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Prayers optional: A vacation spent at Italy's religious guesthouses

Italy's Monasteries and convents offer a quiet cultural retreat to travelers.

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The most traditional – and conservative – abbeys are run by monks and nuns of the Cistercian, Trappist, and Benedictine orders, and guests there are generally expected to participate in the community's spiritual life, Brother Richard explains, since their very presence suggests some desire for retreat, silence, or discernment.

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Creature comforts are fewer at these traditional abbeys, where house rules, curfews, and prayer schedules are common. Some convents and monasteries accept only men or only women, though even the more relaxed houses expect that couples be married.

No matter where we stay we find twin beds, crisp sheets, gleaming floors, a reading lamp, a lower than average number of mirrors, and a crucifix on the wall. Even though our digs are plush by hermitage standards, some things are missing – computer, remote control, outside news, the incessant need to try this and visit that. But the lack of these things makes room for the new. "I feel like I can hear my thoughts again," my daughter announces two days in.

Funny, because pulling up at Villino Noel, run by the Oblate Missionary Sisters of the Assumption on Rome's loud and busy Via Andrea Doria, you would expect to hear only traffic. Sharing the sidewalk with a gas station, the convent gate looks like the entry to an impound lot for cars. But on the other side lies a delightful garden refuge made all the sweeter by the fact that – despite a note asking that guests respect the silence – there's a table for eight here. Several garrulous Italian couples put the spot to happy use (silence, in these places, being something of a moving target).

The garden also contains the little devotional shrines popular in Italy: a statue of Mary, a glass-protected wall grotto with a statue of Jesus, a Scripture verse in French. And in a city where ideas and religion and art and civilization history all tend to be delivered in overwhelming proportions to a relentless moving mass of humanity, this little convent is a treat.

Sloughing off the grand of Rome

Forget Bernini's David and what giant he might slay today. Nevermind your philosopher-guide Gabriella and her contention that an olive tree never dies. Stop wondering why people take so many pictures. Villino Noel sloughs off all the grand of Rome while retaining the essentials, and religion emerges faithful, human – five nuns making sure you're in at night, the eldest putting down her lacemaking to investigate, on hands and knees, a plumbing problem.

We have the key to the convent gate here in Rome, so there's no curfew. Elsewhere, we have to ring the bell to get in, and thus need to be back by 10 or 11 p.m. so our hosts can get to bed.

Unlike in hotels, where staff usually speak some English, calling for reservations is tricky because Italian is the norm. Showing up unannounced is not advised. And though some houses may accept what donation a guest offers, the days of trading dishwashing duties for a night's sleep have yielded to the need to handle real estate wisely or risk losing it.

Travel books can help turn up prospective lodgings, and the Church of Santa Susanna, in Rome, lists religious houses and links on its website. For an extra 20 percent or so, online sites like monasterystays.com will book a stay, eliminating language confusion and speeding reservations for those in a hurry. We paid the convents €65 ($93) a night in Assisi, and €80 ($115) a night in Rome and Florence, including breakfast.

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