When a friend sent me a list of inexpensive hotels in Rome, I booked two rooms for Holy Week under the listing of "Lebanese Nuns"--partially out of desperation, mostly out of curiosity. Lebanese nuns in Rome? The thought of staying at a convent alarmed my 14-year-old son, who has been raised in a loose Judeo-Christian tradition. Would we have to partake in any religious rituals? he wanted to know.

No sooner did my husband, son, daughter, and I exit the G.R.A. (the beltway around Rome) but we became lost. When I approached two cyclists to ask directions to the area called Monteverdi Vecchio, one readily agreed to lead us there himself, as it was his neighborhood and he was heading home. Following him for several miles in and out of traffic, up and down hills, while he fearlessly took lefts and rights across large avenues, our stay in Rome was already turning out to be extraordinary.

A turn onto the horseshoe-shaped Via Fratelli Bandiera landed us in the midst of a labyrinth of streets carved into Rome's westernmost hill, Gianicolo. Beautiful old villas in what was once a very affluent section of the city rose in layers of wide tile roofs on the hillside. Behind a locked gate was the courtyard and entrance to the more contemporary three-story convent of the Franciscan Sisters of the Cross.

We were met at the gate by the sweet, middle-aged Sister Innocence Rizcallah, who barely spoke above a whisper in Italian--our voices dropped an octave or two to accommodate hers and the stillness of the convent into which she had led us. It was Palm Sunday, and in a small living room a group of nuns was watching an event being televised from the Vatican nearby. The feeling was entirely homey: Elderly Mother Superior appeared to ask Sister Innocence to open a vial of medication for her, but on discovering us greeted us pleasantly.

The two had come to Rome from Lebanon some 25 years before with the intention of providing free lodging for members of their order, The Franciscan Sisters of the Cross. While their guests still included nuns (mostly from Africa) and some priests who were spending time in the Eternal City, paying lay families had become very welcome.

The rooms were small, clean, and sparse: two double beds (with creaky springs), a wardrobe, a desk, and a private bathroom. The light switch in one of our rooms made a buzzing sound when the light was on, and the faucet dripped, but this was no place to demand to be moved to a room with a view. It was comfortable, and from a window at the end of the corridor we could take in the courtyard in full bloom. Outgoing phone calls had to be made from a pay phone in the lobby; incoming calls could be forwarded to telephone receivers in each room.

Except for the occasional passing of several nuns in the halls, the convent was nearly silent. We thought ourselves to be the only guests until a number of other families appeared at breakfast the following morning. Bread (not the freshest), coffee, tea, and hot chocolate (included in the price of about $33 for a double room) was served buffet style on the basement level. Although we did not opt for lunch or dinner, they were available for an extra cost.

A pleasant (more rigorous upon return) descent down 304 steps through a park led to the charming neighborhood of Trastevere, where restaurants abound in the maze of streets around the Piazza Santa Maria.

While no specific rules were set, the front door of the convent was locked about 10 p.m., and the room keys left on a hook in the lobby. When we rang the bell close to midnight after an evening with friends in Trastevere, a very sleepy and, although polite, rather perturbed Sister Innocence let us in. "I left something in the car, and we had to go back for it," I blurted out in apology for our late entrance. Sister Innocence raised an eyebrow. The car, Sister Innocence knew, was parked next door and had not been moved since our arrival.

For more information, contact: Suore Francescane Della Croce; Procura Generalizia; Via Fratelli-Bandiera, 19; 00152 Rome, Italy. Tel: (06)5899792, Fax: (06)58331116. A limited amount of English is spoken, and all payments must be made in cash.

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