July 2008

The below list is our top ten favorite things from our trip to Italy…

10. Fresh local fruit that was always fully ripe.
9. The Uffuzi art museum in Florence
8. Montaglairi winery in the Tuscan county side

7. Tandem bikeride along the top of the original city walls of Lucca

6. Sistine Chapel
5. A six hour walk from the Vatican to the Piazza di Spagna. This included St Peter’s Square, a stroll along the Tevere river, the Pont Sant’Angelo (bridge), Piazza Navona, the Pantheon, the Trevi Fountain, and the Piazza di Spagna.

4. The isle of Ischia

3. Getting lost in Venice… and being able to find the quiet spots in it.

2. Pizza and gelato nearly every day. And sometimes twice a day!!
1. Time spent with Leia, Nicolas, princess Eva, and baby Elise. Great moments everywhere!  Enjoy the 9 minute video below…


Melissa Helmer and Tyson Johnson were married the weekend prior to Kara and I leaving for our three week trip to Italy.  We were very honored to be their photographers and glad the timing worked out!  The ceremony was held at Grace Chapel in south Denver metro.  Being in suburbia, the location presented some photography challenges with eliminating the concrete jungle on outdoor shots and low lighting on the interior shots.  Fortunately the reception was held outdoors at Raccoon Creek Golf Course – a beautiful place on a cool summer’s evening!  Anyhow, if you would like to see a few photos, please visit my NickmoPhoto blog @ http://nickmophoto.wordpress.com/weddings/helmer-johnson/

Enjoy this 12 minute video slide show on the ‘artistic’ side of Italy.  The next video will be one of Kara and I and the family.

June 20-July 13

Day 1 – We flew out from Denver to New York City mid day on Friday. We had an overnight flight to Naples, Italy. There were enough hours lay over to run to NYC and show Nick Times Square. He wasn’t impressed, but I had to share it anyway. On the plane by 1am and we are off. We eat dinner with wine and watch a movie before drifting off to sleep.

Day 2 – We arrive in Naples about 3pm. Nicolas Girard, Nick’s brother-in-law picks us up from the airport and we drive the 45 min. drive to their house in Montoro. First thing we notice is the traffic and speed in which Italians drive. As we traveled in the next 3 weeks we come to get used to the chaos. We chilled out with Leia and the girls while Nicolas went off to translate for church.

Day 3 – Church with the Girard’s. Nicolas is again translating for the guest preacher who preaches in French. It is always interesting to watch. I picked up a few words here and there, but mostly we spent the service helping Leia baby wrangle. After church we ate our picnic lunch near the bay of Salerno then went swimming with the girls in the bay. It was nice and refreshing for the hottest part of the day. That evening Italy was playing against Spain in the Euro Cup so we ordered pizza (yummy!) and joined their neighbors in the piazza for the big screen version. It was fun to watch with the Italians, although by half time we were ready to come inside. We were a little disappointed that Italy lost, but Leia said we should be glad since they won’t be out shooting fireworks and partying all night so we’ll be able to sleep. We have noticed how late Italians stay up 2am often.

Day 4- We were sent to Pompeii all by ourselves with a few directions, however it was a bit of a frustrating day since we got lost from the train station to the ruins and spent a good part of the morning wandering the city. We also succeed in locking up Leia’s phone she leant us so we didn’t have their phone number, although we did have a phone card. Once we got into the ruins however we thoroughly enjoyed taking our time and really walked all over everything. We enjoyed a cooler walk with a breeze up around the city. Once we were done with the city we had to find an Internet café, there are none, by the way if you are looking . . . so we could get Leia’s number to figure out how to find our way home. We then proceeded to wander around the city more and miss the last train back to their town so we called again and Nicolas came and got us. . . it’s only about an hour drive from their house, which is nice. After at least 4 miles of walking we were ready to sit and sleep!!!

Day 5 – Nicolas and Leia took us to Amalfi, which is a coast town know for the way they build the buildings into the side of the mountain. It was a beautiful hour boat ride to the town. We walked through the touristy markets and found a place to picnic lunch. Nick really started enjoying taking pictures of Italian life. After lunch we went to the beach again and had a blast with everyone in the water. Eva was so much better about the waves than in Salerno and it helped having Uncle Nicolas to hold on to. Elise is not walking yet, but she enjoyed splashing and sucking on the salt water while being held in a floaty. We headed back mid afternoon so Nicolas could be there for the teen Bible study that is at his house on Tuesday nights.

Day 6 – Nick and I packed up and headed to Rome. Nicolas helped us get a ticket and get on the train. It was about a 3 hr train ride, then we had to call our host in Rome and get on the Metro and she would meet us at the end of the line to show us the bus route to their house. We arrived at Tim and Janet Hall’s house by about 2:30 pm. Janet was great with giving us maps and suggestions for all kinds of things to do in Rome. We asked lots of questions and then headed out for some exploring. We were staying about 30 min outside of the central part of Rome so we first got out near the Coliseum and walked all around, watching the sunset and enjoying different views without going inside anything. We did go inside what is to be believed as Peter and/or Paul’s prison and where Paul’s buried. We found a park with a fountain that we just sat around. We had to be back at the house by 11pm since the Metro stops running . . . so around 10:30 we started to head back. Janet had a wonderful Italian dinner ready for us, which was actually the first day we had pasta!!

In the US Nick doesn’t like pasta. I’ve made it a few times, but he always says pasta and rice are fillers and he’d rather have meat. Italian pasta and the sauces on it are so tasty that it has changed his mind, so we even brought some pasta home so I can attempt some creative sauces.

Day 7 – We got up early and thoroughly explored the Coliseum, the Roman Forum, Palatine Hill and surrounding areas. We’d gotten some audio guides in MP3 format so we stuck an ear piece in each ear and saved tons of money. We avoided the horrid lines by buying our combination ticket not at the Coliseum but at the Forum then just walked through security and in! We finished the Coliseum tour and an Internet café with some pizza. After lunch it gets even hotter so we headed up to Palatine Hill (where emperors build houses) and relaxed in the large umbrella trees on as many benches we could find. Most of the time while touring we were somewhat within ear shot of an English tour, so we took advantage and stayed put to listen in. . . We got to tour Caesar’s house on Palatine Hill, then we headed to the Roman Forum. By this time our MP3 was really low on batteries and we had forgotten to pack more for the day so we tried it and it didn’t work. Bummer, we walked through listening in on whoever we could then found a place in the shade to sit and look at all of it. I tried the MP3 one more time and it turned on, so we sat an extra hour and listened to Rick Steves explain about the Roman Forum. Wow, very interesting and intriguing that over and over through history the church tries to reform things like idolatry and pagan worship by putting crosses on in . . .

Day 8 – We got up even earlier and headed to the Vatican Museum. We’d heard that if you get in line before it opens the line is shorter, most definitely, we waited only for the 45 min. for the museum to open then got in. We mostly followed the crowds, there is not much else to do or see . . . we did try to sit and relax but the guards try to keep people moving so the 3 hr long wait will also keep moving. We did see the Sistine Chapel at the end of the Museum! Wow, it is so much more magnificent in person. We exited by a secret and landed in between the Basilica and the museum, again avoiding lines. We headed up to the top of the Dome (up 500+ steps) !Impressive!! Great views of Rome and you can see up close the mosaics of the interior of the dome. Exiting the dome put us right inside the Basilica, again avoiding more lines and security!! Yea, we toured the church again with Rick Steves and headed outside. We decided to walk across town as slowly as possible because by non I had very swollen ankles, but we needed food. We headed east and found pizza by the slice and sat at Piazza Navona (known for the artists) to eat and rest. We walked a bit further and found the Pantheon. . . wow, again a pagan temple turned “Christian”. . . from there we went to the Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps and Piazza di Spagna. We did a lot of people watching and finished with the sunset at the steps. We decided to head back early so we could plan a bit for our travels and so I could prop up and ice my feet.

Day 9 – We relaxed in the morning and packed up. We scheduled ourselves to leave on a train so we’d be in the AC during the hot afternoon. We didn’t however leave in time to not be rushed at the station. We bought tickets, without reservations, ran to 3 different tracks before finding the right one and finally got on, but without a specific seat. We stood around till a ticket checker came up and she said we could sit in car # whatever that had some empty seats . . . so we learned. We got comfortable for the 3 hr trip to Florence. Once in Florence we got on the bus to take us to the hostel/campsite we were staying for 2 nights. We booked this tent in olive trees for slightly cheaper than another hostel we booked for the 2nd 2 nights in Florence. The campsite was up above the city near Piazza Michelangelo so we had beautiful views of the city, but, it was more of a frat party than we wanted. We didn’t really sleep, but oh well.

Day 10 – We got up early in the cool of the day and headed out to the Uffizi Museum, known for Renaissance art. We again avoided the lines being there early and we really enjoyed the art we saw. Nick had never been to an art Museum, so it was fun to see him enjoy it. I really appreciated seeing paintings that I’ve studied about, and wished I would have paid more attention in Art and History class. . . oh well. More pizza at Nick’s favorite pizza by the slice place in all of Italy for lunch and we went to see the Duomo (the major church of the city). Each church has a unique piece about it, but on the other hand they all begin to look alike after a while. We walked around a bunch and got some gelato to cool down. We walked across the Ponte Vecchio and looked at all the shops. We tried to watch the sunset over the city again but because of clouds, smog and the mountains it was hardly worth it. We did enjoy some night shots though.

Day 11 – We stayed around the campground to do laundry, and then we had to check out by 1pm and switch to the other hostel in town. We didn’t realize how small Florence is, but we ended up booking a hostel on the other side of town, but relatively close. We got on the bus and headed there. Once we checked in and got to our room we found a nice cool air conditioned room. It was so nice. We cooled off, although I also just lay on the ceramic tiles, b/c they felt so good. After the nap we found a Da Vinci museum with some of his inventions on display. It was neat to see how advanced he was for his time. We cooled off in the pool and headed out for a nice dinner and wine.

Day 12 – We signed up for a Tuscan Tour in the Chianti Region with the hostel so we headed out by bus to the country side. It was beautiful. We went to see a family business that makes Terracotta pots. It was fun to watch a demonstration. We walked through the town center of Greve and to a meat store for some local samples. We then went to a winery and toured how they make 3 types of wine and balsamic vinegar. We also got a light lunch there and sampled the wine. Yummy!!! Our last stop was a distillery where they make Grappa, with is a very strong liqueur made from the remains of the grapes after they’ve been pressed for the wine. Neither of us liked it, way to strong!!! We got back and took a nap in our AC till almost 8pm. . . wow. We weren’t that hungry so we found some fruit and did some people watching for a bit before heading back to bed.

Day 13 – We had to check out but we decided to check out early and leave our bags and head to the Academia where we could see Michelangelo’s David. I really wanted to see it and with the tour and moving hostels we really knocked out our days fast. So we toured the Galleria, got lunch then headed to the train station to go to Lucca. We didn’t want to always be around big cities and tourists so we booked 2 nights in the town of Lucca. The train ride was about 1 ½ hrs west of Florence. The appeal of Lucca is that they have original city walls still standing with parks and stuff on top. Sounded fun. We found our hostel only to find a note that they were not there and to call, we didn’t have a phone card so we decided to wait it out. The central Piazza was right around the corner so we found a shady spot to sit and watch people. We were surprised to see how many tourists were there, I guess you can’t completely get away. We were finally able to check in and go exploring. We soon discovered that Lucca is a small town and we easily crossed a few times. We found a little café for some pasta and wine for dinner.

Day 14 – This was our one full day in Lucca so we wanted to rent Tandem bikes to bike around the 2 ½ mile circumference of the city wall. We found some coffee and began exploring. We wanted to rent bikes later, so we just went up to the wall and found a bench to enjoy the shade and breeze and people passing. It was very relaxing with time to talk but not always words. We found a Pizzaria for lunch then rented bikes to cool down. We showered later in the afternoon and headed to the piazza to see what was going on and people watch only to find full swing a car show and music and all kinds of stuff. We watched and talked then headed to a recommended Tratatoria (local restaurant).

Day 15 – We packed up and headed out of town on the train to Venice. This was an almost 4 hour train ride, and we had to switch trains, but it went by fast. We arrived in Venice and found our hotel, near the train station and began adventuring. We had read about a discount card in Venice that could save us on transportation and museums, so we went in search and since Italians won’t admit if they don’t know, we got all kinds of directions . . . we finally figured it out after much frustration but it was worth it in the end. So we headed on the Vaporetto to Saint Mark’s Square. We enjoyed wandering the city and getting lost on tiny “streets”. We sat in the square and listened to the competing orchestras at the café’s and then headed out for food. We’ve learned quickly that we have to head to back alley’s to find food that is not completely overpriced. After diner (pizza) we found the Rialto Bridge and headed back for the hotel.
Day 16 – We headed out again to St. Mark’s to get there early and appreciate the cool and see the church. We watched pigeons land all over people . . . Nick tried to run through them, but they are so used to people they just moved over. . . oh well. We then headed to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection of Modern Art. We had fun contemplating the meaning of life through the art. 😉 Back to the hotel for a nap then we headed out on the Vaparetto for a Rick Steve tour of the Grand Canal. We got off part way through and explored a bit, then got back on. Nick enjoyed taking some more night photography then we headed back for a 10:30 dinner of pasta. We also found a bottle of wine to share after dinner, we didn’t want to pay restaurant mark up price. Yum.

Day 17 – Sunday morning so we couldn’t go to any churches and there were not really museums we wanted to see so we set off to explore the Island of Murano and the Cemetery Island of St. Michelle. We window shopped and wandered in the overcast morning. The cemetery was amazing; I’ve never seen anything like it. They have “walls” on the inside and most of the graves are these walls, we respected the place by not taking pictures, so I can’t show you, but if you are in Venice you’ve got to check it out . . . After lunch we headed back to the hotel for another nap in the AC then headed out to explore some more. We were going to go to Burano which is the lace making island, but there were clouds looming overhead so we decided otherwise and stood atop the Scalzi Bridge and watched people and talked. When the lightning and thunder started we headed to our hotel and from the window above watched people run for cover as it began to pour! Once it cleared up we ventured out with the camera for Nick to get water reflection shots.

Day 18 – Monday we had to check out of our hotel, but we left our bags so we could explore the city more before we left to go to another campground for one night before flying back to Naples. We went to the Vaparetto stop to get the boat and head for Burano Island. We waited, waited and waited some more while only seeing 1 or 2 boats. After about an hour of running to different ports only to realize no boats I figured there must be a strike. We heard later it was a nationwide strike. As some of you know I’ve dealt with my fair share of strikes, but this was very calm, no dynamite in the background. . . Well, so we walked instead to the Basilica of the Saint Mary the Glorious of the Frari. We had an audio tour and had heard it was cool; it was actually Nick’s favorite church. After we found some lunch and a park to sit and rest when it started lightning and thundering again, this time we didn’t have a place to go. We took cover under a large tree until Nick decided we should just go and walk in the rain . . . it had lightened up a bit so we head out . . . It stopped by the time we got our bags. We had to catch a private shuttle bus to get to the campground. We got there, another night in a pseudo tent and this time there was a band playing from 10-12pm. usually that’s not a problem but we had to leave by 5pm to catch our flight. No sleep for us.

Day 19 – We got our flight just fine, despite the lack of sleep and vowed never to stay at the campgrounds again. We arrived in Naples, caught a bus to the ferry dock and bought a ticket to go to Ischia, an island off of Naples close to Capri, not as well know, touristy or expensive. We arrived and got on another bus to get to the western side of the island then called the hotel for pick up in Forio. Lorenzo Colella picked us up and we headed out. He confirmed that we were staying 1 night, we had changed from 2 since we wanted to have more time with the family. . . yes, so then he offered us an apartment closer to the Tyrrhenian Sea. We agreed to look at it, WOW it was beautiful!!! For the same price we stayed in a 2 bedroom apt with a balcony off our bedroom overlooking the sea and a private roof patio. We paid and headed out to find fruit and money, and sunglasses, Nick baptized his in Venice leaning over trying to get a picture . . . oh well. We warmed up and went for a swim. Very refreshing but since it’s out there swimming takes a lot of work and we were tired fast so we headed up to enjoy the breeze from our balcony. Guiseppe, our host came to greet us later when we went to the sun bathing patio for a nap. He invited us to come to the family restaurant and he’d give us a ride, we agreed, but remembered that we wanted to watch the sunset over the sea. After showering we headed up to the roof patio to relax and watch the sunset, Guiseppe didn’t get there to pick us up till after so it all worked out and we had a great dinner!!

Day 20 – We checked out after a relaxing morning and headed back to Ischia port to get a ferry back to Salerno where we could be picked up. We had to wait a few hours, so we found shade and food and watched people coming and going. Italians have this thing where because of different phone companies offering different rates they have multiple phones. It is hilarious to watch them try to talk on one phone and hang up in time to answer the other phone, then what’s even worse if they have 3 or 4 to try to juggle . . . Well we almost missed our ferry, it was smaller than we expected, but we ran and got it with a minute to spare. We enjoyed the ride from the top with the wind in our faces to view the towns of Capri, Positano, Almafi and Salerno. Eva and Nicolas picked us up and we headed home for dinner.

Day 21 – Back with the Girard’s it was fun to just hang out, along with a massive trip to the grocery store for coffee (25 lbs), wine (8 liters), pasta, balsamic vinegar, spices, olives, cheese and all kinds of other goodies. We had fun playing with Eva and Elise took naps and talked with Nicolas. Leia wasn’t feeling well, so we tried to help out as much as possible. Uncle Nicolas and Eva made French toast for breakfast although mixed up the salt and sugar so we had to give those to the dogs and try again. We also had Cookie (Black Lab) to watch because her puppies were due soon so we had to keep an eye on her. It was also fun to help give the girls baths and read books to Eva before bed.

Day 22 – Last day to be with family and pack up. We went to the market for coffee pots and trying to find seeds to plant hot peppers for Nick. Shared some Gelato with Eva for the last time then came home to pack up and rest. Nick and Eva made Tiramisu for dessert. We took the girls and dogs to the soccer field before dinner to play. Nick had never seen a dirt soccer field before . . . we were all dirty and in need of baths by the time we were done. Dinner and bed.

Day 23 – We went to the park in the morning to get the girls out of Leia’s way so she could rest. They are so cute at 3 ½ and 1 yrs old. We will miss seeing them, but thank goodness for Skype so we can keep contact and see them periodically. Back for lunch then Nicolas took us to the airport in Naples. We checked in with our massive bags full of food. Flew to NYC and spent the night in NYC before flying home on Sunday morning.

It is good to be home, but we both wished we had more time not only with family but exploring the country and culture and food of Italy.

Pictures will be posted soon. If you are on Facebook I’ll put some there while Nick takes time to edit and perfect the ones he’ll post here.