Lately, I've been reading a best seller about monks. It will never be made into a blockbuster, but it's far more inspiring than the one on your bookshelf. During a recent journey through Europe, I carried a book originally penned in Vulgar Latin 1,500 years ago: The Benedictine Rule, written by Saint Benedict of Nursia, the sixth-century religious who brought order to Western Europe's early monastic movement. In 73 chapters, the Rule establishes guidelines for meal-taking, sleeping arrangements, daily observances, and the proper reception and entertainment of visitors, as well as other practices required of a cloistered life. Even now, this constitution serves as a primer for many monastic orders, and it is an engaging handbook for anyone suffering from acute hyperconnectivity.
I chose Benedict as my travel companion because I'm intrigued by that small segment of Western society still dedicated to pursuing a quieter path in this age of warp-speed communication and always-on technology. It started two years ago, when I learned about British architect John Pawson's commission to build a monastery in the Czech Republic. An über-minimalist, Pawson is best known in the U.S. for the pared-down Calvin Klein flagship on Madison Avenue; he has also lent his clutter-free aesthetic to Ian Schrager's new 50 Gramercy Park North hotel, and to the residences and the public areas of the Hotel Puerta América in Madrid. At Novy´ Dvur, about two hours west of Prague by car, he created a wholly contemporary sanctuary, where the local Cistercian sect could withdraw from the clangorous world and devote itself to solitude. It strikes me as ironic that while these monks pursue their timeless tradition of seclusion at their brand-new monastery, worldly travelers are now able to check into structures built for the same purpose centuries ago, to pursue decidedly more secular agendas. Since I belong to the latter ranks (I'm not ready for the veil, thank you very much), I sequestered myself at four of Europe's former monasteries, all renovated as hotels, to reflect on whether they retain any vestiges of their original ecclesiastic purpose.
Maastricht lies in Holland's narrow southern corridor between Belgium and Germany. A Catholic burg in a historically tolerant country now struggling to curb ideological clashes, some of which have lately turned violent, this medieval metropolis happens to sponsor one of Europe's largest pre-Lenten carnivals: Vasteloavend is so popular that Vodafone Netherlands has been doing a snappy business in ring-tone downloads of this year's theme song, "Mien Fietske." On my journey by train from Amsterdam, the cars are packed with boisterous revelers in silly pekskes costumes.
Click, bang. Click, bang. Click, bang. What is that noise?Outside my room (No. 214) at the Kruisherenhotel, muffled foot traffic in the upper hallway distracts me from an orange reverie (the room's sofa, mural, and stained-glass tracery windows are all in the Dutch national color). Benedict was adamant about hospitality; in chapter 53, he states that guests are to be greeted courteously, and during their stay, to be under the special protection of someone appointed for the purpose (though they should not associate with the general community except by special permission). The staff at Kruisherenhotel certainly measures up. Job is a journeyman assistant who hovers around reception, ready to help with any requests. He shows me other rooms and helps me switch to a quieter one, with a window overlooking the inner courtyard, which has been updated with a mesmerizing perpetual-motion installation by German lighting designer Ingo Maurer. I can still hear occasional raucous laughter from the street, as the entire city makes its way on foot to Vrijthof Square's beer halls for the midnight finale. The joyful hooting reminds me of how much fun the outside world can be, and my urge for secluded contemplation momentarily turns lonesome. Benedict also knew a thing or two about this urge, resulting in chapter 66, which essentially states, "The monastery should be arranged as much as possible so that one can find all one needs. In this way, the monks will not need to go outside, which is not at all advantageous for their souls." So, resisting the temptation to join the Mardi Gras crowd, I order room service and watch impious reruns of The Benny Hill Show on satellite feed.
The monastery close—a brick-and-limestone church, dormitory, and lay porter's lodge—was erected in 1438 by the Kruisheren (Crutched Friars), who occupied themselves with copying and binding books for several centuries. It was confiscated by invading French troops during the Napoleonic Wars and subsequently used as a barracks, arsenal, and agricultural research lab. For a brief period, the building became a rehearsal space for a local opera company; then, four years ago, hotelier Camille Oostwegel set his heart on acquiring the decaying real estate. He has a track record for smartly repurposing crumbling Low Country châteaux (Kasteel Erenstein, Château St. Gerlach, Neercanne) as luxury hotels; however, the local historic-buildings committee balked at his first proposal to alter the existing Kruisherenhotel buildings. As a result, the new 60-room hotel is really a transitory structure assembled inside the church complex's exoskeleton. A cardinal-red runner suspended in the nave and choir leads to a dining loft that resembles an erector-set project. Maurer's quirky "flying saucer" chandeliers hover suspended from the vaulted ceilings. The chancel houses a wine bar with tufted-velvet banquettes. In a side chapel, a 15th-century altar fresco of Saint Gertrude (patroness of travelers) presides over afternoon tea. The lay porter's lodge, across a cobblestoned courtyard from the church, holds an additional seven rooms.
The next morning, I wander through slate corridors and arcades on a treasure hunt for obscured relics (definitely not the sort referenced in Dan Brown's thriller; preserve me from killer albino Opus Dei monks, please). The glass-and-steel elevator rises level with the clerestory, right under the vaulted roof of the transept, which gives 21st-century visitors a vantage few would have had, excepting church mice, when the structure was new. The thoroughly modern bedrooms—feather duvets, Roderick Vos chaises, rain showerheads—retain some earlier architectural vestiges, including storm shutters and massive support beams emerging at curious angles from the wall. An angel peeks out from under a coffee table. A friar meditates in an embrasure by the bar. It's hard to imagine what he would think of the bartender's catholic taste in music (Elvis Presley and Melissa Etheridge) or the pan-Asian dim sum appetizers fried hard as diamonds (the locally brewed Gulpener Kloosterbier, named for an abbey in Ter Apel, helps them go down easier). Maastricht may be provincial, but it's still a city, and what I'm looking for is true enclosure. Trust the Cistercians to have found just the place for this 900 years ago: the remote Gerês Mountains of northern Portugal.
Pousada Santa Maria do Bouro, Amares, Portugal
It's only seven in the morning when the bells of Igreja do Bouro start to chime and I nearly jump out of my skin at the Pousada Santa Maria do Bouro, a converted 12th-century monastery attached to the tiny church of this isolated village. The mottled granite walls are two feet thick, and yet the stately notes of the Ave Maria resound through my darkened room, a former monk's cell that present-day designers would deem stylishly austere. Having traveled deep into pine and eucalyptus forests in search of peace and quiet, I do not consider this soulful tolling an auspicious beginning.
Like the paradores of Spain, established in 1928 by King Alfonso XIII as a means of preserving national architectural treasures, the state-owned pousadas of Portugal include several religious structures. The most popular, Santa Maria do Bouro, is a fortress with a severe interior by Porto-based architect Eduardo Souto Moura, who did his level best to leave the broad hallways and courtyards free of contemporary trappings. Apart from an elevator, indoor plumbing, and a few basic furniture groupings, the monastery retains its formidable Romanesque demeanor—right down to the plain bedrooms with their extremely firm mattresses. (Chapter 22 regulates matters relating to the dormitory: each monk gets his own bed and is even provided with a night-light. Benedict doesn't specify how hard the beds should be, but I suspect Souto Moura is something of a literalist.) At first, I find all of this too daunting. It's the middle of the week and early spring, and few guests occupy the 32 rooms on two chilly wings jutting out from the cloister. Slowly, though, apart from an occasional motorcycle roaring up Bouro's main street, I begin to adapt to the utter absence of external distractions. The carillon penetrates, but no cellular signal gets through. Because I don't speak Portuguese, channel surfing on my room's flat-screen TV loses its appeal quickly, and conversations with the shy staff are mostly restricted to pointing at menus and maps. That leaves me with hours and hours to stare out the tall windows at granite hills and to pace a sheltered terrace where orange trees drop ripened fruit on mossy flagstones. No museums, no gift shops, no tours. Strangely, for someone who has the attention span of a hummingbird, this lack of stimuli becomes addictive.
During a quick spin around the homely village square the next morning, I nod to elderly men smoking outside a café that faces the weekly street market, which draws sturdy housewives in black headscarves to dicker with farmers who keep live chicks penned in the back of their trucks. A light rain sends me back to the pousada grounds, where I noodle over pan-seared codfish with caramelized onions in the vast kitchen turned dining hall. (In the adjacent refectory, the brethren once ate in silence, too.) The Portuguese prepare cod a thousand different ways, but my favorite is fried bacalao, paired this evening with garlicky black olives and a glass of inky, old-vine Quinta do Aciprestes Douro. Afterward, left alone in the bar area, I add logs to the blaze in the open fireplace to keep the shadows from getting too spooky. A waiter brings me tiny glasses of the local port to taste. After a second night spent absorbing the otherworldly starkness of this place, and despite the hourly peal of the church bells, I completely lose track of time. That's not a bad thing, except that I am consequently compelled to drive like a maniac in order to catch my flight from Porto to France.
Abbaye de la Bussière, Dijon, France
The Archbishop of Dijon's tenure is currently marked by the decision to unload a beloved white elephant—the 12th-century Abbaye de la Bussière—in the Burgundian village of La Bussière-sur-Ouche. In various incarnations, the edifice has served as a monastery, a baronial hunting lodge, and, until late last year, a freethinking spiritual retreat (tai chi on the lawn, Sunday services in the crypt). The original abbey has a direct ecumenical connection to the Chapter of Cîteaux, the heart and soul of the Cistercian order in Europe, which commissioned Pawson to design Novy´ Dvur in the Czech Republic. Unfortunately, like Kruisherenhotel, La Bussière was falling into ruin. When posted to the diocese of Dijon two years ago, Monseigneur Minnerath saw the writing on the wall. Rather than selling the 18-acre estate to a developer, he offered it to hoteliers Martin and Joy Cummings, of Amberley Castle in West Sussex. It is unclear whether the ensuing brouhaha has more to do with the under-advertised transaction or the new owners being English. Minnerath dismisses the latter idea, saying, "We are all Europeans now, you know."
Even so, a "sauver l'abbaye" petition was posted on the Internet by a disgruntled local architect, and some residents will undoubtedly miss their impromptu picnics next to the delightful rivulet that runs through the park. The archbishop acknowledges, "This was an emotionally difficult decision, but with the Cummingses, the abbey will have a future." He explains that many church structures (including La Bussière) were secularized during the French Revolution, and specifically cites Royaumont Abbey, built by Louis IX near Chantilly. An impeccably restored Gothic complex, it currently functions as a privately funded arts colony that holds seasonal performances open to the public.
The Cummings family has definitely rolled up their sleeves to make the abbey spiffy again. It's still a work in progress, as I note when their son Clive, who is resident manager, walks me around the grounds. The antiquated steam-heating pipes remain visible in the reception hall, and massive fireplaces are blocked shut. However, the new caretakers have revitalized exceptional ornamental details: limestone arches supported by laughing gargoyles, heraldic frescoes, stained-glass refectory windows, and a marble spiral staircase to the adjacent convent, where most of the 10 guest rooms have whirlpool tubs and canopied beds more suitable for a marquis than a monk. Since they bought the abbey lock, stock, and wine barrel, the Cummingses have been especially excited by the giant wooden grape pressoir in a stone barn behind the turreted structure. The hotel certainly benefits from its proximity to the classic vineyards of Beaune and Nuits-St.-Georges: the restaurant's cellar reflects a reverence for the vine. And while the Cummingses are yeoman English, the chef at the abbey, Olivier Elzer, is haute French. His peeled fresh asparagus with poached eggs and seared Charolais beef fillet with a marrow reduction are wonderfully paired with flinty Chardonnay and ruby Pinot Noir from the region's best winemakers for my final meal there.
Relais San Maurizio, Santo Stefano Belbo, Italy
The connection between monasteries and great vineyards is long-standing. I am reminded of this as I steer an enormous Mercedes up narrow switchbacks surrounded by Moscato grapes en route to Relais San Maurizio, about two hours southeast of Turin in Italy's Piedmont region, where the white truffles of Alba are paired with delightfully fizzy vintages from Asti. In chapters 39 and 40, Benedict exhorted his followers to practice austerity and engage in manual labor, but he didn't recommend abstinence from drinking. That would be hell for an Italian. A group of Franciscan monks tilled the vines surrounding this 17th-century monastery until Napoleon's army came to town in 1802. (Apart from Henry VIII, who dismantled abbeys in Britain because he wanted a divorce, Napoleon's political ambitions did more damage to the monastic system in Europe than anyone else, with the possible exception of that wild-eyed revolutionary, Martin Luther.) The monastery was eventually purchased and converted to a private res- idence by a local noble in 1862, and just recently, when the noble's descendants couldn't afford the upkeep, San Maurizio was again transformed to receive souls in need of breathing space.
The relais consists of 31 rooms and suites spread between a butter-yellow Italianate villa and a renovated limestone barn. A broad flagstone patio leads to a small park of olive and larch trees. In keeping with the grape theme, San Maurizio also has a Caudalie vinotherapy spa, housed in an annex to the old wine cellars. In the modest chapel attached to the villa, an old pump organ occupies the apse. Hotel manager Nadia Finelli mentions to me that the local priest will not permit weddings in this sweet little church, but he doesn't mind if guests practice yoga there.
Opening the green shutters of room No. 115, I look out on a formal boxwood garden and distant hills covered in cedars and grapevines. Cobbled together from three monk's cells, my room has a creaky parquet floor, carved oak doors, floral brocade fabrics, and a trim writing desk where I can pen postcards to my forlorn husband, who remains uncertain about my sudden interest in solitary confinement. And even though I am not a fan of lilac Murano chandeliers or mauve-pink silk curtains, the terra-cottapaved hallways and sitting rooms on the first floor are pleasantly underpopulated during my stay. Walking through a glass-enclosed winter garden designed by I. M. Pei, one of the bar staff casually hails me by saying, "Salve." It's a common Italian greeting, meaning "hello," but I'm stopped in my tracks, knowing that the Latin root salvus means "safe and sound."
That evening, in the brick cellars where the Franciscans once stored their wine vats, I reflect on my temporary hiatus from the Wi-Fi world as I enjoy a plate of buttery agnolotti patiently and lovingly formed by restaurateur Andrea Alciati's septuagenarian mother. Only one other table is reserved for the evening, affording me a quiet chance to consider the continued relevance of withdrawal in an era of relentless coverage of mosque bombings and imminent bird-flu outbreaks, not to mention the latest antics on The Apprentice and American Idol. As I linger over a glass of Barbaresco, the background music catches my attention. The orchestration has taken a familiar turn, and even though it's an instrumental version, with a classical string section striving mightily to camouflage the song's provenance, I suddenly recognize the improbable melody bouncing off the herringbone arches of the subterranean vaults of this former monastery: it's Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven." Amen to that.
When to Go
Late spring to fall is the best time to visit all of these monastery hotels. Temperatures range from the upper sixties, in northern Europe, to the mid eighties, in Italy. Some are in Europe's major wine regions and so are ideal as a base for the annual fall harvests. Abbaye de la Bussière and Relais San Maurizio are usually closed in January.
Where to Stay
Abbaye de la Bussière
Ten rooms in a converted abbey with private grounds surrounded by Côte d'Or vineyards and stately barge canals. La Bussière-sur-Ouche, Dijon, France; 33-3/80-49-02-29; www.abbayedelabussiere.fr; doubles from $362.
A two-hour train ride south of Amsterdam, this former church is close to Maastricht's fashion district. 1923 Kruisherengang, Maastricht, the Netherlands; 800/337-4685 or 31-43/329-2020; www.chateauhotels.nl; doubles from $356.
Pousada Santa Maria do Bouro
The inn has a swimming pool and a sunny flagstone terrace facing a valley where grapes are cultivated and harvested for port. Lugar do Terreiro, Bouro Santa Maria, Amares, Portugal; 800/337-4685 or 351-2/ 5337-1970; www.pousadas.pt; doubles from $245.
Relais San Maurizio
Perched on a steep hilltop, this monastery hotel has a restaurant with an exceptional wine cellar. 39 Località San Maurizio, Santo Stefano Belbo, Italy; 800/735-2478 or 39-0141/841-900; www.relaissanmaurizio.it; doubles from $258.
Where to Eat
While each hotel above has at least one restaurant, there are other excellent options, including those below.
Restaurant Le Charlemagne
Classic Burgundian cuisine (escargot, sweetbreads, and veal) with a Zen twist in a handsome dining room outside Beaune. Rue des Vergelesses; 33-3/80-21-51-45; www.lecharlemagne.fr; dinner for two $54.
Bistro 't Örgelke
Specializes in Indonesian satay, curries, and vegetarian dishes. 40 Tongersestraat; 31-43/321-6982; dinner for two $50.
Local beer on tap, genever (Dutch gin), and hearty onion soup at a wood-paneled bar in a narrow medieval street. 32 Wolfstraat; 31-43/321-7413; dinner for two $24.
A Michelin-starred dining room in a converted château about 10 minutes' drive from Maastricht. 31-43/325-1359; dinner for two $165.
Santo Stefano Belbo
Savor carpaccio with white truffles, gnocchi with butter and sage, and local Barbaresco and Nebbiolo wines at this homey trattoria. 6 Piazzale G. Manzo; 39-0141/844-233; dinner for two $150.
More Monastery Hotels
A former Dominican convent with 80 contemporary rooms, on Spain's Costa Blanca. 7 Rafael Altamira, Alicante; 800/337-4685 or 34/96-514-6570; www.hospes.es; doubles from $220.
HospederÍa Convento de la Parra
No modern distractions at this lovely 21-room retreat in the South Sierra foothills. 16 Calle Santa María, La Parra; 34/92-468-2692; www.laparra.net; doubles from $136.
Relais La Suvera
Originally owned by Pope Julius II, this Renaissance villa has 32 rooms draped in brocade and velvet. Pievescola, Siena; 800/525-4800 or 39-05/7796-0300; doubles from $752.
You'll find impeccable medieval gardens and country-chic rooms at this priory northeast of Bordeaux. Maisonnais; 800/735-2478 or 33-2/48-56-27-50; doubles from $220.
Pousada de San Salvador da Bahia-Convento do Carmo
A recently opened 79-room hotel in a convent near the beaches of Bahia, managed by the same group that runs Santa Maria do Bouro. 1 Rua do Carmo, Pelourinho; 55-71/3327-8400; www.pousadas.pt; doubles from $330.