When Kathleen Mazzocco was researching places for an affordable family vacation in Italy back in 2002, booking a room in a convent was "like shooting in the dark," she recently recalled.
The guidebook to religious lodgings that Mazzocco used had no photographs, and she wasn't sure the information was up-to-date. After mailing money orders to convents in Rome and Florence, she received no response. "I was on pins and needles," she said. "I had no idea if they had our reservations."
But by the time Mazzocco, a public relations consultant from Lake Oswego, Oregon, returned to Italy last year, making a reservation at a monastery was not so different from booking a regular hotel. She found the cliffside Monastero S. Croce, in Liguria, on the Internet, viewed photos of it on the monastery's own Web site, sent an e-mail message asking about availability, heard back promptly, and, at the end of her stay, paid with a credit card. "They'd entered the modern age," she said.
For centuries Europe's convents and monasteries have quietly provided inexpensive lodging to itinerants and in-the-know travelers, but now they're increasingly throwing open their iron-bound doors to overnight visitors. They've begun Web sites — many with English translations and detailed information about sampling monastic life for a night — and signed on with Internet booking services. Some have even added spa offerings. Occupancy has shot up at many places, and some of the more centrally located are often fully booked.
And while some of the people staying at such holy spots are among the 300,000 religious travelers fueling the booming $18 billion faith-tourism industry, others are simply ordinary vacationers seeking a more authentic alternative to an anonymous hotel.
"Twenty years ago, nobody was going to monasteries unless they were into religious tourism," said Andrea Moretti, a travel consultant at the Italian Government Tourist Board, who estimates that between 1 and 5 percent of Italy's 93 million annual visitors stay in religious lodgings, with Americans particularly attracted to them. "Now even if they're not interested in religion, people consider a monastery because they like the pace and feeling."
Not to mention the price. While peaceful interior courtyards and the chance to hear nuns singing Vespers are certainly part of the allure, religious lodgings are almost always cheaper than hotels — often considerably cheaper. And with the dollar remaining weak, more and more travelers are looking at convents and monasteries as a way to beat the euro. So what if they don't have mini bars and room service?
"We spent less than half what we would have in a comparable hotel," said Marilyn Henderson, a retired accountant from Lakewood, Washington, of the Opera della Divina Provvidenza, in Venice, where she and her husband stayed in July. The Hendersons paid 136 euros a night ($189 at $1.39 to the euro) for a double room with a private bath in the church-owned guesthouse, which has ceiling frescoes by Tintoretto and Tiepolo and is a 15-minute walk from San Marco. "It was easily equivalent to a three-star accommodation," she said.
More spartan convents and monasteries, or places in less central spots, can cost less than hostels. "You CAN Afford Europe This Year!" shouted the headline of a recent article on the Web site Slowtrav.com, which cites convents and monasteries as "a great value."
And if it's disconcerting to think of men and women of the cloth chasing after tourist dollars, for some orders it's a matter of economic survival, according to the Association of Superiors of German Orders, whose German-language site, www.orden.de, lists 311 cloisters in Germany that offer room and board (and, in some cases, housemade beer and marzipan). "The income from overnight guests is a necessity," Arnulf Salmen, a spokesman for the organization, wrote in an e-mail message.
The tradition of religious houses offering lodging dates back to the sixth-century Rule of St. Benedict, the document laying out the ways of monastic life, which includes a chapter on extending hospitality. Over the ages monasteries have sheltered individual travelers and those seeking solace, as well as church groups on organized retreats.
But in recent decades, as farming and other sources of income have fallen off, religious orders have embraced the role of innkeeper.
The Bridgettine Sisters — named for the 14th-century St. Bridget of Sweden — operate guesthouses in 11 European countries (Italy, Britain, Sweden, Poland, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Estonia, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Norway), not to mention Mexico and India and in Darien, Connecticut (A full list can be found at www.brigidine.org.) At Casa di Santa Brigida, in Rome, on lovely Piazza Farnese, prettily decorated rooms off marble halls have private baths, plus needle-pointed Madonnas over the single beds, and there's a common room with a flat-screen TV and a roof terrace. In between prayers, the nuns, whose black habits are topped by little crowns of crossed white bands, cheerfully issue room keys at the front desk and wait on tables at breakfast.
Other religious communities operate in a more informal way, offering only two or three guest rooms and relying on donations rather than a set daily rate. "They might give you an envelope and ask you to put in it whatever you'd like," said Kevin J. Wright, author of "Europe's Monastery and Convent Guesthouses," which is geared to the Christian traveler.
Certain restrictions may apply. Although religious houses generally welcome visitors of all faiths, some monasteries allow only men on the premises (Monasterio de Santo Domingo de Silos in Burgos, Spain; 35 euros)), and some convents only women (Monasterio de San Benito, in Navarra; 30 euros including meals).
Some enforce curfews or have daytime lockouts so that the sisters can make the beds. Silence may be required after a certain hour.
And although abbeys that allow visitors to sleep inside their walls might expect guests to fall in with prayers four times a day, the more tourist-oriented facilities let guests come and go as they please. None of the travelers interviewed for this story reported any pressure to attend Mass, let alone convert, though some were expected to bow their heads before meals.
"Normally we wouldn't say a prayer before eating, but that's just part of the deal," said Ruth Lake, a Milan-based American corporate-communications consultant who stayed at Monastero S. Croce with her daughter last summer.
For those who bristle at rules, or crucifixes on prominent display, there are hotels occupying deconsecrated religious quarters — guests can have their Gothic arches and 400-thread-count linens, too. At the Hotel Monasterium Poortackere in Ghent, Belgium, housed in a convent that the church sold in 1998, guests can choose between three-star hotel rooms starting at 115 euros a night or convent cells (no phone or TV, use of communal showers and a bathroom down the hall) from 46 euros.
Among the 300 formerly religious properties represented on the ZefiroWorld Tour Operator Web site, www.go-to-Italy.com, there are small luxury hotels in former convents, and fabulously appointed villas once owned by the nobility and given to the church "so the owners could get into paradise," said Claudia Sardo Bollweg, a partner in the agency.
But for Mary-Rose Leversedge, a freelance copy editor from Christchurch, New Zealand, such dolled-up places are not authentic. On a five-month tour of France and Spain ending in March, she stayed at three convents including Notre-Dame-de-l'Abbaye in Carcassonne, France, where her room was plain but had gorgeous old French shutters. "It was not materially rich, but it was historically rich," said Leversedge, who is a convert to convents when traveling solo. "I had not gone to France 'on the prowl,' so it was great to feel safe and not have to worry that anyone would bother me."
For years, it was specialized guidebooks that led people to such places. One of the first was "Bed and Blessings Italy: A Guide to Convents and Monasteries Available for Overnight Lodging," published in 1999 and now out of print. But the queen of guidebooks on European convent and monastery stays is Eileen Barish, the Santa Barbara, California, author of "Lodging in Italy's Monasteries" and similar books for Spain and France. Barish, whose book on Britain's offerings is due out in February, said she visited a third to a half of the places she covers in each of her first three books, which also include information on nearby sites. "All of them are personally contacted," said Barish, who works with a researcher. In a news release, her publisher, Anacapa Press, calls convents "the secret of affordable European travel."
But with information about many such lodgings now on the Internet, the secret is out. Monasterystays.com, a booking service that began in 2006 with a roster of 100 Italian properties, currently lists 320 and expects to have 400 by the end of the year. The Web site secures reservations for a fee that's included in the room rate. "We're making a profit," said John Clayton, one of the site's partners. In Spain, the travel agency Guia Monasterios offers bookings at 210 religious houses; the agency's Web site (www.guiasmonasterios.com) will provide an English translation starting this fall, said Liz Salcedo, director, through the Tourist Office of Spain.
But with the opportunity to share their way of life — and remain solvent — on the line, many religious communities themselves are making the pitch.
The monks at the Orthodox Monastery of New Valamo, in Heinavesi in Finland's eastern lake district, depend on tourism for their livelihood. The monastery, part of the Orthodox Church of Finland, admits 160,000 visitors a year, of which 25,000 stay overnight in its hotel, student rooms and guesthouses (200 beds in all).
The Web site (www.valamo.fi) provides, in four different languages, instructions on asking for a blessing ("hold your hands out in front of you, palms upwards, the right hand on top of the left") and dress (anything "open or revealing" is "not suitable for a monastery"). Overnights at the monastery have steadily increased every year, and in the peak of July, "we have nights when we are sold out," wrote the monastery's marketing manager, Jaana Nykanen, in an e-mail message.
The Kloster Arenberg, in the German town of Koblenz, had an occupancy of only 35 percent in 2000; after the construction of a new 99-bed guesthouse and Wellness Center with a sauna, fitness studio and spa menu that includes massage and hydrotherapy, it jumped to almost 80 percent last year.
In a recent survey of the German cloisters that offer overnight accommodations, 90 percent of the respondents indicated that the number of guests in the last five years has been consistently high or increasing, according to Salmen of the Association of Superiors of German Orders.
Ellen Singer of Mahwah, New Jersey, almost didn't get a room at a convent for a trip that she'll be taking to Rome this month. She contacted every convent listed on the Santa Susanna Web site, www.santasusanna.org, run by the American Catholic Church in Rome. "They were all sold out," Singer said. Week after week, she filled out the online reservation form for Casa di Santa Francesca Romana a Ponte Rotto — where she'd stayed in February and liked for its price (80 euros a night) and location (in Trastevere) — hoping for a cancellation. "Finally," she said, "I got lucky."
Mazzocco, for one, wonders if the desirability of convents will present a new wrinkle. "Now that they've gotten so popular," she said, "maybe their prices will go up."
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