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Pray as You Go: Italy's Religious Guest Houses
By Lois Brunner Bastian
The Washington Post
Sunday, July 20, 1997; Page E02
   


My husband and I had just arrived in Rome on our first trip to Italy, without a room reservation. But we had a prospect: Fraterna Domus, mentioned in an outdated guidebook. "Run by a religious organization, 20 rooms, good value, central location, all rooms with private bath," the listing said. That sounded like just what we wanted, but would there be a room available? Unable to hold a phone conversation in Italian, we had no choice but to take a cab there and inquire in person. That turned out to be the first lucky step leading to our discovery of four budget guest houses in Italy run by Catholic sisters or brothers.

Sister Melena, a woman in her forties with a ready smile, answered the door. Yes, she had a room for two. The cost, with breakfast, was $52 a night.

A bargain rate like that in Rome? What could the room be like? Sister Melena led us through the dining room and up one flight. Room 3 was modest, spotless and comfortable with three single beds, a wardrobe, desk and chair and a window. The tiny bath had an unenclosed showerhead in the ceiling and a floor drain (a common arrangement in Italy). Not likely to please lovers of luxury, the room suited us just fine. And there was more good news: lunch or dinner was an additional $10 per person. Okay, so there was an 11 p.m. curfew, but that didn't inconvenience us.

The location between the Piazza Navona and the Tiber River was excellent, within walking distance of the Vatican, Spanish Steps, Pantheon, Trevi Fountain, Campo dei Fiori, Roman Forum and other prime sites.

Exhausted by evening, we were often content to dine "at home" on the simple but satisfying meals served by the three nuns who lived there. Dinners included entrees like pot roast or veal stew with rosemary, with fresh fruit for dessert. During dinner, we chatted with a nun from Japan and tourists from Canada, Germany, Chile and other parts of Italy. There were no other American guests while we were there.

Pleased with our first stay in a religious guest house, we asked Sister Melena if she knew of similar lodgings north of Rome, where we were headed. That's how we found:

Alma Domus, Siena. We arrived in Siena after 4 p.m., and by the time we found this pretty guest house next door to the Sanctuary of Santa Catarina, dusk was falling. At first, Sister Giacinta, an elderly, no-nonsense nun, said there were no double rooms. But eventually a room with twin beds and private bath materialized. Price: $46. The window faced a dim air shaft. But grateful to find any room at that hour, we weren't complaining.

Peeping into vacated rooms the next morning, we discovered how desirable Alma Domus really was. Rooms on the floors above ours had balconies with marvelous views of the striped Duomo as well as the red tile roofs and chimney pots of Siena -- for the same price we paid. Moral: Don't pull into town at sunset.

Seminario Sant'Andrea, Volterra. This historic town, where we visited the Etruscan Museum, was not an overnight stop on our itinerary. But we were tempted to stay after inspecting the Seminario Sant'Andrea, next door to Sant'Andrea Church. Attractive and pleasant, it has 30 rooms, only two of which are singles. One very large room contains 12 beds, separated into monastic-type "cells" by interior walls. The rest of the rooms are doubles, some with "matrimonial" beds, others with two small beds. Rooms are $20 (with bath) and $16 (without) per person. A five-minute walk from the town center, the convent has large quiet rooms that open off wide hallways adorned with frescoes. Definitely a find.

Istituto San Giuseppe, Venice. Like the places we'd already visited, San Giuseppe -- in Venice's Castello quarter, near the Piazza San Marco -- had no sign, nothing to tell a passerby it takes in lodgers. Nor did the staff speak English. But San Giuseppe offers lodgings, albeit just a handful. The rooms are large and are available not to tourist groups but to families. The cost is $22 per person per night, though the nuns are contemplating an increase. No single rooms. No meals. Curfew 11 p.m.

Elderly Sister Serafina led us across an open courtyard and into a wide corridor bounded by classrooms. Our room was the most modern we'd encountered so far: paint unscarred, furniture brand new. There were three single beds, a large wardrobe, three chairs and a table; a window looked out onto rooftops. The bath had with an enclosed shower stall. We couldn't believe our good fortune: to be staying in Venice, probably the most expensive city in Italy, in such comfort, within five short blocks of Saint Mark's Basilica -- for so little.

Travelers with their hearts set on a room overlooking the Grand Canal might disagree with our travel philosophy: Live half as luxuriously and stay twice as long. But to our way of thinking, accommodations offered by religious organizations are the way to cut the high cost of visiting Italy.

Fraterna Domus, Via Mont Brianzo 62, 00186 Rome; telephone 011-39-6-688-02727.

Alma Domus, Via Camporegio 37, Siena; telephone 011-39-577-44177.

Seminario Sant'Andrea, Viale Vittorio Veneto 2, Volterra; telephone 011-39-588-86028.

Istituto San Giuseppe, Ponte della Guerra, Castello 5402, Venice; telephone 011-39-41-522-5352.

For more information, the Rough Guide and Lonely Planet series of guidebooks contain material on religious guest houses throughout Italy.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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