Travel: Retreats - The great escape to a no-frills parador

All she wanted was a good night's sleep, but Laurel Berger ended up joining the nuns in singing the night office
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The Independent Online
I'd been in Madrid just a week when the longing began. I'd been staying in a borrowed flat overlooking a square that was the hub of a rowdy neighbourhood fiesta. At night, unable to sleep, I'd drift into a twilight state in which vast open spaces, lovely hills, empty villages took shape in my mind's eye. It was then I decided to get myself to a nunnery.

Traditionally, Spain's monastic communities have offered hospitality to pilgrims and spiritual seekers; but in recent years many have opened guesthouses for travellers as well. For less than pounds 15 a night you can sleep and eat in a religious monument while experiencing the stillness of contemplative life, so I was told.

I telephoned the Benedictine abbey of San Salvador in the village of Palacios de Benaver. It was located, the guest mistress said, 20km north of Burgos, 2km off the pilgrims' route to Santiago. No mountains, just grain fields. It didn't sound promising.

I imagined a dilapidated convent in the middle of some backwater ringed by scorched fields; a cell with a pallet bed and a cold-water shower down the hall; coarse meals of bean stews and sausage. In short, the kind of place my lefty Spanish friends wouldn't go to for love or money. But on the list that the Castilla-Len tourist board had supplied, it was the only one on my list that had any vacancies. So I went anyway.

The city of Burgos is a three-hour bus ride from Madrid. The taxi I took from there rattled along a country road through the heart of old Castile, a flat, stony, bone-dry land, known for its Romanesque ruins, fabulous churches and arch-conservative citizenry.

When we entered the deserted village - a warren of cut stone edifices which looked as though one strong gust of wind would reduce them to dust - the driver stopped to ask directions to the abbey. The woman he addressed looked at us as if she hadn't spoken in the longest time and waved vaguely to the north.

"Are you the girl who called last night? asked Sor Concepcin, the guest mistress and superior, just beyond the massive oak portal. The abbey, which dates from the 12th century, stood on the fringes of the pueblo. Enclosed by a 10ft high wall of unmortared stone, it was sunk into a promontory overlooking lime-capped slopes; attached to it was a small Gothic church with an octagonal apse whose sections jutted out like petals on a flower.

I followed the superior through the courtyard of cypress trees and espaliered roses, to the 22-room guesthouse, a converted elementary school, adjoining the cloister. "We had to shut it down four years ago," she said ruefully, "when there were no children left to teach". My fiercely white room, sparely decorated with heavy Castilian furniture and a crucifix, gave on to the gardens. There was a modern en suite bathroom.

"Lunch is at 2pm," Sor Concepcin said, handing over the room key. "Please be on time." I folded back the bedspread, slipped off my espadrilles and lay on top of the rough sheets. They smelled of bleach and fresh air. Outside, the noon sun was beating down on the stones but the building's thick masonry walls kept the heat out. I heard birdsong, the sound of a tractor, angelus bells. When I awoke it was time for lunch.

The men and women seated at the long dining table were like holiday-making Spaniards everywhere: loud, garrulous, a bit cheeky. The nuns served morcilla, a locally made blood sausage, and roast pork; the Rioja poured freely.

I met a consumptive-looking young writer who confessed that when he first got here he expected to find himself surrounded by religiosos and suicide candidates. But aside from a couple of genuinely devout Catholics, most of the other guests were searching for nothing more transcendent than a place of repose. They saw the abbey as a kind of no-frills parador. There was a student preparing for exams; a jokey Catalan salesman; a few couples touring the region. And me, I was just chasing a good night's sleep.

Vespers. I dragged my new friends on a nature walk. We followed a dirt track into the hills and observed the poplar trees in the dying light. Middle-aged men, all of them, they groused the whole way. Joaqun kept stepping in the brambles; Jose feared it would rain; Arman, the salesman, was ruining his good shoes. But what is more, he announced in solemn tones, the hora del aperitivo was now upon us. He'd been there all week, he said, and he was sick of the nuns' cooking. There was a bar in the next town that was supposed to do very nice tapas.

And so we abandoned our expedition and made our way north in Arman's Nissan to a forlorn little pueblo called Villasandino, where half the locals seemed to be packed into the town's one grotty little bar, which had no tapas whatsoever. We ordered pints and shared a bag of crisps. As children, they told me, their dread of the church was greater than their dread of Franco. "The priesthood ruled this country for 50 years," said Arman, lighting a Marlboro. "And it was `shut up or put up' for the rest of us."

When we got back to Palacios, dinner was already on the table. I picked at my food but polished off dessert, queso de Burgos - a fresh, bland- tasting white cheese drizzled with honey from the convent's apiary. Although I'd read that it wasn't good form to address the nuns, these sisters, some of whom hadn't left the enclosure in decades, were positively loquacious.

Later, I chatted to one of the oldest nuns, who spoke of the convent's close association with the great Benedictine abbey of Santo Domingo de Silos, whose monks cut a record of Gregorian chant a few years ago that went platinum. We chant Gregorian here too, she said, giving no hint of what she was up to. Perhaps I would like to see the choir?

I followed this tiny figure in sweeping black robes through the unlit cloister, a marble floored gallery with arched windows built around a courtyard, and stepped into the choir. An iron grille screened it off from the sanctuary, which was dominated by an extravagant Baroque centrepiece depicting Jesus surrounded by the saints of the order. According to legend, in the year 836, the 300 nuns who then lived here lopped off their noses to protect their chastity from invading Moors. The soldiers arrived the next day, chopped off the women's heads and burned down the abbey. All 300 were made virgin-martyrs but the convent remained in ruins until the 12th century, when a nobleman by the name of Count Fernndez Manrigue paid to have it rebuilt.

And then the nun, interrupting my reverie, handed me an open psalter bearing the legend of Santo Domingo de Silos. At that moment I realised I'd been invited to join them in singing the night office. Now this was an impossibility, considering that I'm practically tone deaf and my knowledge of Latin is patchy; worst of all, I'm not even a Christian. At one point it occurred to me that I should get the hell out of there. But by that time the organist had arrived. The other choristers soon followed, women as small and gnarled as the scrub oak that dotted the hillside. And then the office began. In Latin we chanted:

I will both lay me down in peace,

and sleep: for thou, Lord, only makest me dwell in safety.

That night I slept very well indeed.

The monastery of San Salvador (00 34 947 45 0209), in the village of Palacios de Benaver, is a three-hour drive from Madrid. Single rooms cost 3,500 pesetas a night, doubles 5,000, all meals included.

Castilla-Len tourist board: 00 34 902 203030.