"Get thee to a nunnery!" Although traditional literary scholarship holds that Hamlet was urging Ophelia to take refuge from the harsh intrigue and treachery of the Danish court, leading travel academicians conclude that he was really advising her about finding inexpensive accommodations for a forthcoming vacation in Italy. In either case, it was—and remains—a sound suggestion. A while back, a reader raised the question this way:
"What can you tell me about inexpensive convent and monastery accommodations?"
The short answer: Religious houses of various stripes provide overnight accommodations in lots of places around the world, most of them at budget prices. They're particularly popular in Italy, but you find them in many other areas as well.
The basic idea
For a variety of reasons, religious orders sometimes rent out accommodations to overnight guests. Some operate guesthouses or dormitories, some run retreat centers, and still others admit a few travelers to their regular daily routines. Some focus on ordinary tourists; others on those making religious pilgrimages or retreats.
In any case, when you stay in one of these accommodations, you usually get a private room with one or two small beds. You may get a private bath or you may have to share. In-house meals may be offered, either as an option or part of a comprehensive package.
Prices are usually low—specifically, lower than in nearby two- and three-star hotels. Some, operated by orders dedicated to hospitality, nominally charge nothing but instead ask for a donation. Locations vary, but many are in relatively quiet areas outside city centers and many others are in isolated countryside locations.
I've never stayed in a religious house, but my wife has on several occasions when she was traveling on her own. Most of her stays were in either Rome or Jerusalem.
- In addition to low rates, she found quiet conditions. Where offered, food was generally basic but good. Often, resident monks, nuns, brothers, sisters, and such provided outstanding suggestions about local sightseeing. Most were relatively accessible to public transportation.
- On the downside, she obviously found no room service and no in-room cable TV—sometimes no TV at all. And depending on the religious affiliation, some prohibited alcoholic beverages on premises.
- None of the places where my wife stayed required any test of religious affiliation, but you might encounter that at some locations. None required participation in any religious activities or services, either, although you find that requirement at some monasteries and retreat houses as well. Some operated on a single-sex basis; others were co-ed.
- Security was generally tighter than in hotels. Several imposed evening curfews and locked the doors after that time.
As far as I know, except for higher prices, conditions remain about as my wife encountered them.
Where to find them
The best way to find religious accommodations is through a good guidebook. Several relatively current ones are available:
- Europe's Monastery and Convent Guesthouses: A Pilgrim's Travel Guide, by Kevin J. Wright, 2004.
- Lodging in France's Monasteries, 2006; The Guide to Lodging in Italy's Monasteries, 2006; and Lodging in Spain's Monasteries, 2002, all by Eileen Barish.
- Bed and Blessings: Italy, by June and Anne Walsh, 1999.
All five are widely available in travel bookstores and online booksellers. In addition, most budget travel guides cover monastery and convent lodgings as an option. And ReidsGuides.com posts a useful summary report.
You can also locate religious accommodations by logging onto the websites of prominent destinations, especially those of greatest interest to religious travelers. And some larger monasteries and convents have their own websites, which you can locate by Googling.
Not always budget deals
Although many monastery and convent accommodations offer low-end prices, not all do. ReidsGuides.com cites one in Venice that charges almost $200 a night. And, in Spain, some historical monastery buildings have been converted to upscale (and expensive) paradores, a development you'll find in other countries as well.
University dorms—a related alternative
Some universities and colleges around the world open dormitory housing to tourists, especially during summer break periods when students do not occupy the accommodations. The one comprehensive guide I remember, published in the mid-1970s, is no longer available. And as far as I know, nobody has updated it. I experienced these accommodations only once, when I was a panelist for a short travel conference at the University of Surrey—and I remember being surprised at the extent to which the previous semester's students had trashed the rooms.
A few Web references provide useful information. The best may be from ReidsGuides.com, but it provides detailed listings only for the U.K. As with monasteries, ReidsGuides.com suggests checking the tourist office website for any place you want to visit.
This reference, of course, applies strictly to travelers looking for a short stay at low rates when they're touring. You can find hundreds of opportunities for short-term summer courses that combine residence, study, and sightseeing opportunities, but that's a totally different travel experience—and a different marketplace.