ROME - You may need a miracle to find an affordable room in Rome the weekend of Pope John Paul II's beatification ceremony.
Or maybe there's a miracle in the making.
The Vatican travel agency for pilgrimages said prices on rooms might tumble in the coming weeks because predictions of upward of 1 million people pouring into this city for the May 1 event could scare off potential hotel guests.
Others might resist the temptation to take a Roman holiday after complaints about sixfold increases in hotel prices and Vatican warnings about unscrupulous agents hawking services on the Internet to procure "tickets" for the beatification.
There are no tickets. The Vatican decided it will be first come, first served, for visitors securing a place in St. Peter's Square for the elaborate ceremony to mark the last formal step before possible sainthood for the beloved pontiff.
Those who persevere and do come will find Rome in spring can be heavenly, with wisteria sensually winding down the facades of Renaissance palaces and trattorie moving their tables outside for dining al fresco.
But first you need to check in. The rector of Santa Susanna church, home to many U.S. expat Catholics in Rome, says emails and phone calls from as far away as Australia started arriving in January, when John Paul's successor, Benedict, approved the miracle needed for beatification, setting May 1 - exactly a week after Easter, when Rome is already swamped with tourists - as the date.
"People want a place for 80 euros ($115)," said the rector, the Rev. Gregory Apparcel. But the convents listed by Santa Susanna on a popular link on its website are already booked solid, he said. The last few years have seen soaring demand for rooms rented out by nuns in this city chock full of convents as safe, clean and economical alternatives to the nondescript hotels that often charge upward of 150 euros ($210) nightly for claustrophobic rooms.
"At this point, if you don't have a hotel room, don't come," advised Apparcel.
But the Vatican says have faith. "Today you stand a better chance of finding a room than a month ago," ventured the Rev. Caesar Atuire, CEO of the Vatican's tourist agency for pilgrims, Opera Romana Pellegrinaggi. Hotel rooms can be booked by the general public - Catholic or not - through a link on the Opera Romana Pellegrinaggi site, www.jpiibeatus.org/en/site/whereToStay. "I try to negotiate real hard to obtain the best for my pilgrims. I have a moral duty" to them, said the priest, who is from Ghana.
Lower prices might be welcome after what Italian consumer group Codacons found sampling a half-dozen hotels near St. John Lateran Basilica. Suspecting price-fixing, it lodged a complaint with Italy's antitrust authority about room prices soaring from 170 euros ($240) to more than 1,000 euros (nearly $1,500) for the beatification weekend.
Some Italians will try to beat Rome's steep hotel prices by lodging as far as 125 miles away in Pescara, on the Adriatic coast, and taking chartered buses to the beatification. Pilgrims from John Paul's homeland, Poland, "will hardly sleep a night in Rome," opting for outlying towns, Atuire said.
Italy's high-speed train service between the capital and Naples or Florence can shave commute time to less than 90 minutes, but steep ticket prices will erode any savings on hotels.
One off-the-tourist-track option is Ostia, a modern, seaside town near the highly recommended ancient Roman ruins of Ostia Antica. Long considered an unremarkable bedroom community, Ostia is now where many Romans go on weekends for a leisurely lunch of spaghetti alle vongole (white clam sauce) and oven-baked fish in some simple eatery at the sea or to soak up some rays on rented lettini (lounge chairs) at stabilimenti (establishments) along private beaches eating up all but a sliver of Mediterranean shoreline. Commuter trains, linking with Rome's subway system, run to Ostia.
Renting a car in Rome is pointless unless you like traffic jams and tangling with aggressive, undisciplined Roman drivers. Rome is very walkable, but when the cobblestones are hard on your supple-soled, new leather Italian sandals, you can take hop-on, hop-off open-air buses dubbed Roma Cristiana and painted yellow-and-white, the Vatican's colors. The popular double-decker bus stops include the boulevard ending in St. Peter's Square, the Termini stations and locations near the Colosseum, Pantheon and Rome's many churches.
You don't have to be a believer to purchase the "JPII Special Pass," featuring the image of an aging John Paul and providing unlimited use, for three days, of Rome's public transport, as well as the Roma Cristiana double-decker and the trains running to Ostia. At 18 euros (about $25) it's a good deal (free for kids under 10), but must be purchased through the Opera Romana Pellegrinaggi website and then picked up at any of several locations in Rome. Usually a similar pass without John Paul's image costs 25 euros ($35).
Certified believers get a price break and special nighttime access to the Vatican Museums, which include the Sistine Chapel with Michelangelo's frescoed ceiling. To mark the beatification, the museums will be open April 26-29 and May 2, 7 p.m. to midnight (last entrance at 10 p.m.), but only to those bearing letters from their parish, diocese or some religious institution. Admission for them will be 8 euros ($11.25) instead of the usual 15 euros ($21). But there are no reservations for the evening visits, and lines can stretch for hours. Those lacking Catholic credentials can visit the museums during daytime hours, and for a 4 euro ($5.60) booking fee, buy a ticket online and avoid long waits.
• Convent lodging and other information: www.santasusanna.org/comingToRome/convents.html
• Religious institutes accommodations: http://bit.ly/fSzMoe
AP reporter Alba Tobella contributed to this report.