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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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In the medieval, friar-filled town of Assisi, where virtually all of life seems to pay homage to the beloved St. Francis, Italy's patron, it would seem odd not to take shelter in a convent.

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The Istituto Beata Angelina, just across the green from the basilica of San Francesco – and its Giotto-covered walls and throngs of pilgrims – did the job well. Here, in a pristine, light-bathed restoration of an 18th-century house damaged in a 1997 earthquake, a staff of five Franciscan nuns run things. There's the young Suor Angela, whose welcome tour is a spirited mix of sign language and charades. She kisses her fingers with a gusto others reserve for things culinary as she entreats us to visit the basilica in the very early hours as the friars chant their morning prayer, promising a singular experience of "il silenzio." She does not disappoint.

Later, house director Suor Clo­tilde, an animated Italian version of the affirming reverend mother, waits up for us with destination information and travel times. Lodging is just the starting point for the nuns' ministry. Their mission, she explains with the help of a friar from the Philippines, is to provide a place for reflection and spiritual understanding, especially for youths, families, and those who are discouraged. She tells of her successes – a troubled teen who found peace at the convent and now works with others in crisis; a married couple moving toward divorce who rediscovered each other's "beauty" while there; a couple who met there and are now married.

We agree that we could see ourselves coming to a place like this if ever we were bereft.

Wearying by the end of our trip, at Istituto Suore di Santa Elisabetta in Florence, we were relieved to find the English-speaking Carmen at the desk and a hair dryer in the bathroom. Like the city itself, this opulent villa, abuzz with activity, feels more secular, akin at times to a casual hotel. Its garden is as resplendent with gnome collections and cement deer as with religious artifacts, yet its chapel is well used, with reading glasses, prayer books, and devotional items marking individual nuns' favorite spots.

Guests are invited to morning mass, but as elsewhere, often skip it. One German teacher, traveling alone and wrapping up a three-week stay there as part of a sabbatical year, says bluntly that she chose the convent for reason of personal safety.

Nonreligious hospitality

Headed home, we make an unscheduled stop at Della Signoria, a little three-star hotel near Florence's famed Ponte Vecchio.

Here, we are surprised to find another – albeit pricier – piece of paradise: a sweet breakfast balcony awash in home-stitched floral cushions, pink damask tablecloths, and white wrought-iron furniture. A Christmas cactus blooms atop each table, and a mass of overflowing planters provides screening from the crowds below.

As she pours a guest a second cup of coffee, longtime owner Rita Lippolis quietly describes her decades-old relationships with guests. "They come to us in good times and bad," she says.

And as she talks about the honor of receiving travelers in their sorrows as well as their joys, you began to picture Mrs. Lippolis and her kindly staff adorned in the head-covering veils of the suore, their gray server uniforms cinched at the waist with rope, evidence that there are many ways a house becomes holy.

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