious institutions.
The more widespread are the convents, many of which run guest houses, set up and administered something like a bare-bones hotel.
Not only is a convent stay one of the ultimate budget lodging options, it's also a great cultural experience—and a chance to get yourself out of your own head for a day or two, no matter what your religious affiliation or beliefs.
Expect small rooms, battered functional furnishings, and a décor that, at its most lavish, includes both a tiny print of the Virgin and a crucifix nailed to the wall above your bed. Amenities will be similarly spare: a TV or telephone in your room will be rare—though private bathrooms are surprisingly common, though not guaranteed.
As to the sleeping arrangements, the Brady Bunch bedroom revolution hasn't hit convents. Like a 50s sitcom, the beds are narrow twins with a healthy, holy amount of space between them. Double beds are only occasionally an option, and even then only for married couples (in fact, many convents will not allow an unmarried couple to share a room).
These religious guesthouses charge rates anywhere from $50 to $210 for a double, but most prices for a double room hover in the $80 to $120 range, prayers for your immortal soul included.
Convent hotels are often designed to house pilgrims (from big church trips to solo folks seeking enlightenment) and are most widely available in major cities, especially in the predominantly Catholic countries of Spain, France, and, of course, Italy.
Nuns are like anybody else. Some are kindly; some are sourpusses.
The best strategy is to treat them with respect and a smile, and accept with good grace their many rules, like curfew (usually falls between 10pm and midnight), early checkout (often by 10am), and keeping relatively quiet (24/7).
Absent any specific rules, convent guesthouses simply expect you to respect the community and its values—be quiet, attend major masses, avoid throwing keg parties, that sort of thing. Also, don't blow in and out overnight basically just using them as a free crash pad.
Across town from Don Orione, the Foresteria Valdese in Venice is a fantastic cheap religious hostelry run by the Waldesians. It has both private rooms and shared dorms (the Post-It on the door there is letting you know how many bunks are left in the boys and girls dorms, respectively), and the kicker is that many of them are covered in 18th century frescoes and overlook a canal, and the prices start at just $25 a person. There's much more on this remarkable hostelry on ReidsItaly.com.
For the faithful, a convent stay holds many rewards, not least of which is getting a chance to commune with your spiritual siblings from other lands. Also, they're cheap.
However, here I'm going to speak to my fellow non-believers out there for a moment. You don't have to have faith to find a convent stay fascinating.
Aside from the (generally) low prices, convents offer an interesting cultural experience—particularly in Europe, where they've been part of the fabled fabric of local communities since the Middle Ages.
After all, you spend much of your time in Europe admiring frescoes in historic churches, and paintings in museums, filled with nuns and monks scurrying about, observing their daily devotions, witnessing major historical events, or simply kneeling in adoration of the central saint. These works of art are a window into a tradition that's remained largely unchanged for centuries. Staying at a convent is like stepping through that window and into the fresco for a day or two. Pretty cool, huh?
Even if you aren't jazzed by the anthropological experience of it all, you can always use this is as an excuse to take a day or two to empty your mind and cleanse your soul. Wander the gardens. Sniff the flowers.
Contemplate the country you've been visiting, your life, God, that itchy rash that developed since you stopped washing out your clothes every night, whatever.
How do you find convents that offer lodging? Tricky. Ask local tourism offices. Do lots of Googling. Use these books and online resources:
- Europe's Monastery and Convent Guesthouses: A Pilgrim's Travel Guide by Kevin J. Wright (buy it)
- Good Night and God Bless: A Guide to Convent and Monastery Accommodation in Europe, Volume I (Italy, Austria, Czech Republic) by Trish Clark (buy it)
- Good Night and God Bless: A Guide to Convent and Monastery Accommodation in Europe, Volume II (France, U.K., Ireland) by Trish Clark (buy it)
- Good Night and God Bless: A Guide to Convent and Monastery Accommodation in Europe, Volume III (Spain, Germany, Eastern Europe) by Trish Clark
- Bed and Blessings Italyby Anne and June Walsh (buy it)
- Lodging in Italy's Monasteries by Eileen Barish (buy it)
- Lodging in Spain's Monasteries by Eileen Barish (buy it)
- Lodging in France's Monasteries by Eileen Barish (buy it)
- Lodging in Britain's Monasteries by Eileen Barish (buy it)
- Monastery Guest Houses of North America: A Visitor's Guide by Robert J. Regalbuto (buy it)
- Sanctuaries, The Complete United States: A Guide to Lodgings in Monasteries, Abbeys, and Retreats by Jack Kelly and Marcia Kelly (buy it)
There are also several good online resources:
- Good Night and God Bless (www.goodnightandgodbless.com) - Trisha Clark, author of the trio of guidebooks described above, also runs a website with links to hundreds of monasteries and convents that take in guests—mostly in Europe, but also in Africa, Thailand, and the USA.
- Hospites.it (www.hospites.it) - This Italian site is fairly complete, but confusing, with more than 3,000 listings in Italy. The "English" version really only gives you field names in English; the drop-down menus are still all in Italian. Here's what you need to know: Under "kind" try each of: "casa di accoglienza," "foresteria," "casa per ferie," and "casa vacanze."
- Several major monastic and conventual orders list retreat programs and guesthouses online, including the Benedictines (www.osb.org) and Dominicans (www.op.org).
- Church of Santa Susanna (www.santasusanna.org) - Rome's American parish church holds a place in my heart, since it served as my public library when I was an adolescent living in the Eternal City. It also runs a remarkably useful Website that includes a page on convent accommodations across Italy, with the going rates and contact info for institutions in Rome, Assisi, and Venice. Again, not free ones, but mostly dirt-cheap ones.
- Monasterystays.com (www.monasterystays.com) - This is a booking site that reserves rooms at 320 properties (monasteries, convents, and other religious guesthouses) throughout Italy. It can help you avoid any language barriers and occasional deposit requirements (which often must be made through an Italian bank), and their criteria ensure you will have a private bathroom, however they do charge a modest fee. (How much of a fee? I can't tell you. I've asked several times and they refuse to reveal it.)
- Zefiro World (www.go-to-italy.com/English/Religious.htm) - Has a line on around 60 monasteries and abbeys converted into hotels across Italy. Unfortunately, most of these are upscale hotel operations, not cheap dorms for pilgrims.
- Paris' famed Basilica of Sacre-Coeur (www.sacre-coeur-montmartre.com) affords you the chance to stay in the heart of the storied Montemarte district for the pittance of around $15 a night, lodging in the basilica's Ephrem Guesthouse. Drawback: curfew is 9pm.
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