Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Room for the SOUL; Two travelers find serenity and solace in Italy'smonastic hostels.(TRAVEL).


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The room was clean and simple. White-washed stone walls enclosed the essential wooden furniture: a chair, a writing desk, two single beds and a dresser. The view out the window was another matter. My wife Laura and I had a room in the Istituto San Lodovico, a convent in the hill-fortress town of Orvieto in central Italy. Its outer wall was part of the ancient fortifications, hundreds of feet above the valley that was lush with May's greening. The Umbrian countryside - olive groves, pastures, symmetrical rows of cyprus trees - rolled away to the horizon.

That we found this room seemed something of a gift. We had arrived by train from Rome in the afternoon, my wife pulling her roller bag behind her and me toting a backpack. We'd had no reservations. The first religious hostel we stopped into seemed too big, too institutional. San Lodovico - smaller, older, more intimate - was just right. It became our comfortable and comforting home for five days.

We were in Italy on a three-week trip that was a tribute and a memorial to our daughter, Meghan, who died in a bus crash in Peru in May 2006. She was a perpetual adventurer, a fearless and joyful spirit, and she loved Italy. To honor her memory, we knew we had to be on the move; it's the way she would have wanted it. But we also wanted some peace, some quiet, and some room to think. We found all of these things staying at three religious hostels as we traveled across Italy. Monastic accommodations are an ancient tradition among many Christian orders; hospitality toward strangers is written into the gospels, and many orders have made it a part of their practice. In today's Italy, it's also a way to bring in some extra money and to make use of empty chambers - there aren't as many monks or nuns as there used to be.

At San Lodovico, we befriended one of the nuns in the convent, who showed us the beautiful frescoes painted in niches and along hallways. It was her belief that Michelangelo himself had tested out some of his themes here, using the walls as his canvas. But in terms of the history of the place, Michelangelo would have been a relatively recent visitor; the old city sits on a hill that has been occupied for nearly 3,000 years. We spent our days walking the town, eating in cafes and basking in the sunshine with the locals, who also seemed to be relishing the return of spring sun. We savored the chance to slow down, to linger over meals, to watch the world go by.

A spiritual circus

Our next stop was Assisi, which, compared with the low-key pleasures of Orvieto, was a religious theme park, overrun with tourists and packed with shops selling souvenirs that evoke the saint whose name is linked with the town. At times, that carnival was a little hard to reconcile with a gentle man named Francesco who wore ragged sack cloth, talked to animals and lived in abject poverty.

Again, we found a quiet place to observe the swirl of people and commerce. This time it was a convent, Suore Francescane Dei Sacri Curo, where we spent two nights. And again, the cost was minimal, especially considering the sinking value of the dollar against the euro: We paid 35 euros (about $50) a night for a room for two with a bathroom. Our final monastic stay was at the Santa Margherita Institute in Cortona, the Italian hill town featured in "Under the Tuscan Sun." We spent two nights. By chance, our full day in the beautiful stone fortress town coincided with a holiday, and the piazza was full of people strolling, talking, enjoying the sun. We ate our meals at sidewalk cafes in the piazza. At dinner, I ordered veal parmiagan, which was served with a balsamic vinegar reduction. I was so enthusiastic about the meal that the waiter brought me back into the kitchen to meet the chef. He showed me the tiny kitchen, and when the same order came in, he insisted that I watch as he and his wife made the dish in tandem; it was a pas de deux of knife, flame and pan that I won't forget.

In the village of Camprena in Tuscany, we visited the Abbadia Sant'Anna, the serene monastery where many scenes from "The English Patient" were filmed. We decided that should we return, we would put the hostel in this abbey at the top of our list.

La dolce vita

The Italians seem to know how to slow down and savor life, to enjoy the day as it unfolds. We felt the spirit of our daughter in that joyful savoring of life, and in the way that Italians seemed to make the best of things, even when things weren't going smoothly.

When we were passing through the town of Gubbio, we took shelter from a sudden downpour in a small bistro, crowded for lunch.

We were enjoying our meal when we saw a man step under the awning. He tried to collapse his umbrella, but it wouldn't fold. Half in and half out of the pouring rain, he struggled and wrestled with it, getting more and more frustrated. Soon, everyone in the restaurant was watching this small drama.

Finally, he grimaced, cursed and snapped the umbrella in two, and then broke into helpless laughter, which then rippled through the crowd like happy thunder in the rain clouds.

Story and photos by RICHARD SENNOTT -

Richard Sennott - 612-673-4177

Source Citation
Sennott, Richard. "Room for the SOUL; Two travelers find serenity and solace in Italy's monastic hostels." Star Tribune [Minneapolis, MN] 27 Jan. 2008: 1G. General OneFile. Web. 3 Feb. 2010. .

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