Vivienne Hewitt, our Rome correspondent, finds Italy's monastic calm invaded by those in search of peace and reflection.
EVERY Friday night in a central Milan street, a steady stream of Mercedes, executive Alfa Romeos, and the odd Ferrari set down passengers in front of a small, black door.
Overnight cases in hand, they ring the bell discreetly and pass beyond to emerge on Monday morning "closer to God, to oneself and re-charged for the week ahead", according to one.
Callers at the black door, the entrance to the House of Spirituality run by the Sisters of Our Lady of the Last Supper, are, in the majority, champions of Italian industry, rich, tired wives, up and coming Yuppies.
They are weekenders and holidaymakers to just one of numerous Italian convents and monasteries open to "guests" since 1983.
Now, demand is so great that sisters and monks are learning how to become expert hoteliers.
For around £10 a day they offer "basic" food and lodging in a bare room. There are no bathrooms en suite, room service, TV sets, phones or radios. Morning calls are a feature, though . . . the peal of chapel bells at 5am or even earlier.
From matins to vespers visitors can pour through usually centuries-old books in dusty monastic libraries, participate in the daily round of convent work and take walks in some of the most beautiful cloistered gardens all Europe has to offer.
"Probably the reasons for the popularity of convent holidays are that first of all it's something new and then, because of the life we all lead today, a holiday must serve to re-charge our batteries", said [demo Ramaccioni, director of tourism promotion in Umbria, the central Italian region with the highest concentration of convents and monasteries.
More and more Italians, once used to sprawling on noisy, crowded Riviera beaches are opting for a fortnight of jammaking and herb-bed weeding alongside Dominicans, and Franciscans.
Monks at the Llule Brothers of the Gospel monastery shrug their shoulders and raise their eyes to Heaven. "Somehow we'll manage", said one, now "concierge" at his monastery turned tourist centre expecting 9,000 holidaymakers this summer.
At another monastic community, at Vercelli, 8,000 40 per cent "family units" according to the brothers' new tourist jargon are booked to pass on average a week each.
Umbria offers 27 isolated convents and monasteries for getting away from it all, most of them booked months in advance. One will host 500 in August alone.
Rooms are sparsely furnished. The majority offer a camp bed, a small table, hard-backed chair and wash-stand. Bathrooms are usually at the end of long, narrow corridors. Also open in winter to visitors, some convents and monasteries have no central heating.
According to Prior Enzo Bianchi of the Bose monastic community at Vercelli guests spend their days "reading", in meditation and walking. "We host people of all social categories. A good part have no interest in the religious side of the monastic life. I think the reason for our popularity is a general difficulty in human relationships today", he said.
"Here, visitors find people well-disposed to listen and help in their reflections on various problems of their existence".
Neither attendance at masses, nor helping monks and nuns at their work is obligatory. In special cases some monasteries can be "hired" for private dinners. Italian writers Guido Ceronetti and Sergio Quinzio both recently celebrated their 60th birthdays at the 14th century monastery of Montebello at Pesaro. They treated their 100 guests to folkloristic songs and dances, local wines and "ecological food" the monks prepared.
Said Quinzio: "People have suddenly discovered that only in a convent or monastery they can be really free of technological slavery. A minority however, look to convent holidays for their snob value and this spoils the concept for those who really seek spiritual depth".
The convent "snobs", tired of survival holidays, summer on skis, Tibetan treks and Amazon explorations, even have a name for their latest craze "spiritual beauty farms". Retirement behind the walls of city based convents and monasteries has become "urban isolation".
Convent VIP regulars include Italy's President Francisco Cossiga and Foreign Minister Guilio Andreotti who retire to Roman religious communities. And this summer a leading Communist Party MP, Chicco Testa, is booked for his monastic holiday.
Further details from the Italian State Tourist Office, 1 Princes Street, London WI (01-4081254).