Monasteries in Spain offer a calming alternative
to the bustle of city tourism
By Sarah Andrews, Associated Press Writer
|The monastery of Poblet|
BARCELONA, Spain (AP) The halls of the Monasterio de San Benito de Montserrat, a fully-functioning Benedictine convent just an hour outside Barcelona, were silent when I arrived on Saturday afternoon. The doors to the church and to other mysterious rooms were closed and locked, and there were no helpful arrows or ‘visitors this way’ plaques to be seen.
Searching for some sign of life, I began exploring the building and the natural area surrounding it. I’d come to the monastery looking for a few days of peace and solitude, but I hardly expected my desires to be fulfilled so completely. Finally, at the end of a long, meticulously-cleaned walkway, I spotted a small buzzer.
A door opened, and Sister Montserrat Salvat greeted me wearing the traditional black habit and a big smile. “We’ve been expecting you!” she said cheerfully, ushering me into a sunny vestibule with the nuns’ own art on the walls, her long skirts billowing out behind her as she walked.
After helping me with my bags, she showed me to my room, a simple and clean space with a bed, a desk, a sink and a view of the peculiar rounded peaks of the mountain of Montserrat. The space would be my home for the days I chose to stay, she told me. I was expected to be punctual for meals, and I was welcome to participate in their daily religious services—all six of them.
The guest house at San Benito reflects a growing trend among monasteries in Spain. Since the sixth and seventh centuries, convents and monasteries, particularly Benedictine orders, have opened their doors to accept pilgrims and other members of the cloth. As times change and fewer pilgrims knock on their doors, the guest services have adapted, expanding and accepting more non-religious visitors.
Visitors come for all kinds of reasons—to rest after a stressful week in Barcelona or Madrid, to study, to enjoy surrounding nature, or to pray and have time for spiritual reflection.
More than 200 monasteries in Spain are open to the public. Some operate like small hotels, offering little interaction with the religious life of those living there. But many function similarly to San Benito, requesting that visitors respect the peaceful atmosphere and encouraging guests to participate in religious services.
The days I visited the convent I was joined by four visiting nuns, a young girl maintaining a day of silence, a woman who just wanted a relaxing place to stay, and two couples who wanted to explore the surrounding forest and mountain. We ate meals together and had opportunities to chat in the small garden beside the monastery, but each person chose their own daily schedule.
After an afternoon spent exploring nearby trails, I joined the nuns for Vespers, a worship service centered on praise songs. While my non-existent Latin skills made it difficult to sing along, the angelic voices of the young apprentice nuns made it more pleasurable to simply listen.
Full room and board at San Benito costs around $15 a day, but the nuns say their convent is more than a cheap hotel.
The fact that San Benito closes its doors at 8:30 every night and doesn’t allow children or disruptive noise set it apart from traditional tourist spots, but tourists are arriving anyway. The convent has been published in guidebooks, and each weekend busloads of people arrive wanting to see the nuns’ small ceramics store.
The nuns say that the tourists don’t bother them—“When you’re inside, you don’t see or hear anything!” But they stress that while anyone is welcome to stay with them, those with spiritual needs have priority.
“People come to pray, to talk with someone, to search for peace. The mission of this convent, like any convent, is to be a Christian presence.” said Sister Montserrat Salvat.
Like San Benito, any convent or monastery is sure to be a quiet and peaceful place, but the similarities between them end there. It’s possible to find everything from rustic accommodations with great mountain views to a quiet cloister inside a busy city. Among the guest houses open to the public, a few stand out for their beauty or location.
Santa Maria de Poblet is a 13th-century Cistercian monastery sitting in the midst of vineyards and a lush forest in Tarragona, south of Barcelona. Only men are admitted into the guest quarters, but the rest of it, including a magnificent church and protective walls, is open to the public.
Casal Bellesguard is a modern convent on the edge of Barcelona that requires absolute silence inside its walls. Surrounded by a trees yet almost within hearing distance of city traffic, the convent accepts people of all faiths and is easily accessible from the city center.
Santa Maria de Bellpuig, just outside the Catalan city of Lleida, offers visitors a hotel atmosphere with 50 rooms and little or no interaction with the spiritual life of the Monastery. The monks even accept groups practicing yoga and meditation, simply asking that visitors respect the quiet and arrive before midnight.
Nuestra Señora de Cura, on the island of Mallorca off the coast of Spain, is a 14th century monastery perched on a hill in the center of the island. From the monastery, it’s possible to see almost all of the island’s coast. Since unlike most monasteries it doesn’t have a curfew, it’s an ideal place for those wanting to sightsee.
Santa Maria de El Paular, an hour from Madrid, was founded in 1390 and is surrounded by mountains. The monks living there have a guest house for male visitors, but it is kept separate from the four-star hotel that occupies a large portion of the building.
The Hospedería del Monasterio Mercedario de Poio is one of the largest monastery guest houses in Spain. The monastery has a renaissance-style church and is near Santiago de Compostela, a popular pilgrimage site.
By SARAH ANDREWS