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.
....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.