Photo: © 2009 Jupiterimages Corporation
Whether you're in search of inner sustenance or just a unique autumn vacation—especially one that costs only a small donation per day—consider visiting one of the hundreds of monasteries, cloisters, and abbeys around the world that welcome laypeople as guests. In her book A Taste of Heaven, author Madeline Scherb sings the praises of these destinations; we've got the good word on a few standouts.
ABBEY OF THE GENESEE
Piffard, New York
Spanning 2,400 acres in western New York—the Genesee River flows along its eastern boundary—the abbey's land includes ponds, rustic paths shaded by glorious fall foliage (keep an eye peeled for deer and wild turkeys), and a darkened indoor chapel, where panels of stained glass illuminate the stone walls and floors. Visitors stay in one of three quaint guesthouses, and the monks of Genesee provide the daily bread—dense, pillowy loaves in up to nine varieties, including Sunflower with Rolled Oats and Maple Cinammon (AbbeyRetreats.org).
If you can't make the pilgrimage: Monks' Bread is available for purchase online; choose any three loaves for $20 including shipping (MonksBread.com).
in the Périgord province of France
The Périgord (also known as the Dordogne) is known for its walnut groves, and Echourgnac is surrounded by these fragrant trees as well as the Forêt de la Double, a 193-square-mile forest full of hiking trails, lakes, and tiny, hidden villages. Visitors can stay in the comfortable guesthouse, Maison Bellevue, with access to the manicured grounds and cathedral-like chapel. (The abbey's Web site, Abbaye-Echourgnac.org, is in French; non-Francophones can arrange a visit with the help of the Périgord office of tourism by calling 011-33-5-53-53-10-63.)
If you can't make the pilgrimage: Order a round of the faintly smoky, in-season Echourgnac cheese, which the abbey's nuns wash with the Périgord's walnut liqueur ($26; ArtisanalCheese.com).
near Florenville, Belgium
Founded in 1070 in Wallonia (the French-speaking region of Belgium), Orval is one of the most gorgeous abbeys in Europe, with its rolling pastures, reflecting pool, Japanese rock garden, and stunning two-story sandstone Madonna adorning the church's facade. The guest chalet is outfitted with a kitchen and a perfect view of the grounds, which are most serene when the abbey falls silent at dusk to allow for meditation (Orval.be).
If you can't make the pilgrimage: Orval's Trappist beer, made with water from the abbey's natural spring, is pale, sweet, and floral, with a slight hint of clove ($5.50 per bottle; Bevmo.com).
ABBEY OF GETHSEMANI
The onetime home of Trappist monk Thomas Merton (whose 1948 autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, is a classic account of the contemplative life), the 161-year-old abbey is a marvel of natural beauty, stately architecture, and solitude. Guests are invited to attend daily services in the chapel, which features exquisite stained-glass works, but time is otherwise unstructured—leaving visitors free to explore the abbey's many footpaths, lined with cedar, pine, and ginkgo trees (Monks.org).
If you can't make the pilgrimage: The abbey puts a famous Kentucky export to stellar use in its dark and delectable bourbon fudge ($19 per pound; GethsemaniFarms.org)
From the October 2009 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine