- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 13, 2001

VIENNA, Austria — Fasting, prayer and cold-water cures couldn't be further from many vacationers' holy grail of sun, sand and sea.
But every year some 500,000 tourists flock to Austria's 130 monasteries seeking another kind of paradise.
"They come in search of paradise lost," explained the Rev. Paul Angerer, abbot of the Premontre monastery in Geras. Each year he and 40 fellow monks welcome 1,500 vacationers to their abbey, north of Vienna. Two hundred and thirty beds in 150 rooms await the flood of visitors.
Faced with the growing demand for monastery holidays, two dozen abbeys joined forces three years ago to form a chain called the Cloister Empire (Kloesterreich).
The group offers individuals the chance to stay in monasteries for periods of up to two weeks.
Around half the vacationers who spend time in Austria's abbeys are from abroad, mainly single French, Swiss and German visitors, according to Father Paul.
Even Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel, a practicing Catholic, recently spent a few days in an abbey near Vienna seeking calm.
"We offer something different from tourism," explained the abbot. "This year a Greek icon painter, a Japanese teacher of printing techniques and a Hungarian ceramics teacher all ran courses for our visitors."
Just a few miles away, nuns in the Marienkron abbey offer a 19th century remedy of cold-water cures.
Visitors generally have the chance to take part in monks' and nuns' religious observances, including prayers, masses, fasts and retreats.
Father Paul explained the tourism boom as, "We offer our visitors the opportunity to broaden their skills and to feel at peace."
Erich Leitenberger, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Vienna, gave another reason. "People go there to find themselves. There is a special atmosphere in an abbey: People care about each other.
"In cloisters, holiday makers see a successful relationship with God, oneself, one's neighbor and all creation.
"Cloisters reinforce the belief that good is stronger than evil. There is no absolute guarantee of success, but it does most people good."
"Spirituality" and "the need to talk" are the main reasons for taking a holiday in a monastery, according to a poll published in July by the Austrian Catholic news agency Kathpress and run by the Austrian Institute for Tourism.
According to the poll, 60 percent of tourists use such vacations to meditate, 49 percent for introspection and 47 percent for the chance to talk to the monks.
The attraction of monasteries on city dwellers seems to coincide with a renaissance of Catholicism in some of Europe's major cities.
The number of Viennese declaring themselves believers rose from 71 percent in 1990 to 80 percent in 1999, a comparative study in four European cities revealed. In Lisbon, the figure grew from 47 percent to 74 percent and in Brussels from 61 percent to 78 percent.


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