Get Thee to a Nunnery: Letters from Italy, Part I

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My fascination with nuns began early on. Growing up in the sixties, there was inspiration everywhere—from Julie Andrews romping through the Alps, Sally Field flying through the air, to my own beloved Catechism teachers.

Whenever I’m in Rome, I get a thrill out of seeing these “Brides of Jesus” on the streets eating gelato, jostling along with me on crowded buses, and once even at an underwear shop near the Campo de’ Fiori, buying panties.

In the Eternal City and all over Italy, convents open their doors to guests, at a bargain compared to hotels. Last winter and spring, I made it my mission to stay at a few in Rome to get a “Holy Digs” experience.

Intercontinental Hotel De La Ville
Starting off at this five-star when I’m telling a convent story might seem like breaking the Ninth “Thou Shalt Not Lie” Commandment. But to me, it’s only a venial sin, as this was actually a convent from 1600 to 1800. You can still see parts of the original building—gleaming white marble stairs and the chapel (now a beautiful dining room)—which conjures up images of sisters chanting Ave Marias.

I confess I needed pampering after my flight, and the big tub in the gorgeous ivory and rose travertine bathroom was perfect for that, along with the comfy king-sized bed and pretty turquoise-and-gold draperied room.

It’s quiet as a convent—hard to believe I’m right off the street from the Spanish Steps where vespas roar and throngs of tourists mill about. The only sound in my room is the faint hum of hotel heating systems and a courtyard fountain that my terrace overlooks. Yes, I have a terrace, surrounded by geraniums and a terra cotta angel.

After a lavish breakfast in the baroque dining room where I go elbow-to-elbow at the buffet with American families, Japanese businessmen, and chic Italians, I meet Giuseppe Vanvitelli, the handsome hotel manager, who fills me in on De La Ville history.

“After the nuns left,” he tells me, “Bishops moved in, and then a noble family took it over.” Leaning in closer he says, “Then it became a Casa di Toleranza, the whole neighborhood was not good.” I smile thinking, you gotta hand it to the Italians for calling a House of Tolerance what Americans refer to as a House of Ill Repute. In 1924, it became this hotel, designed by a Hungarian, Jozef Vago.

Upstairs, Vanvitelli shows me impressive suites, including one that Leonard Bernstein used to stay in, that retains his polished white grand piano and has a fantastic terrace. The Junior Suite is my favorite. “Perfect for honeymooners,” he says, pointing out how the bed is situated for an amazing view: Piazza Venezia to the left and Saint Peter’s to the right.

I wonder if centuries ago this heavenly panorama left the nuns, bishops, and ladies of the evening as awestruck as I feel right now.

Fraterna Domus
The smell of holy water hits me the moment I’m buzzed into Fraterna Domus, which sits just a few blocks from Piazza Navona. A slim woman in her fifties, with a pixie hair cut, navy blue sweater, and skirt introduces herself as Sister Milena.

“Where’s your habit?” I want to ask, but hold back and get the scoop later from Sister Cecilia, the youngest of the four nuns who live here.

“We’re an order founded in 1967, after Vatican II, here to help the poor,” she tells me. “We are not different from the people we help, so we don’t dress differently from them.”

Sister Cecilia becomes my favorite of this down-to-earth quartet. They’re all the types you’d expect any minute to pull out a guitar and start strumming “Dominique,” though instead they keep busy running out to do their charity work, mopping the convent floors, and cleaning the guest rooms.

My basement room is about the size of my De La Ville bathroom and as stark as I’d imagine a nun’s cell to be, with an IKEA-style closet and twin bed. Over my desk, there’s a friendly looking Jesus, with long flowing hair, moustache, and goatee. The closet-sized bathroom has a gizmo I’ve never seen before: a spigot sticking out from the toilet, so it can double as a bidet.

The simple atmosphere is calming after running around the curvy Baroque splendors of the neighborhood. I don’t even mind the 11 p.m. curfew. I bring a bottle of wine back to my room and stay up late writing and sipping from a paper cup, feeling a twinge of naughtiness: Will one of the sisters knock on my door and bust me for drinking? Outside my tiny alley-level window, signorine in high heels clickety-clack by—their breathy exchanges with boyfriends adding a spicy touch.

In the lower level dining rooms at lunch and dinner, the place comes vividly alive. The nuns become waitresses, zig-zagging among the wooden tables, dishing out pasta and stews from big steaming bowls, handing out pitchers of wine and baskets of apples and tangerines for desert. The food, prepared by Chef/Sister Rafaella is great—flavorful and hearty like the best of Rome’s simple trattorias.

I reserve ahead to take all my meals here, blending in with the mostly Italian guests—an enthusiastic group of fifth graders on a class trip from Liguria, a judge from Milan who checks in a couple times a month when she has business in Rome. We all bask in the sisters’ maternal attention and their pride in their dining room, that’s also frequented by locals. “Cardinal Ratzinger ate here twice before he became Pope!” Sister Cecilia tells me.

Casa Di Santa Francesca Romana
There’s not a nun in sight at this guesthouse on a quiet pedestrian street in Trastevere, one of my favorite old Roman neighborhoods. The fashionable young signora at reception tells me it’s an Istituto per Spirituali Esercizi—a training place for priests. Somber paintings of Popes and cardinals fill the shiny marble-floored salons and hallways, giving the place a holy vibe, and again the simplicity brings on a calm sensation.

The building was a 14th-century palazzo, where Francesca Buzza moved in as a twelve-year-old bride. She dedicated her life to charitable deeds, caring for the sick, and performing miracles, becoming so beloved by the locals she was named “Romana.” She died here and in 1608 was canonized as the co-patron saint of Rome.

My room has a three-star look, spacious with modern furnishings and a white-tiled bathroom with shower. The best feature is a big shuttered window that opens to a view of a neighbor’s rooftop garden—lemon trees, palms, and bougainvillea hanging above a narrow cobblestone street.

Since there’s no curfew I can hang out late with friends at La Fraschetta, one of my favorite nearby restaurants. Tipsy from wine and housemade amaro, I stumble in after midnight, avoiding the gaze from the lobby portrait of Pope John Paul as I wait for an elevator.

Nun at Convent Santa Brigida, Rome, photo courtesy of Susan Van Allen

Get Thee to a Nunnery: Letters from Italy, Part II


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