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.