As I walked through the convent’s imposing gates, I found that at least part of the legend was true. The streets were bathed in gold – not the kind to thrill treasure hunters but from the sun that shines on Arequipa almost every day of the year.
Dazzlingly bright, it gilded the petals of the scarlet geraniums at every doorway. In brilliant contrast to the tomb-like interiors, which were thick with silence and shadows, it bounced off the painted walls and streamed through the squares and courtyards, pouring from long-dry fountains and dancing across the colonnades through the Claustro los Naranjos.
The convent – or Monasterio de Santa Catalina – lies at the old colonial heart of Arequipa, Peru’s second-largest city, which stands 7,660 feet (2,335 metres) above sea level in a valley watched over by the ice-capped cone of the dormant volcano El Misti.
Arequipa’s Order of Saint Catherine of Siena was established in the 16th century by Viceroy Francisco Toledo. The building was designed in the Mudejar style, which had been adapted by the Spanish from the Moors, and funded by Dona Maria de Guzman, a rich young widow who entered the convent in 1580 with her sister and a retinue of slaves, and became the first prioress.
|An alley in Arequipa provides a little shade from the year-round sun|
|© Getty Images|
Under her influence, Santa Catalina quickly became an exclusive and fashionable order for the daughters of the land-owning classes from Europe as well as South America. The convent grew wealthy and by the 18th century more than 450 people lived within its walls – one third nuns and the rest servants – in 100 self-contained "houses". The five-acre complex included three cloisters, 60 streets, vegetable gardens and cemeteries.
Eventually, the scandal of these luxury-loving nuns reached the ears of the Vatican. In 1871 Pope Pius IX sent Sister Josefa Cadena, a devout Dominican, to reform the order. She returned the rich dowries, freed the slaves, sacked the servants and introduced a regime of austerity, prayer, fasting and flagellation. All contact with the outside world ceased.
It was not until 1970, when the mayor of Arequipa ordered the convent to install electricity and running water, that the nuns were at last forced to let the outside world in to raise money for the modernisation.
Four decades later, the Monasterio de Santa Catalina is a popular tourist attraction run by a private company. Today the cloisters are more likely to echo with music and laughter than with devotional prayers and, in peak season, 500 paying guests per day wander freely through the maze of streets. I hired a guide, Giovanna, who was born and bred in Arequipa, and together we gazed into soot-blackened kitchens and ornate chapels hung with yellowing wax icons.
|The striking setting of Arequipa’s main plaza|
|© Getty Images|
The stories of the convent’s scandalous past were greatly exaggerated, she told me. True, the tour included an extensive art collection packed with valuable objects, but a devout life was hard, she said, and many of the sisters died young.
As we walked I caught tantalising glimpses of black-clad figures vanishing down a roped-off street or through a doorway. The 24 remaining nuns, who are aged from 18 to 94, occupy only a tiny corner of the original site, and there are plans to build them modern quarters nearby.
I met Sister Isabel, who had joined the order 34 years before at the age of 18. She told me that although the nuns were allowed to read newspapers, watch TV and engage with the modern world, most preferred to spend their days alone in prayer or making handicrafts to sell for charity. "But our new building will have a sauna and beauty parlour," she told me proudly. "Really?" I asked, in amazement. "No," she admitted, with a roguish twinkle. "But it’s a good story."