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Shacking Up in a Convent in Vatican City

May 13, 2009 at 1:11 PM | by | ()

Is there really no place like Rome? This week Ellen Wernecke chronicles her first visit to the Eternal City.

I mentioned yesterday that I spent one night away from the hostel-packed neighborhood of Termini, a move that led me to the cheapest and nicest accommodations of the trip, even though I had to abide by a curfew to take them. Plus, it was my first time ever staying on an international boundary line! If only that boundary wasn't so depressingly porous -- no one even bothered to check my passport.

I decided to look for convent-based housing for the night before I toured St. Peter's and the Vatican Museums because I heard it was a unique experience and less expensive. The Vatican's just distant enough from the historic center to make getting an early start a little tricky, and I wanted to beat the waves of tourists who would be trying to make tracks there first thing in the morning. For every other site in Rome, it's pretty far from the action, but there's no better place to see priests with messenger bags and nuns with fanny packs.

I'm not Catholic, but didn't let that stand in my way as I bravely fired off e-mails to several of the places on this list, which provides addresses and directions to about two dozen or so working religious communities which take in guests. Clearly I wasn't the only one to have this brainstorm, as two weeks prior to the trip, most of them were full, but I was able to find a room at Piccole Suore Della Sacra Famiglia, perched on the Viale Vaticano which divides Vatican City from Italy thanks to the 1929 Lateran Treaty (and, um, Mussolini).

I expected (and, truth be told, was almost hoping for) a drafty medieval stone cell with dimples in the stone from centuries of kneeling penitents. Instead, the wing of Sacra Famiglia that was devoted to guests was spartan but modern, with sunny yellow walls and new-looking if not overly exciting furniture. There was a crucifix on one wall but no full Bible in the nightstand, just a copy of the Gospels in Italian. A sign on my door pointed to the TV room but not, surprisingly, to the gorgeous patio at the back of the building overlooking the western shores of the Tiber. And unlike the perfectly serviceable hostel I had stayed at in the nights before, I had my own bathroom again -- the luxury!

Staying with the sisters at Sacra Famiglia was a perfect jumping-off point for the next day's venture into the Vatican, during which they gladly held onto my luggage. Getting them to do that, though, took a generous dose of misunderstanding, which is one of the reasons I wouldn't recommend convent livin' to everyone: As a non-speaker, I would have been sunk had I not printed out the confirmation (in Italian) I got from the nuns before I left the U.S. Had I needed any other help from them when I got there, I would have had to look for some help. (In the case of the luggage room, the nun actually went out and tagged an English-speaking guest to translate. Sorry, Sister.) But if you're going to trust anyone who doesn't speak your language, it's got to be a nun.

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· Rome coverage [Jaunted]

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