There are certain places—show-stopping hotels, award-winning restaurants, local dive bars, or incomparable vintage shops—that are worth planning your whole trip around. The Istituto Beata Angelina, a monastery in Assisi, Italy, is one of those places.
This is why I love the countryside: In it, I really notice the small ordinary workings of the world, and through them its larger system. I tune in. I relearn my own scale. A previously imperceptible fog within me clears. This only happens in places of genuine quiet—Assisi is this kind of place. Located in the Umbrian countryside, Hollywood would dream up exactly a place like Assisi to cure a world-weary protagonist of her malaise. Here she could escape from It All. Here she could remember what she is about, and why, and who she cares for, and how.
Assisi has the kind of slowness that people in big cities tend to make a caricature of—all the DNA of hygge, of DIY, of bad WiFi, of the siesta, without any of the self-awareness of the metropolis performing the hamlet. Assisi has no cynicism.
It has nuns.
For our accommodations, my mother and I have chosen a functioning monastery. It’s called Istituto Beata Angelina and it’s modest in just the way you’d expect—not spartan, but simple. (It’s also next-to-godliness clean.) One of a network of monasteries all over Italy that host guests at hostel prices, it offers a culture that’s more friendly to those who are older or prefer to be quieter, without being at all forceful about its religiosity. Religion manifests in murals, paintings, vases, and totemic objects, each one excessive in the same way that the cathedrals we’ve seen all over the country are—by degrees, and often made more excessive by nearby scarcity or thrift. Staying here is like living inside one of those monuments, stepping into a bygone world.
At Beata Angelina we hear the nuns singing hymns quietly in the morning; there are choruses of bells throughout the day. Where I expected severity, I see vibrance. The nuns are lively and kind. At first I’m shy around them, but the spell is broken when one laughs at me because I’m struggling with the latch on a wrought iron gate. It’s a good-natured laugh—of course it is—and we begin to converse, each in our own language, clueless but comprehending.
Why it’s worth the trip:
Beata Angelina is not a hotel; it has none of the preoccupations of a hotel, and therefore none of the excesses. The furnishings seem outside of time, concerned collectively with function over style, without slipping into ugliness or shabbiness. The beds are small and sometimes hard, the linens are mismatched but abundant, and the showers are tiny (but they’re clean, there’s shampoo, and some of them have heated towel racks—luxury of luxuries!). The windows have layers of shutters and spotless glass, and can be thrown open to let in the breeze. All ornament is devoted to religion, no exceptions. I come to love this forthrightness. The simplicity is uncomplicated and has purpose; I can’t fault it. And anyway, the extravagance is in the view.
Assisi is a city on a hill, metaphorically and literally. The cobblestones are more often stairways than sidewalks, buildings seem to trickle down and unfold, everything is narrow and high and jigsawed together, neighbor beside neighbor, and every window and terrace opens out to the sky. Whether at the top of the hill or the bottom, they all offer the same view. Even in January, Umbria is green. There are conical cypress trees in neat rows, light-infused olive groves with silvery leaves, low hedges that portion the land, and grass like carpet. Umbria’s hills are gentle and perfectly proportioned, almost mathematical in their prettiness, like sand dunes or waves, and the way they withdraw into the far horizon gives the impression that they go on absolutely forever.
You’ll like it here if:
You welcome solitude. You think small towns are charming. You’re taking a break from social media. A vacation that doesn’t have to be packed with activities to feel rewarding.
From €35/night. To book a stay, search “Istituto Beata Angelina” at monasterystays.com.
Families, backpackers, nuns, locals.
How to prepare:
Pack shoes you can walk in. Assisi is small enough to not need public transportation, but it gets quite steep in places.
Remember: Beata Angelina isn’t a typical hotel. Expect the minimum in terms of traditional perks—the little homey touches will delight you. A simple breakfast is provided, but otherwise you’ll be on your own for food. Catch at least one sunset from the monastery, a plaza, or a restaurant on the hill. The view is all the more spectacular at twilight, when low light makes the surrounding towns’ electric lights visible. The hills literally sparkle.
While you’re in the area:
Step into a cafe for an espresso (any cafe will do). Hike to Eremo delle Carceri, a secluded church where St. Francis prayed, or pick a trail on Monte Subasio. The slopes are mild. For a taste of city life, spend a day in Rome—the trip is a very scenic three hours by train.