Sleeping With Nuns

SPAIN WEEK at A Traveler’s Library

Destination: Spain

Book: Room With a Pew: Sleeping Our Way Through Spain’s Ancient Monasteries by Richard Starks and Miriam Murcutt (NEW September 2012)

Before you book your hotel rooms for Spain, consider the surprises that Richard Starks and Miriam Murcutt discovered sleeping in monasteries.

My only experience with cloistered nuns was also in Spain, but instead of sleeping in their cells, we ate their cookies.  When we were in Granada, we wandered down Carrera del Darro, which winds along the river, headed for the Archaeological Museum (highly recommended, by the way).

Roman figure in Granada Archaeological museum
Roman figure in Granada Archaeological museum

Next to the museum, which is housed in a beautiful building, we saw a plain facade with a very small sign identifying it on the outside. I had heard about the marvelous treats baked by the nuns at the Monasterio de Santa Catalina de Zafra, and since we live in Tucson in the shadow of the Santa Catalina mountains, it seemed appropriate to stop for a treat.

The experience is distinctly odd for someone not used to it.  The street door opened to a  small, dim, cool room. A wooden cabinet that looked like it had been stuck into a doorway interrupted the plain white wall facing us.  A shelf faced the room. The device, a torno, allows transactions with the outside world, without revealing the nun to the world or vice-versa.

We pushed the door-bell like buzzer and heard a young voice, in Spanish, asking what we wanted. We wanted cookies, I replied.  Then she stumped me with “how much?” (or ¿how much? as they punctuate in Spanish). They sell the cookies by weight, and I had no earthly (or heavenly) idea how much I wanted. I made a guess, she told me the price. I put the money on the shelf and the wooden cabinet rotated. A few minutes later, it rotated again and the shelf held a box of dulces. (sweets)  Since my Spanish is less than basic, I was not sure how much I was getting, or what the price actually was, but a nun wouldn’t cheat me, would she? We left feeling that we had been speaking to a ghost, or perhaps experienced the miracle of the cookie.

As I sat at a table in the nearby Plaza Nuevo and nibbled the fantastic cookie, we speculated about the life of that voice behind the torno.

In A Room With a Pew, Richard Starks and Miriam Murcutt repeat our unsure transaction with an unseen nun  ten fold when they set out to learn more about the cloistered life. Not all of the monasterios the couple visit are inhabited by nuns–some are for monks. And certainly not all are cloistered. Although silence is not the rule everywhere they stayed, quiet prevails in all the historic digs.  Starks and Murcutt travel from northern Spain, above the line where the Moorish rule penetrated, all the way south to the Costa del Sol and Malaga.

Malaga port from the fortress hill
Malaga port from the fortress hill

They include enough Spanish and church history and explanations of religion and monastic life to pique your interest, but spice the narrative with humor, including lots of contemporary references. You’ll also pick up a scattering of nun and priest jokes. They have created a book that is  great fun to read–unreligious, but not sacreligious. For instance, take this history lesson:

But then came the Council of Trent–a reformist body that was meant to redeem a Catholic Church that, by the sixteenth century, had become thoroughly corrupt, exhibiting the sexual mores of a Casanova and the moral probity of a Goldman Sachs.

I enjoyed their description of entering the historic parts of a monastery as “going through a wormhole,” a device handy for science fiction writers.  In El Monasterio de la Virgen de Monlora, they are led into a retro kitchen where they can cook, if they wish.Then they leave the 1950s kitchen and go through another door–a wormhole into the 18th century–as they enter the monastery’s church with

…a Baroque altar backed by a gold-encrusted retablo, which has at its center–on a pedestal flanked by neoclassical gold columns–the blue-robed figure of a seated Virgin supporting a disproportionately small, brown-frocked Jesus, who is standing upright, precariously balanced on her knee.

 These writers are definitely not on a religious pilgrimage. They have set out to explore a culture foreign to them, much like they did when they set off to explore the Amazon basin.  However, being constantly in the company of people who have dedicated their lives to prayer, does make one wonder about faith–and the lack of it.  In response to the question, “Where does your faith come from?” nuns and monks tell them, “Faith comes from God.”  But this answer is unsatisfactory to the non-believer, because “…in order to get your faith from God, you must first believe in God, which means, of course, that you already have the faith that you want him to give you.”

They tend to put their faith in Mark Twain, whom they quote as saying, “Faith is believing what you know ain’t so.”

Roman wall in Carmona
They took side trips to see things like this Roman wall in Carmona, where Ken and I also visited.

Despite the lack of any great personal religious revelation, when they join in the daily schedule of one of the  monasteries, they find peace for a time in the daily routine. But they also realize that it is not for them.  They are there as tourists, observing. They come away with a deeper respect for people who choose the cloistered life, and gratitude for the many treasures they discovered in the historic buildings–dating back as much as 500 years, and museums attached to some of the monasteries.

I say “they” although the book is written in first person.  They attempt to explain that away in an author’s note that says using first person plural would have been clumsy since they are not “joined at the hip.” However, my literalist mind kept wanting to know which one of the “we” was the “I” that had this thought, or asked that question. Particularly since parts of the book deal with personal soul searching.

But that small quibble aside, this is a very entertaining book that sheds a lot of light on an important element of Spain and gives very practical information about the way you might go about sleeping with nuns.

For an overview of many destinations to visit in Spain, see Around the World L. If monasterios don’t seem to be your speed, The World of Deej has some hotels in Barcelona to recommend.

Have you ever stayed at a convent or monastery during your travels? Tell us where.

Disclaimers: The publishers provided a copy of this book for review at the request of the authors. There is no requirement that I write anything but my own opinion.  The links to Amazon here allow you to do ANY Amazon shopping directly from this site. Although it costs no more, you’ll be supporting A Traveler’s Library. And that’s a GOOD thing. Bueno!

The photos here are my own, scanned from slides taken ten years ago. Nevertheless, I appreciate your respecting my copyright.


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About Vera Marie Badertscher

A freelance writer who loves to travel. When she is not traveling she is reading about travel. When she is not reading or traveling, she is sharing with the readers of A Traveler's Library, or recreating her family's past at Ancestors In Aprons . She has written for Reel Life With Jane, Life is a Trip and other websites. Also co-author of a biography, Quincy Tahoma, The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist. Contact Vera Marie by e-mail.

6 thoughts on “Sleeping With Nuns

  1. Years ago I stayed in a youth hostel in Vezelay that had previously been a monastery. When I was there, Catholic young people ran it as a service project. It was the most memorable place I stayed because hospitality was the service these French students were offering.

    I don’t think I’d stay in an active cloister myself. As a non-believer, I wouldn’t feel comfortable. And my husband, who has serious monk-envy, would probably stay behind.

  2. that is good to know, Vera, thank you. it seems to be easy for some folks to see a way of life that seems strange to them and forget that thee are *people* living it.

  3. I’ve had family members and friends who became nuns and monks, so my experience of visiting monastic guest houses for overnight stays and/or meals comes from a different perspective. these are people called to a certain way of life, just as you are called to your writing and travel. seems that the authors of the book may not have thought about that aspect very deeply?

    1. On the contrary, Kerry. Although the authors are not religious themselves, as I said in the review “They come away with a deeper respect for people who choose the cloistered life…” Perhaps my review did not focus on it, but they spent a great deal of time contemplating the source of the faith and choice that the nuns and monks made.

  4. I checked into a convent hostelry in Haifa only to find that the nuns had moved elsewhere, leaving behind an old male caretaker who fussed over me incessantly—not the experience I had hoped for, but memorable nonetheless.

    1. Your experience is like some of the monasteries this couple checked out. They had been converted to modern hotels. They eliminated all facilities that were not being actively occupied by cloistered nuns or monks before they set out on their journey. Somehow a convent in Haifa sounds like the perfect spot for a stay in that charming city.

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