In Europe: Forget the Hostel, Try a Monastery

Article excerpt

Joe and Marilyn Shockney of San Antonio traveled to Europe on a wing and a prayer.

After flying to Italy, they stayed overnight at several convents. A friendly nun at Convento Oasi Regina Pacis in Santa Margherita Ligure lugged their bags from the street up the stairs to their room. The Shockneys spent the evening playing cards on the convent's marble terrace as the blazing sun dipped below the grand Mediterranean.

"The beauty was just amazing," says Mrs. Shockney. "People get the wrong impression when I tell them we stay at convents. It's run like a hotel. My friends still don't believe it."

"We paid $35 a night for each of us," says her husband, a retired oil company executive. "To get comparable accommodations {elsewhere}, you'd have to pay a lot more."

When in Europe, the Shockneys did as Europeans do. Staying at monasteries and convents is old hat for Old Worlders. Americans are scarce at religious guest houses, opting instead for hotels, pensions and bed-and-breakfasts. But those who do lodge at monasteries and convents, say the experience is divine.

"One can expect quiet, cleanliness, and friendliness at the religious guest houses," says Eileen Barish, author of "Lodging in Italy's Monasteries" (Anacapa Press). "These are very sweet environments. The monks and nuns want you to enjoy their lifestyle. The rooms are spotless. They truly believe that cleanliness is next to godliness."

Religious guest houses are open to all regardless of faith affiliation. Hospitality is an ancient monastic tradition that began when pilgrims needed a bed on their way to religious shrines.

Overnight lodgers at monasteries and convents often lie down with history. Consider Casa Ospitaliera del Gran San Bernardo in Saint Oyen, Italy, a tiny hamlet near the Swiss border. Hannibal marched his elephants through the Alps in this mountainous region 200 years before Christ, and the monks of San Bernardo have trained Saint Bernards for mountain rescues since the 11th century.

Religious guest houses offer a respite from a whirlwind trip through Europe. In Paris, removed from the city's hustle and bustle, is Foyer Friedland, run by the Pres du St. Sacrement and featuring an exquisite chapel. In Dublin, travelers enjoy the sedate ambience of Orlagh House, founded by Augustinian monks in 1790. Smack in the center of Rome near the Colosseum is the tranquil San Giuseppe di Cluny, a convent.

Yet most monasteries and convents are located in gorgeous natural settings such as in lush valleys and aside snowcapped mountains. Religious orders typically cherish the beauty of the natural world as evidence of the benevolence of God. And religious communities, hundreds of years old, had first dibs on Europe's grandest landscapes and chose wisely.

"Religious bodies really knew how to pick out real estate," says Col. James Hughes of Bloomfield, N. …