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.
Casa Santa Brigida
Craving nuns, I make a lunch reservation at Casa Santa Brigida, probably the most well known of Rome’s convent hotels, that sits in a great location off Piazza Farnese.
The sisters here win hands down for the best outfits: crisp gray robes, black and white wimples adorned with red studs. They’re a Swedish order, founded by Saint Bridget (called The Mystic of the North), who lived and died here in the 14th century. The downstairs rooms are richly appointed with dark wood antiques and oriental rugs.
The most simpatica dark-eyed nun who welcomes me says unfortunately I can’t have a look at the rooftop, as it’s under repair. (I’d heard from friends who’ve stayed here that the upstairs terrace and rooms are beautiful). And La Suora can’t show me any rooms either, because they’re all booked. Even in off-season February, this place needs to be reserved far in advance.
In the dining room, I sit facing a long table that gets filled up with handsome young men. It turns out they’re the rooftop workers. Some have that Sopranos style ponytail going on, that I find quite attractive. I feel lucky to have stopped by on the day these men are treated to a special lunch, complete with the portly, formidable Mother Superior giving them a heartfelt Grazie toast.
Like Fraterna Domus, but with more formality, the nuns serve us family style: a simple pasta with tomato sauce, grilled beef, spinach, vanilla gelato for desert. Honestly it’s bland compared to Domus, and with so many great restaurants right out the door off the Campo de’ Fiori, I’m kicking myself for spending twenty euros here. But then again those rooftop workers are so good on the eyes … Is it sinful to have such thoughts in a convent?
Finally, I’m buzzed in by a nun in a habit—Alleluia! Sister Tiziana, dressed all in white, speaks in a chirpy whisper. Her Italian accent sounds foreign and I find out these nuns are Ukranian—a Russian Orthodox order. The five of them all wear gold wire-rimmed glasses and float around in soft sandals, going about their business with a reserved, humble style. I gather from flyers lying around that they run counseling programs to help immigrant women who are new to Rome get set up with respectable jobs and stay out of trouble.
It’s good to be in this Monti neighborhood, just a few blocks from the Collisseum, that’s surprisingly not overrun by tourists. The convent sits on a square with a fountain where old women with thinning hair gossip while boys kick soccer balls around. There’s a caffe in the center of it, a grocery store, gelateria, and restaurant. Real Roman life.
The hallways and lobby areas are decorated with Russian religious art—fancy chalices in dark wood cabinets, large intricate paintings of bearded saints.
My fellow guests are a group of German senior citizens. On my way to my room, I pass a hunchbacked Herr with his pants belted up to his chest, being helped along by a large Frau in a flowery spring shift.
A sweet Madonna painting sits over my desk in my rectangle of a room. There’s a twin bed and tiny bathroom with shower. It smells faintly of disinfectant, cleaned everyday by Russian women who I see scrubbing all morning long. I leave the window open at night and get lulled to sleep by a steady soft snore from a neighbor’s room … the Frau or Herr I wonder?
I won’t mince words about the food here: pitiful. Lunch and dinner are served buffet style: a crock-pot of straight-from-a-can vegetable soup, gray roast beef, a colander of spaghetti with a bowl of lukewarm ragu placed to its side. At breakfast, a metal pitcher of hot water and an envelope of Nescafe are set before me along with a plastic jug of something that tastes like Tang.
This is shocking for Rome, but then again it’s not run by Italians. The restaurants in the neighborhood well make up for Santa Sofia’s culinary flaw—there’s a great caffe steps away and loads of reasonably priced trattorias nearby where Roman classics are served. I fill up on cacio e pepe at Taverna Romana, getting home in time for my midnight curfew.
The morning church bells ring endlessly, not at all corresponding to the 7 a.m. hour. I run down to the Santa Maria ai Monti church to join the nuns. It’s been reconfigured to Orthodox style with an ornate stained glass screen at the altar. A burly red-haired priest presides, making the Sign of the Cross the opposite way from the Roman Catholic tradition (from right to left)—which gives me a weird brain sensation, like patting my head and rubbing my stomach. A bite of thick bread is dipped in wine and offered to me on a golden spoon for communion.
As the service ends, the nuns, who’ve been so quiet, raise their voices in a perfectly harmonized holy chant. It reverberates against the stone walls, sending a calm sensation through me.
Again, I feel that comfort that came seamlessly with these convent stays. It goes down deep, connecting me with the fascination nuns gave me as a kid and the rich tradition of Catholicism.
I’m not renouncing star-star luxury, but the list of guest convents all over Italy is a long and enticing one. After this blissful initiation, I can see myself mixing things up and checking into Holy Digs regularly.
Note: A detailed list of Rome convents can be found on the American Church in Rome’s Santa Susanna Web site .
Get Thee to a Nunnery: Letters from Italy, Part I
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