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Discovering the Chiesa di San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore  was a highlight of one of several visits to Milan.

When I was young, very young, I wanted to be a nun. I had visions of rising straight to the ranks of Mother Superior and could envision myself as Mother Mary Martha. [In actuality, it’s probably the only time in my life when I had dreams of promotion – or something resembling ambition.] Then I saw a movie (I can’t remember which one) in which the postulate didn’t get to choose her name; she was given one. And I began to have second thoughts. I had visions of living out my days wearing a name I hated.

I even applied to the Medical Missionaries of Mary (I was fascinated by the whole alliteration thing, consumed by M). They told me to go live for a few years and then come back to them. I never did go back.

I’ve long had a fascination with nuns and convents. Remember Ingrid Bergman as Sr Mary Benedict in The Bells of St Mary? Audrey Hepburn as Sr Luke in The Nun’s Story? Susan Sarandon as Sr Helen Prejean in Dead Man Walking? Or the pretend nuns – Shirley MacLaine in Two Mules for Sister Sara? Or Whoopee Goldberg in Sister Act?

I can’t quite put my finger on what it is. It could be as simple as a fondness for black and white as a colour combination. God knows it’s not a want in me to surround myself with women – I discovered long ago that I’m allergic to too much oestrogen. But the fascination remains, for whatever reason.

Years ago, visiting Dachau Concentration Camp, I heard the neighbouring Carmelite nuns singing. It was haunting. Mystical. I was entranced/ Hearing something so beautiful in a place that was a stark reminder of man’s inhumanity to man was compelling.

Visiting churches in Milan, I was fascinated by one in particular: Chiesa di San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore. The church itself is attached to the old Benedictine Convent.  The nuns would listen to mass through a grid and receive communion through an opening in the wall. Their hall is separated from the Hall of Believers (the public hall) by a partition wall and as I sat there in silence, I fancied that I heard strains of that haunting, disembodied singing again, although this time, in much more pleasant surroundings. The nuns themselves weren’t given permission to come over to the other side to admire the altar until 1794 so for centuries they had no idea of the beauty that lay on the other side of the partition wall.  

The nuns hall, Milan

The Hall of Nuns

Both halls are covered in frescoes by famous Italian painters. Bernardino Luini, a student of Leonardo da Vinci, took his brush to these walls, as did Simone Peterzano – Caravaggio’s master. You could spend hours, literally, sitting in quiet contemplation of these works of art, which date back to the 1500s. My favourite was Noah’s Ark by Aurelio Luini.  If you look at it closely, you can see all the animals in pairs, except for an extra dog … apparently, if my pathetically poor grasp of Italian can be trusted, it’s his signature insert.

Noah's Ark by Aurelio Luini, MilanThis week, I’m grateful for the ministries of friends living abroad who are willing to take the time to show me their world, to share with me the places they hold special. A local’s insight is so much better than a guide-book written by someone who may never had sat in that particular church and felt its peace.  If you’re in Milan – it’s a go-see.

And for tailormade tours of all things arty, check out ElestaTravel.

 

 

 

Finding accommodation in Oslo isn’t difficult. There are plenty of hotels and guesthouses to choose from. Finding reasonably priced accommodation though, with breakfast and free Wi-fi included, is  a different matter entirely. I knew what part of town I wanted to stay in so, on the advice of a friend, I booked myself into the Gjestehuset Lovisenberg.

Oslo accomodation

It fascinated me on two counts. One, it was a former training hospital for nursing nuns. The walls are lined with old black-and-white and sepia photos of the graduating classes, decked out in their habits and wimples. I was half-expecting to see an apparition or three during my stay, but given the price of a pint, there’d be no staying up on the surfboard after 40 pints of stout. And two, it provided a sanctuary for Jews during the Second World War. Situated in the midst of a hospital area, I had to wend my way home through the grounds, skirting the psychiatric unit, passing the MS unit, and giving a nod of recognition to the meningitis unit. It was a little peculiar to say the least. I’m more used to skirting bars and restaurants when traipsing back to my hotel than medical clinics.

At about €100 a night, the single room with private bath was the same as a double (and no single supplement – seems like Norway (or rather Oslo) doesn’t penalise the unwed) so I splurged. Rooms were clean and basic, almost sterile. Toiletries supplied amounted to a single bar of soap – no shampoo, body lotions, cotton buds, or any of the niceties I’ve come to expect on my travels. Obviously vanity of any sort was not encouraged. It was a couple of days before I noticed I had no TV either. But I did have a chapel on my floor.

Oslo accomodation

The abundance of holy pictures, angels, and other religious iconary may have made some a tad uncomfortable, but I was in my element. It was as close as I’m ever likely to get to living in a convent.

Breakfast was eaten in a silence that approached reverence – and again, I thanked the Lord for local knowledge because without it, I’d never have known to put the Kaviar cream on the hard-boiled egg, or to eat the herring with cucumber slices or to try the brown cheese with mackerel.

My one complaint was that my Thunderbird wasn’t compatible with their Internet so I had to collect my emails separately – a right pain in the proverbial. Yet the flip side was that this drove me out… to find other wi-fi in the area and discover other places in the locale. My conclusion: this part of town is convenient, well serviced by public transport, has good bars and restaurants, and were I to get ill…. I’d be well looked after.