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Pack your bags: Italy

Italy. I've wanted to visit this European mecca of food and style for as long as I can remember. For whatever reason, I've never made it there...until now. I studied a lot of Renaissance art history in college, and ever since, Italy, specifically Florence, has been a draw to me. Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Raphael, Giotto and Botticelli - the list of renowned artists goes on and on. So my recent visit to Rome and Florence was a long time coming. And it didn't disappoint.

Now, you can get a review of the typical places to see from just about any guide book, travel blog or person on the street, so I thought I'd point out a few interesting sites as well as some unique traits about Italy that I didn't know prior to visiting. So without further ado...andiamo!

Museo dei Cappucinni

This is a small space comprising several tiny chapels located beneath the church of Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini on the Via Veneto near Piazza Barberini in Rome, Italy.

Encompassing the bones of Capuchin monks who died over the course of almost 300 years, this have-to-see-to-be-believed crypt, displays 3900 sets of bones in six rooms, with some dedicated to a particular body part. There's the pelvis room, the skull room, the leg and skulls, etc. The Catholic order insists that the display is not meant to be macabre, but a silent reminder of the swift passage of life on Earth and our own mortality. Regardless, the displays are quite disturbing but also like a train wreck, you can't look away. Arranged with such care and grace, some of the rooms have skeletons dressed in traditional friars garb, with bones arranged like flowers. Of course there's religious symbolism with a recreation of The Resurrection, but mostly it's a stunning arrangement of bones you'll likely never see anywhere else. It's one of most unique things I've ever seen.

The Galleria Borghese

A collection of paintings and sculptures amassed by Cardinal Scipione Borghese, the nephew of Pope Paul V, this stunning castle-turned-museum, includes some of the most famous works of art to date and many that typically would not appeal to someone of such religious faith as the Cardinal. Including 20 rooms over two floors, you can expect to see works by Bernini, Caravaggio, Titian, Raphael, Rubens and more.

With a seemingly endless budget, the Cardinal obtained works as a challenge to himself and to prove his stature as a collector and art connoisseur. The collection was so impressive that in 1807, Camillo Borghese sold Napoleon 154 statues, 160 busts, 170 base-reliefs, 30 columns and various vases, which constitute the Borghese Collection in the Louvre.

If you are at all into art, this is a must-see. And the location in a stunning park on the fringes of Rome, makes it that much more appealing.

Mercato Centrale

Near Santa Croce in Florence, this indoor food market is a site for foreign eyes. Fresh food abounds in every stall. From delicious cheese and meats to fish, produce, olives, nuts and pastries, if you're hungry, get yourself here pronto! One sandwich stall had a line wrapped around it with hungry Italians. My friend got a porchetta sandwich and sung its praises. And right outside is a leather market that is sure to satisfy any shopper. I picked up a lambskin jacket that I just want to pet all day long. Every stall is chock full of belts, bags and jackets. And of course, haggling is the name of the game. The price is never the price. And since there's so much competition, it's easy to bounce from stall to stall getting lower and lower prices until you find what you want to pay and purchase.

Basilica of Santa Croce

The largest Franciscan church in the world, the principal Franciscan church in Florence and the burial place for such notables as Michelangelo, Galileo and Machiavelli, this architectural marvel will take your breath away. But the real draw of this church are the frescoes and the altar. Sadly, the altar was being restored while we were there, so many of the frescoes were hidden behind scaffolding, but there was still plenty to see. Works by Gaddi, Donatello and Vasari are just a few, with most of course, representing phases of Christ's life and death. As you can see from my photos, the frescoes, even the ones in disrepair, are still as vibrant as the day they were painted. And the zebra ceiling is just another facet of an amazing wonder.

Besides these four sites, some other interesting things I learned while in Italy:

1. Order the house wine. It's likely better than anything you'll ever get here and cheap! I got a bottle of wine for 10 euro (like $13!) 2. You may have to pay to use the bathroom. Many sites have an attendee or even a turnstile which could cost anywhere from .50 - 1 euro! To pee! Insanity. 3. Rome's tap water is apparently not very good, so you will have to pay 2-3 euros for bottled water in most restaurants, but the public drinking fountains around the city have cold, filtered water for free. I filled up my water bottle whenever I saw one! And the fountain outside the Spanish Steps apparently has the best drinking water in Rome.

4. You will never have better mozzarella. The milk was literally oozing onto my plate. Heaven!!

5. I've tried almost every gelato in Rome and Florence and can say some are definitely better than others but none made my eyes roll back into my head.

6. I still love NY pizza. Sorry. 7. Italian men are good looking but not THAT good looking. 8. I could live in Florence.

Have you been to Italy? Tell us about it.

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