INTRODUCTION: driving in Europe (signs), disabled parking permit, private guides, lineups at attractions
Amsterdam: airport transportation (Renault Kangoo), rental van (VW Transporter), accessible hotel, Rijksmuseum, Van Gogh Museum, Anne Frank House, the Royal Palace, canal cruise, Zaanse Schans, Zandvoort
Berlin: accessible hotel, Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, Checkpoint Charlie, Berlin Wall, the Reichstag, Charlottenburg Palace, Egyptian Museum, Berlin Cathedral
Schwangau: accessible hotel, Bavaria sightseeing, Linderhof, Neuschwanstein
THE CZECH REPUBLIC
Prague: accessible hotel, cobblestones and curbcuts, Wenceslas Square, Old Town Square, Charles Bridge, pickpockets, Prague Castle
Salzburg: accessible hotel, The Sound of Music sights, Mozart attractions
Venice: parking, private water taxis, accessible hotel, canal cruise, bridges/public water buses (Vaporetto), St. Mark's Square/Basilica
Florence: accessible hotel, Santa Croce, the Duomo, parking in Florence, the Galleria dell'Accademia (Michelangelo's David), the Uffizi Art Gallery
Pisa: Leaning Tower of Pisa/Duomo/Baptistry
Siena/Assisi: Siena Duomo/Piazza del Campo, Church of St. Francis
Rome: Driving in Rome, accessible hotel, the Vatican museums/Sistine Chapel, St. Peter's Basilica, the Pantheon, the Colosseum, the catacombs, the Roman Forum, Circus Maximus, Hadrian's Villa, Castle Sant'Angelo, Rome accessibility
Milan: accessible hotel, Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper
Lucerne: accessible hotel, Mount Pilatus, the Chapel Bridge, the Lion Monument
Paris: accessible hotel, Notre Dame, the Arc de Triomphe, Montmartre, Moulin Rouge/the Lido, Seine cruise, Princess Diana site, the Eiffel Tower, Hôtel des Invalides, the Louvre, Palace of Versailles, Conciergerie/Palais de Justice
click on the symbol in the review for pic
By James Glasbergen
Since I had never been to Europe before, I wanted to see as
many cities and countries as I could in a limited period of time. The result
was 11 cities in 7 countries over 35 days. The goal was to see the major attractions
in each city and to get a taste of what each city and country was about. It
was a whirlwind tour that involved renting a van and driving throughout Europe
spending an average of 2 or 3 days in each city. We started in Amsterdam and
made a big circle through Germany, the Czech Republic, Austria, Italy, Switzerland,
and France before returning to Amsterdam. In the end it turned out to be just
the right amount of time in each city and the trip flew by.
On the whole, the trip went very smoothly. There were few unexpected surprises and everything pretty much went according to plan. In retrospect, we learned a number of valuable things. While I am glad we decided to a rent a van and drive through Europe on our own, I'm not sure I would recommend it to people. We found the highway signs and especially the street signs in the cities to be pretty awful. They were typically either hidden or nonexistent. We got lost in almost every one of the 11 cities we went to. I'm not complaining though because we knew this would happen beforehand, but it got to be quite stressful after a while. We pretty much had to figure in an extra hour or two to our driving time for getting lost each time we drove from city to city. Aside from the poor street signs, driving could also be crazy in some of the cities, such as Amsterdam, Florence, and especially Rome.
Another thing we learned was how important it is to bring your disabled parking permit with you if you are renting a vehicle in Europe. We were glad that I brought my permit along as it proved to be quite powerful, especially in countries like Germany and Italy. There were numerous cases in Italy where certain roads were closed to normal traffic, but once the police officer saw our permit, we were waved right through. We were also able to drive right up to certain landmarks and park right next to them, whereas normal vehicles were not allowed near there. We found this to be especially true in Florence and Rome. It helped that we had guides with us to tell us we could park there, or else we never would have known.
Speaking of guides, we had private guides in 8 of the cities we went to: Berlin, Prague, Schwangau, Salzburg, Venice, Florence, Rome, and Paris. Most of the guides gave us a 5 or 6 hour tour of their city. We found them to be incredibly helpful and I would definitely recommend getting a private guide. The good thing is that they are basically yours for the day so you can drill them for information on what to do in the city. Plus, they will only show you what you want to see. Another benefit is that since they are licensed guides, they know most of the people at the various attractions so they are able to talk their way in to many places free of charge. It seemed like there were many places where they would just flash their tour guide badge and we would go right in. Had we been on our own, I think we would have paid admission at a lot of places where the guides got us in free. It was also great because the tour guides got us to park in places we never thought we would be allowed to park. We also bypassed a lot of lineups for various attractions as the guides would just lead us right to the front. In fact, we found that there were very few attractions in Europe that we had to wait in line for. For most attractions there was either a wheelchair entrance, or wheelchairs simply went straight to the front of the line. When in doubt, the best thing to do is to go to the front of the line and ask a guard, who we found will usually escort you straight in.
Upon arrival at Schiphol airport in Amsterdam, we met up with the lady who we had arranged to bring us to our hotel. She picked us up in her Renault Kangoo, which was accessible but unbelievably small. In fact, not all of our luggage would fit in the car with us, so we had to have a taxi follow us to our hotel with some of our luggage. The Kangoo had a ramp for a wheelchair to enter at the rear, but it was incredibly tight inside. I had a rather long wheelchair, which meant my feet had to be jammed right up against the seat in front of me so that they could close the back door. It was a very uncomfortable ride for me as I was sitting on a slope and I was forced to sit with my neck tilted sideways since it was hitting the roof above me. I was quite relieved to finally arrive at our Amsterdam hotel and get out of that car. The scariest part of all was that the van we were renting was originally going to be a similar Renault Kangoo. However, after finding that out a couple weeks before leaving for Europe and seeing pictures of the van, I quickly called and they were luckily able to set me up with a bigger van. The Renault Kangoo simply would not have worked out for us. It would have been difficult just to fit us and our luggage in, but squeezing in a hoyer lift would have been out of the question. It scares me to even think about what we would have done if we would have been stuck with the Kangoo.
Our rental van was delivered to our hotel later in the afternoon. The hoyer lift was supposed to be delivered along with it, but it got left behind in France. It seems like it would not be a normal vacation without a company forgetting to deliver our hoyer lift on the right day. We called our contact in Paris and he had someone deliver it to us later that night. Our van was a Volkswagon Transporter () which had a raised roof and a ramp at the rear () for wheelchair access. Overall we were happy with the van, although it had its good and bad points. The best thing about it was that there was plenty of room for our luggage and we were not desperate for space. It also had air conditioning which turned out to be a life saver as Europe was experiencing an abnormally hot summer. Temperatures were rarely below 90°F for the whole trip, and they were around 100°F the whole time in Italy and France.
One thing I was not very happy about was that I had to sit behind the driver and passenger seats instead of in the front beside the driver like I was used to. The raised roof was also bothersome because it prevented me from seeing very far out of the windows. Since I am a tall guy, I could only see 15 or 20 feet of the road ahead through the windshield. I could see a bit more by leaning down and sideways, although it got to be quite uncomfortable after a while. The worst part of the raised roof was that it prevented me from reading street and highway signs and helping out with directions. All I could do was put a map on my lap and yell out where we were supposed to go. I had to leave it up to my friend to read the signs, which was quite difficult since he had to concentrate on driving. That's part of the reason we were lost in almost every city we traveled to, although that's not the whole reason. Street signs in Europe were pretty awful. The other unfortunate thing about the raised roof was that I was not able to see all of the beautiful scenery along the way, especially through the Alps.
In Amsterdam we stayed at a nice downtown
hotel. The room was not very big, but it was alright after rearranging the
furniture. There were two single beds (),
and the bathroom ()
had a roll-in shower ().
The buffet breakfast was fairly good, although we discovered that the earlier
we were there, the better the selection was. Parking was a bit of a challenge
as our van did not fit in their parking lot due to the raised roof. At first
we parked at a different hotel, but when they no longer had room, we had to
park across the street from our hotel where parking was €27 a day and
had to be paid before 9 a.m. each day.
After arriving in Amsterdam on the first day, we did not do much other than check in to our hotel and receive our rental van. The next morning we were off to Berlin. However, upon returning to Amsterdam at the end of the trip we were able to spend three full days in Amsterdam, where we stayed at the same hotel.
We started off one morning by walking to the Rijksmuseum, which was a good half hour walk from our hotel. Wheeling through Amsterdam was quite easy as all of the bridges were accessible and the sidewalks were quite wheelchair friendly. There were curbcuts almost everywhere. For admission to the Rijksmuseum, people in wheelchairs got in free and the other person had to pay the €9 admission. There was a special entrance for wheelchairs which had a lift that brought us to the main floor. The Rijksmuseum was quite worthwhile as there were a number of recognizable paintings, such as a Van Gogh self portrait and the Kitchen Maid by Vermeer. The highlight, though, was the Nightwatch by Rembrandt, which was quite impressive.
We also went to the Van Gogh Museum, which was located just behind the Rijksmuseum. There was quite a lineup to get in, but the wheelchair lift at the entrance was slightly off to the side so we got to scoot around the line and enter immediately. The lift was operated with a key, but once the staff saw us someone immediately came over to help. Admission was the same as the Rijksmuseum as only one of us had to pay the €9 entrance fee. The Van Gogh museum was also very worthwhile as a lot of his famous paintings were there, such as Sunflowers, the Bedroom, and the Potato Eaters.
Although I knew the Anne Frank house was not accessible, I decided to e-mail them before I went to Amsterdam to see what they said about its accessibility. They wrote back stating that "the Anne Frank House is a building in the stile of old houses along the canals: a lot of small deep stairs. Therefor(e) it is not possible for someone in a wheelchair to visit the old part of the museum (with the secret annex etc). Our new part of the building (with a multimedia room and museumcafe) can be visited by someone in a wheelchair. If you wish to do that, you can just let the person at the entrance know. Preferably after 17 or 18 hrs. That way you do not have to wait in line too long and it will be more quiet in the museum." We decided to walk over to the house anyway just to see where it was and to check out the outside of the building, although we did not go in to the museum. It was easy to tell which house it was by the long lineup of people outside who were waiting to get in.
We also toured the Royal Palace in Dam Square. Admission was €4.50 each. There was no wheelchair discount. It was a self-guided tour which was completely accessible. There was an elevator to the second floor. It did not take us very long at all to get through the rooms. Overall we found the Palace to be okay, but nothing spectacular--definately not worth more than €4.50 a person.
We also took a canal cruise through the city. Some of the boats were accessible and had a ramp to board the boat () and a lift () going down into it, but not all. You could either call a few weeks in advance, tell them what time you would like to take the cruise, and then they would ensure when they made the sailing schedule that a wheelchair accessible boat was scheduled for that time, or you could just call the same day and they would tell you what times the wheelchair accessible boats were departing (which is what we did). Wheelchair accessible boats usually left every hour or hour and a half. Admission was €9 per person. I wish I could describe how I enjoyed the cruise, but the truth is I fell asleep and missed most of it! I was told I didn't miss much though.
We started off our last day in Amsterdam by driving to Zaanse Schans, which was only a 10 or 15 minute drive from our hotel. It was quite interesting as there were windmills, wooden shoe making demonstrations, cheese making demonstrations, and other various museums and workshops that were all open to the public. We spent a couple hours there before driving to Zandvoort.
Zandvoort was only another half hour or 40 minute drive from Zaanse Schans. There was plenty of parking near the beach, although it was a slightly cool day which undoubtedly affected the number of people there. The beach appeared to be fairly accessible as there were paved paths leading down to the sand, although we chose to just stay and walk along at the top.
On our second day in Europe, we made the drive from Amsterdam to Berlin. After taking an hour just to find our way out of Amsterdam (street signs in Amsterdam were easily the worst of any of the cities we visited in Europe), we were finally on our way. The street signs in Berlin were about the best we saw our whole trip, so it didn't take us too long to find our hotel. We couldn't figure out where to park at first as there did not appear to be a hotel parking lot and there wasn't really a place to stop in front of the hotel. The hotel lobby was actually on the 7th floor. It turned out there was a pay public parking lot on the street behind the hotel and we received a voucher from the hotel to park there. The hotel was pretty nice, although our room did not have air conditioning. That was tough to take as it was a hot couple days in Berlin, and therefore it was stifling in our room. The room itself was pretty good though. There were two beds (), and the bathroom () had a roll-in shower ().
On our first day in Berlin our guide met us at our hotel for a six hour tour of the city. We first went over to the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, where we took a brief look inside the new church. The part of the old church that is still standing (the rest was destroyed by a bomb in WW2) was not accessible for wheelchairs. We also went to the former location of Checkpoint Charlie, although the Checkpoint Charlie Museum was also not accessible as there were steps at the entrance. Next, we went to the East Side Gallery, which is basically a kilometre long stretch of the Berlin Wall that remains standing. It is decorated by all sorts of colorful paintings and was quite interesting to see.
From there we drove over to the Brandenburg Gate. After walking around a bit, we walked over to the Reichstag. There was a special side entrance for wheelchairs to enter the Reichstag, which meant we were able to bypass the long lineup to get in. After going through security, we took the elevator up to the Dome. There was a long spiral ramp going all the way to the top of the Dome which provided a great view of Berlin. It was easy to get up there in a power chair, although getting up there in a manual chair might be a little exhausting. There was another long lineup to go back down the elevator, but as soon as the elevator doors opened and the attendant inside saw me, he ordered everyone to clear the way for me and we were escorted right to the front of the line.
The next day, we toured around the city on our own. We started out at Charlottenburg Palace. We walked around outside and went into the courtyard, but did not go inside the building. We thought about going to the Egyptian Museum across the street, but our tour guide mentioned that it was not very accessible. The highlight of the museum--the Queen Nefertiti exhibit--was apparently not accessible to wheelchairs.
Next, we drove over to the Berlin Cathedral. The main entrance was not accessible, but there was a buzzer at the side of the church which we had to press for assistance. Eventually a man came out, unlocked a gate, and brought us into the back of the church where we took a service elevator to get to the main floor where everyone else was. We were able to go in and look around for free. It turned out to be very worthwhile as the church was quite impressive inside.
Lastly, we decided to take a walk down to the Brandenburg Gate. As we got near, we noticed a large crowd of people walking straight toward us on the sidewalk. We knew it had to be some sort of celebrity as everyone was holding microphones and TV cameras over someone in the middle of the crowd. I decided to just stay put in the middle of the sidewalk so they would be forced to walk right by me and I could get a good peak at what all the fuss was about. Sure enough, German Chancellor Gerhard Shroeder walked right by me surrounded by a throng of reporters. . . kind of a funny way to end our stay in Berlin.
After spending two days in Berlin, we made our way to the Czech Republic. Other than taking a slight wrong turn and almost ending up in Poland, the drive from Berlin to Prague went pretty well. We found the street signs to be pretty awful once we got into Prague, though. After driving around for a while hopelessly looking for the street that our hotel was on, we finally found it. It was incredibly narrow and actually had 2 small steps you had to drive over to enter it. In fact, it looked more like a back alley than a street.
We stayed at a hotel which was only a short walk from the Old Town. Our room was the only designated "accessible" room in the hotel. The good thing about it was that both the main room () and the bathroom () were very large and there was plenty of space to move around. It also had air conditioning. The bad thing was that the bathroom had a bathtub (), not a roll-in shower as I requested. I went to the front desk to inquire about it, and they explained that it was their only wheelchair accessible room in the hotel and that no other rooms had accessible showers. Somehow, I was not surprised. The buffet breakfast was pretty good. It was located in the restaurant right beside the hotel. Parking was again an issue as our van would not fit in the normal parking area due to the raised roof. We had to park in a parking garage down the street, and even there we had to park in the staff parking area due to the height of the van. Parking was quite expensive there. I think they actually took us for ride on the rates as there were no posted rates, and both times we took the van out we were charged big amounts which did not seem right to us. Of course, when we questioned the man about it, he conveniently didn't speak English.
The great thing about our hotel was that we were within walking distance to most of the attractions. The bad thing about Prague in general was that most of the streets and most of the sidewalks were old cobblestone. Driving through Prague in a van was quite a rough ride in itself, let alone wheeling around town in a wheelchair. We managed to do it without any great problems, though. The curb cut situation was actually pretty good in general.
We started out one morning by walking over to Wenceslas Square. We made our way up the street to the statue of St. Wenceslas and then back down the other side before heading to the Old Town. One note for hockey fans who might want to go to Jaromir Jagr's sports bar located in Wenceslas Square. It was not accessible in any way. There was a big spiral staircase at the entrance which led downstairs to the bar.
Next, we made our way to Old Town Square, highlighted by Old Town Hall and Tyn Church. It was quite interesting as a big crowd gathered around Old Town Hall at the top of every hour to watch the glockenspiel show. Two windows open up above the astronomical clock and figures of the twelve apostles pass by the window.
Next, we went over to the Charles Bridge, one of the most famous landmarks in Prague. The Charles Bridge is a pedestrian bridge and a tourist haven. It was full of people who were walking across, checking out the architecture on the bridge, watching the various artists and musicians, and enjoying the great view of Prague from the bridge. The bridge remains a focal point at night as the number of musicians increases and tourists flock to the bridge to hang out.
One thing to watch out for when visiting the Charles Bridge (and anywhere in Prague) is pickpockets. I was warned before I came to Prague to watch out for gypsy kids who would try distracting you and then they would pick your pocket. Apparently they like to frequent crowded tourist areas...such as the Charles Bridge. I got to find that out first hand as I am quite certain that some girl tried to get her mitts into a little money pouch located on the side of my chair. It happened as we were leaving the Charles Bridge and crossing the street towards Old Town. As that is a big tourist area, there was a huge crowd of people waiting to cross the street. After the "walk" sign came on, we followed the crowd in making our way across the street. However, when we got half way across, some strange looking girl suddenly flung her arm in front of my chest to stop me from going, as if she was doing me a great favor by preventing me from getting run over by a car that she apparently "thought" was not going to stop for the light. The problem was that the car was already clearly stopped and waiting at the light, and while she was preventing me from going, the rest of the crowd continued on across the street since it was obvious the car was not coming through. I was quite annoyed because she kept holding me back, and only after 5 or 6 seconds did she move her arm so I could proceed across. Then, as soon as we got across the street this girl was again standing in front of me and getting in my space. Since it was crowded, I could not get around her. I just sat there and stared at her in disgust, but she wouldn't look at me. It was at this point that my friend (who was about 10 feet in front of me) turned around, saw the annoyed look on my face, and then noticed this girl holding her jacket over my money pouch. He quickly came back and stepped in between us, pushing her arm away. I think she was quite surprised as she probably did not realize that someone was with me. Anyway, while I can not prove that she was trying to pickpocket me, I am totally convinced that she was because she did not speak to me or look me in the eye one single time, not even when she flung her arm across my chest and forced me to stop abruptly on the street.
The last thing we did in Prague was visit Prague Castle. While it was only a short distance from the Charles Bridge, we had to drive there because there apparently is a rather steep hill with lots of steps leading up to the castle. We parked on a sidestreet (pay parking) near the entrance to the castle. The castle grounds were pretty good for accessibility. The roughest spot was Golden Lane, which was basically a street full of very small 16th century homes. The cobblestone street was awful, so bad that I didn't even try it. We just took a quick peek at the street and turned around. We also went into St. Vitus Cathedral, which was very nice. There was a ramp at the entrance and we did not have to pay admission.
Overall, I really enjoyed Prague. However, I can not see myself ever going there again. With most of the streets and sidewalks being old cobblestone, it is not the most comfortable city for wheelchairs to get around in. It seemed that no matter where we were--driving in a van or walking on the sidewalk--it was always a bumpy ride. I was actually happy to leave Prague after two days to hopefully get back to some decent pavement. Having said that, though, I do not regret going to Prague. I am glad I went there. The city has a lot of history and the architecture is amazing. It is definitely worth traveling to at least once.
After Prague, we made our way to southern Germany where we stayed in the little town of Schwangau. We stayed at a hotel close to Neuschwanstein and Hohenschwangau. We were very happy with the hotel. There was a nice wheelchair accessible room with two beds (, ), and the bathroom () was a good size and included a roll-in shower (). The breakfast buffet was fairly good. There was also free parking at the hotel. The only different thing we found was that, because Schwangau is so small, there were no convenience stores that were open at night and there was only one restaurant within walking distance (although it was quite good).
We started out our only full day in Schwangau by taking a five hour tour through Fussen and the Romantic Road region with a private guide. She took us to a number of interesting sites. We drove through Oberammergau where the famous Passion Play takes place every 10 years. We also visited the abbey of Ettal, a huge monastery in southern Bavaria. Another interesting stop was at Wieskirche (Church in the Meadow), which was a beautiful church in the countryside. Admission was free at the church and there was a ramp at the entrance. We were given permission to drive all the way up to the church and park along side it.
The last thing we did on our guided tour was visit Linderhof, one of King Ludwig II's castles. Once we got to the ticket booth, our guide informed me that there were 22 steps to get to the upper floor of the castle where the rooms were. The castle had a manual wheelchair there and they were willing to help transfer me into the manual chair and then carry me up the steps. I was not excited about that idea at all. At first I told our tour guide no because I hate transferring in to other chairs. Plus, she should have told me earlier that there were all these steps at the castle and not just assumed it would not be a problem. Anyway, since we were there I figured I may as well get transferred into the chair so we could go into the castle, and I was glad I did. It was very impressive inside. It seemed like everything was gold--hard to imagine that someone actually lived like that. The walk around the castle grounds was quite interesting too. It was very worthwhile to visit the Venus grotto, the artificial cave that Ludwig had made for himself. It was made out of artificial rock and included artificial stalactites and a man-made lake inside. The grotto was accessible.
Later in the afternoon we went to see Neuschwanstein, which was my main reason for coming to southern Germany. Neuschwanstein was built by King Ludwig II of Bavaria and was actually the inspiration for Disney's Sleeping Beauty castle. The trouble with Neuschwanstein was that it was full of stairs and people in wheelchairs could not just show up and tour the castle. The good thing was that they offered a special tour for people in wheelchairs. However, this tour was only offered on Wednesdays at 6 pm and reservations HAD to be made in advance. I made reservations a couple months in advance through e-mail. The tour was limited to 5 wheelchairs, with each person in a wheelchair allowed one able bodied companion.
The parking situation at Neuschwanstein was great. When making the reservation, they e-mailed me a parking pass which allowed us to drive all the way up to the castle. This was important as everyone else had to make a 20 minute walk up a very steep road to get to the castle. There was no designated parking area at the top. We simply parked right up against the castle. No one actually asked to see our parking permit on the way up, although it is still important to have it just in case.
We picked up our tickets at the will call booth which was located on the left side of the castle where everyone else entered () the castle. Don't ask at the information booth which was immediately through the big doors on the left. Just go straight through the big doors and turn right after entering the courtyard. There is a wood door going inside to the will call booth. Admission was €7 for a wheelchair and €8 for a companion. The wheelchair tour actually began at the opposite side of the castle by the exit. Although the tour began at 6 pm, we were told we had to pick up our tickets before 5:30 pm, which was when they closed. The tour itself was completely accessible and entirely worth it. There was an elevator going up to the upper floors. The guide conducted the tour in both German and English.
After the tour we thought we would take a short stroll down the path and see if I would be able to get out to Marienbrücke. Marienbrücke is the bridge that provides the only good, unobstructed view of Neuschwanstein (). You could not get a viewpoint like that from anywhere else because there were too many trees in the way. I was amazed to discover that the whole path out to the bridge was paved and completely accessible. That was the good news. The difficult thing was that the path was INCREDIBLY steep in several areas (). Someone in a manual wheelchair would never be able to wheel out there on their own, and I doubt many people would volunteer to push someone up and down those slopes. Even someone in an electric chair would not be able to get there without help. I had trouble getting up a lot of the slopes in my power chair, and I actually needed to be pushed in a few areas because my chair just didn't have enough power to do it alone. Going down the slopes was another story. There were a few slopes that made me pretty nervous. I had electric brakes so I wasn't worried about that. The problem was that it was so steep in some areas, my tires would lose grip on the pavement and my chair would just start sliding off on its own. I had to have my friend hold my handlebars on the way down to prevent me from sliding off to my death. In the end, it was definitely worth it. The view from Marienbrücke was spectacular. The bridge made me a little nervous because the wood looked pretty old and decrepit, but that's part of the fun I guess. Looking back, the adventure out to Marienbrücke was easily as fun as the tour of the castle itself and I am totally glad I decided to try it.
After spending a day in Bavaria, we made the four hour drive to Salzburg, Austria. It took us a while to find our hotel as we found the street signs in Salzburg to be pretty awful. The main entrance to the hotel was not accessible but there was an accessible entrance through the adjoining restaurant. Our room was absolutely huge. There was a big bed () and a large sofa bed (). Unfortunately, the bathroom was not very accessible at all. It was tight () and there was a bathtub () instead of a roll-in shower. We found out that the hotel did not actually have any wheelchair accessible rooms. The room that we were in was usually given to disabled people because it was a double-sized room, but there were no rooms that had been specifically converted for guests in wheelchairs. We actually enjoyed our stay there though. The manager was incredibly helpful and the buffet breakfast was great. Parking at the hotel was free.
There was basically only one reason I wanted to go to Salzburg--to do a Sound of Music tour. I know that the movie is cheesy, but I was forced to watch it a million times when I was young so I thought it would be fun to see some of the places where it was filmed. We had a private guide who took us on a five hour city/Sound of Music tour.
We started out the tour by going to see Leopoldskron Palace, which was close to our hotel. The back of the palace was used in the movie as the back of the Von Trapp mansion. It was here that a number of scenes were filmed on the terrace, as well as the scene where they all fell out of the canoes into the lake. Since Leopoldskron Palace was not open to the public, we could only view it from across the lake, but it was still pretty cool to see.
We also drove over to Frohnburg Palace, which was used as the front of the Von Trapp mansion. It was here that Julie Andrews came down the path swinging her guitar and singing "I Have Confidence" before coming to the front gate and knocking on the front door to introduce herself as the new governess. The scene where they were pushing their car out of the driveway in order to escape was also filmed there. Frohnburg Palace is now a private music school and therefore was not a normal stop for most organized tour groups. Our tour guide had actually not been there in a long time because of that. However, since we were on a private tour, we decided to try driving there to see what we could see. We parked in a disabled spot in the school parking lot, although I don't think we were really allowed to be in that parking lot. Then we got out and walked right in through the back of the school, straight through the hall, and out the front door into the courtyard where all of the scenes from the movie were filmed. That was cool!
We also went to Hellbrunn where the famous gazebo from the movie sits in the park. The songs "Sixteen Going on Seventeen" and "Something Good" were set in this gazebo. Although the gazebo was originally located at Leopoldskron Palace, it was reconstructed at Hellbrunn to accommodate tourists. Next, we went to Mirabell Gardens where Maria and the kids ran around singing "Do-Re-Mi." That is a worthwhile visit even for people who have no interest in The Sound of Music. The gardens were very impressive. After exploring the gardens, we walked over to the other side of the river where we came to Residenz Square. Residenz Fountain, located in the middle of the square, was where Julie Andrews stopped and splashed water at the horses in the fountain as she was singing "I Have Confidence." Rock Riding School, which was used as the Festival Theater in the movie where the Von Trapps won the music contest and then made their great escape, was also located a short walk away. Unfortunately, we could not get inside to see the interior because there was a concert going on. They do apparently offer guided tours on certain days, although I don't know if it is accessible. The last Sound of Music related sight that we visited was St. Peter's Cemetary. Although the scene near the end of the movie in which they were hiding behind tombstones was filmed on a Hollywood set, the inspiration for that set came from this cemetary which has very similar characteristics.
There were also a number of attractions related to Mozart that we were able to see. There was a large statue of Mozart located just outside of Residenz Square. We also visited Salzburg Cathedral, located a few streets away. Inside the Cathedral you could find the baptism font which Mozart was baptized in. Admission to the Cathedral was free and there was a ramp at the entrance. Also a few streets away was the house that Mozart was born in. It now served as a museum, although we did not go inside because we were told it was not accessible. Back on the other side of the river, you could also visit another house related to Mozart. Mozart lived there from 1773-1780. It too was converted to a museum, but this one was accessible. There was an elevator going to the upper floor. We had to first hop over a good 7 or 8 inch lip to get in to the building though. We did not find the museum to be very interesting.
After spending a full day in Salzburg, we were on our way to Venice. What was supposed to be a 4 and a half hour drive ended up taking closer to 9 hours. When we left Salzburg in the morning, the hotel manager told us that there had been a car accident on the highway and that it would probably take us an hour or two to get out of the city. In fact, we ended up virtually at a standstill for 4 hours. Over those 4 hours, we may have moved one or two kilometres. It was the weirdest kind of traffic jam, too. We would be at a complete standstill for around 20 minutes, and everyone would have their cars turned off and be out walking around on the highway. Some would go for a walk, while others would get out food and have a picnic. Then when there was a sign of movement up ahead, everybody would quickly get up and race back to their vehicles, drive a couple hundred feet, and then turn their cars off and get out again at the next standstill. We actually saw the same thing when getting stuck for an hour in a traffic jam in the Czech Republic. Maybe it's a European thing. I have never seen that anywhere else.
We finally arrived at in Venice at around 9 pm. We were not really sure where we had to park or catch our water taxi. After a bit of searching, we finally found the pier, where our water taxi was waiting for us. There was no parking there though, so we first stopped and dropped our luggage off on the water taxi before parking our van and then walking back to our taxi. It is a good idea to ask at your hotel if they have vouchers for discounts on parking. We were able to get a voucher at our hotel that gave us 10 % off parking at the garage we parked at.
While the water taxi was accessible and equipped with a lift, we still encountered two problems. First, it was not very big so the hoyer lift would not fit inside the cabin. Actually, it might have fit (would have been close), but the driver was not even willing to try, so we had to leave the lift in the van and go without it for three days. We were not very happy about that at all.
The other problem was that there was about a one foot gap between the dock and the boat, not to mention that the boat was also about one foot higher than the dock. They did not have a ramp to bridge the gap, so there was no choice but to lift me over the gap. The driver lifted the front of my chair, which was not a big deal. The bulk of the weight was at the back of my chair, which my friend had the privilege of lifting. Considering my wheelchair and I are a combined 500 pounds, we were lucky he was able to do it. It was a sign of things to come though as there were numerous times in Venice where I had to get lifted over similar bumps. That's why it is a good idea to have a strong person with you when visiting Venice.
Once I was on the boat, the driver immediately lowered the lift down into the boat. The lift was basically a platform that raised up to the level of the top of the boat so you could wheel straight on and off, and then it lowered into the floor of the boat. When I first saw it, I was a little nervous because I did not think it was going to be able to lift me, but it was not a problem at all. (See paragraph on the canal cruise below for water taxi pics).
After a 20 minute boat ride we arrived at the little island that our hotel was on. It was a good five minute walk from the pier to our hotel. Our hotel did not have bell boys to come and help with our luggage, so our boat driver was nice enough to grab a couple bags and help us out. Unfortunately, the entrance to the hotel was not very good. We had to go in through the side door which had a good 8 to 10 inch lip that I had to be lifted over to get in (). This lip was also the start of a ramp leading up in to the hotel, which made it even more difficult to lift me in. The elevator was not very good either. It was very tight. I actually had to adjust my foot rests every time because I was just a little bit longer than the elevator. Our room was pretty good. There were two beds () and the bathroom () had a roll-in shower (). The room also had air conditioning, which was very important as it was incredibly hot in Venice.
On our first morning in Venice we took a two hour canal cruise with a private guide. The guide met us at our hotel and we made our way over to the pier where our boat and driver were waiting for us. The boat was actually a private water taxi () and was virtually identical to the boat that we took to get to our hotel the night before. Therefore, the lift () was the same and we had the same issue with there being a gap () and a height difference () between the dock and the boat which I had to get lifted over. The canal cruise itself was great.
Later that afternoon, we were scheduled to take a two hour walking tour of St. Mark's Square with a private guide. This was when we ran in to the only bad experience of our whole trip. Our guide showed up at the hotel and immediately said, "are you able to make it across that bridge on your own?" There was a really small canal separating our island from St. Mark's Square. It was so small you could almost spit across it. Of course, the bridge had around 12 steps on each side of it (), so there was absolutely no way I could get across or get lifted across. Since we did not have alternate transportation booked, we were basically out of luck and we could not do the tour. The tour guide mentioned that he had taken people in wheelchairs from our hotel to St. Marks before, but they were always in manual wheelchairs and just got carried over the bridge. He felt awful about it and actually was nice enough to call the boat driver we had on the canal cruise earlier that day and arrange for him to bring us to St. Mark's the next day so we could at least tour it on our own. Unfortunately, it ended up costing us €90 roundtrip, even though it was only a two minute boat ride. There was a public water bus called the Vaporetto which was actually much cheaper. You could ride it for only a few Euros, or even get a 1, 3, or 7-day pass. The #1 Vaporetto was completely accessible and made stops on numerous islands. However, the problem was that there was no Vaporetto stop on our island, meaning the only way to get on and off our island was by the expensive private water taxi. (Venice consists of over 100 islands which are connected by over 400 bridges, but none of them were accessible. I read somewhere that there were actually 4 bridges that had lifts, but I sure didn't see any of them). In hindsight, if I ever go to Venice again, it would DEFINITELY be better to stay on an island that has a Vaporetto stop so that you can travel cheaply throughout the city and get on and off at different islands. This assumes that you can find an island that has both a Vaporetto stop and an accessible hotel on it though.
The next morning we took the private water taxi to St. Mark's Square where we spent the bulk of the afternoon. We had barely started to walk around when we ran in to the tour guide that was supposed to give us our two hour walking tour the day before. He was happy to see that we were able to get there after the little mishap the day before. He was extremely helpful too. He immediately gave us a little two minute rundown of the square, and then he escorted us past the lines and straight in to St. Mark's Basilica. The wheelchair entrance was actually through the exit where everyone else was walking out. The guide just held everyone back for a few seconds so we could get through. There was a little 6 inch lip to get over which was no problem, and then there was a ramp going in through a side entrance. He brought us right in to the church where he gave us a little 2 minute overview of things to look for, and then he left. We were very fortunate to run in to him since we didn't really know what we were doing at first. St. Mark's Basilica was quite impressive and is really a must-see when in Venice.
The rest of St. Mark's Square was quite interesting as well. There were numerous small alleys which were full of restaurants and shops. It was also cool just to sit in the main square and watch the flocks of pigeons. I had hoped to go to the top of the Campanile (bell tower) to get a great overhead view of Venice. There was apparently an elevator that went to the top, but unfortunately there were four steps () just to get in to the tower first.
Overall, we enjoyed our stay in Venice. It was unfortunate that we never got to do the guided tour of St. Mark's Square, but we did get to do the two main things I wanted to do, which were to do a canal cruise and to go to St. Mark's Square. While Venice clearly was not a very accessible city, people in wheelchairs could get around with the right research and planning. If I were to go to Venice again, there are two things I would do differently. First, I would bring a manual wheelchair, and second, I would get a hotel on an island that has a Vaporetto stop. That way I could get a day pass and take the public water bus to explore the city by hopping on and off different islands. I would also think seriously about making a small, portable ramp to take along which could help bridge small gaps or heights.
After a couple days in Venice, we made the 3 1/2 hour drive to Florence. Driving in Florence was pretty crazy. It took us a long time to find our hotel because the street signs were terrible. We knew we were in the general vicinity of our hotel because we went by the train station a few times, yet we could not find our street. We ended up getting lucky though. All of a sudden we saw a sign on a building and realized that we somehow ended up on the street we were looking for and the hotel was just up the street.
Our hotel was pretty good. There was a ramp () in to the lobby at the main entrance. The elevator was similar to the elevator in Venice, though. It was not very long so I always had to adjust my foot rests in order to fit inside of it. Our room was good, although a little small. There were two beds () and a roll-in shower () in the bathroom (, ). The room also had air conditioning. The buffet breakfast was about the worst of any of the hotels we stayed at. There was very little selection. The breakfast room actually had 3 or 4 steps going into it, but there was a big long ramp on the side going over the steps.
I found wheeling around Florence to be fairly easy. There were generally plenty of curbcuts on the streets. A lot of the streets and sidewalks were narrow though, and some were cobblestone.
On our first day in Florence, we had a six hour tour with a private guide. We started off by going to Piazza Michelangelo, which was basically a lookout area that provided a great view of Florence. There were also lots of vendors and tourists. Next, we went to Santa Croce, which was a huge basilica. Inside were the tombs of a number of famous Italians, such as Michelangelo, Galileo, and Machiavelli. We also went to Santa Maria Del Fiore, also called the Duomo. Both Santa Croce and the Duomo were free and accessible, and both were worth the visit.
One thing we learned in Florence was how powerful the disabled parking permit is in Italy. If you have the permit in your windshield, you can park in a lot of places that most people can not. For instance, we were able to park right up against Santa Croce and the Duomo, whereas everyone else had to park further way. We actually had numerous instances in both Florence and Rome where our guide would just flash our permit to a police officer or a security guard and we would be waved right through. This was helpful as it often meant less cobblestone that I had to wheel over to get to the attraction.
We also went to the Galleria dell'Accademia where Michelangelo's famous statue of David was. Admission was free and we basically went right inside without waiting. The statue of David was pretty cool. It was a lot bigger than I thought, and you could tell when viewing it up close that it once sat outside for a number of years. Next, we went to the Uffizi Art Gallery. Once again, admission was free for us. We did not have to wait in line to enter, either. There was an elevator that took us to the upper floor and we went right in. The Uffizi was pretty cool, too. There was a lot of famous art there, such as The Birth of Venus by Botticelli.
The next morning we made the hour and a half drive from Florence to Pisa to see the Leaning Tower. Unfortunately, it poured buckets for the first half of the day. We can't really complain though. It was the only rain we experienced the whole 35 day trip. Upon arriving in Pisa, we ended up driving around town for a bit trying to find the Leaning Tower. While there were signs for it and we knew we were close, it was still confusing. Some guy finally told us that we had to park our car and then just walk up the street. We couldn't find accessible parking so eventually we ended up just parking along side the street.
Sure enough, after a short walk up the street, the Leaning Tower suddenly came in to view. It was a cool place to walk around with the Baptistry, the Duomo, and the Leaning Tower all next to each other. The Leaning Tower was not accessible as there was no elevator. The Duomo was accessible though. There was a ramp () at the entrance directly across from the Baptistry. Admission was free. It was quite impressive inside. The Baptistry did not appear to be accessible. While there wasn't much else to see in Pisa, we definitely thought it was worth the drive to spend an hour or two there.
After two days in Florence, it was time to head to Rome. When planning the trip, we were advised by numerous people that driving in Rome ourselves was not a good idea as it was a crazy city to drive in. Therefore, we decided the best solution was to hire a driver to pick us up in Florence and drive us to Rome in our van, and then drive us around Rome for 3 days before returning to Florence. It was one of the best decisions we made. As we were about half way through the trip, it gave my friend a much needed break from driving for 4 and a half days. While we did not find the traffic in Rome to be as crazy as we expected, we most certainly would have gotten lost on more than a few occasions. With so much to see in Rome, the last thing we would want is to waste time driving around not knowing where we were and getting frustrated. It was a lot better that we had a driver who knew the city and who could just drop us off and pick us up wherever and whenever we wanted. As I mentioned earlier, it was also great because our driver was just flashing our disabled parking permit at everyone and parking in all sorts of places we never would have even dared try.
Our driver met us at our hotel in Florence. We did not have anything planned that first day other than driving to Rome. We were fortunate to end up with a great driver. He suggested that we make stops in Siena and Assisi on the way to Rome, which sounded great to us.
Our first stop was in Siena where we spent about an hour. We went to the Duomo first, which was amazing. There was a ramp on the left side of the building and an accessible entrance into the church. Admission was free. Next, we walked over to Piazza del Campo, which is Siena's main center of activity. There were 10 or 11 narrow streets that lead in to the square. The square was full of people. Piazza del Campo is famous for the horse races that take place there every summer. (SIENA PICTURES)
After Siena, we drove over to Assisi to visit the Church of St. Francis. We parked in the open courtyard area next to the lower church. We were not sure if the church was accessible at first because there were steps at the entrance going down in to the lower church. After a few minutes of confusion some guy pointed out to us that at the exit door, which was located about 10 feet beside the entrance and had the same layout, there was actually a ramp. So, we entered the lower church through the exit. It was quite interesting inside. We were able to walk around and check out the church. Unfortunately, the tomb of St. Francis did not appear to be accessible. There were signs pointing down a stairwell to get to the tomb on a lower floor. I did not ask if there was an elevator, but I am quite certain there was not as we walked around the whole floor without seeing one and everyone else was taking the stairs.
After exiting the lower church, we made our way to the upper church, located above the lower church. There was a somewhat steep road leading up to the church, but it was no problem for my power chair. The entrance to the upper church was fairly accessible. There was just an 8 or 9 inch lip at the door, but it was not too bad to get lifted over. We discovered on the way out that there was no lip at all at the exit door, so one could probably enter through the exit if they reallly wanted to avoid that bump. The upper church was quite interesting inside as well. We found the Church of St. Francis to be a fairly worthwhile stop on the way to Rome. Admission was free. (ASSISI PICTURES)
After stops in Siena and Assisi, we were finally on our way to Rome. We stayed at a fantastic downtown hotel. Our room was quite large (). There were two single beds and two bathrooms, one of which was accessible. The accessible bathroom was very spacious () and included a roll-in shower (). The room also had air conditioning, vital when visiting Rome in the summer. Unfortunately, the buffet room in the hotel was not accessible. There were three steps leading in to it (). It was not a big deal though as there was a big lobby with tables and couches next to the buffet room, so I just had my friend grab some food for me and we ate in the lobby. The elevator was not that great either as I always had to adjust my footrests in order to fit inside of it, just like in Venice and Florence. I would definately stay at that hotel again though because our room was awesome.
On our first day in Rome we had a six hour tour with a private guide. Our first stop was the Vatican, where we visited the Vatican museums. Admission to the Vatican museums was free for disabled people who had a special disabilty card. We ran in to the same thing in Australia in 2000 where you had to have a special disability card to prove that you were in fact disabled and were entitled to the discount (as if the wheelchair wasn't proof enough). Anyway, after explaining to the lady at the ticket counter that I was from Canada and that we did not have that sort of identification (at least not that I was aware of), she agreed to let us in for free, but I still had to sign a form which included my name and address in order to get the discount.
The Vatican museums were very interesting. Our guide showed us around and explained a lot of the sights. The Raphael Rooms were really cool, although the highlight was easily the Sistine Chapel. It was not easy getting there though. There were 11 steps that lead down to a hallway which went in to the Sistine Chapel. Fortunately, there was a wheelchair lift that rode along a rail on the side to take wheelchairs over the steps. I was concerned when I first saw it though because I had been on lifts like that before and they do not always have a very high weight limit, so I was afraid it would not carry the weight of me and my chair combined (500 lbs). Sure enough, it moved about a foot and completely stopped. I was stuck. They had to call the mechanics, and after a while of fiddling around, the lift magically went to the bottom. That was a huge relief, but they still had to take the whole lift apart at the bottom to remove the arm and set me free. All in all, I was stuck in that lift for about an hour. They did not have the lift fixed by the time we returned from the Sistine Chapel, so they simply transferred me into a manual chair and then a few guys carried my electric chair up the steps, followed by me in the manual chair, and then I got transferred back in to my chair at the top.
The Sistine Chapel was awesome. After finally getting off the lift at the bottom, there was a hallway leading to the Chapel. There was a ramp at the entrance going down inside the chapel. It was packed full of people. Of course, pretty much everyone was looking up at the ceiling to see the work done by Michelangelo. It was amazing. I'm glad I was able to see it. Before the trip I said there were only two things that I absolutely had to see in Rome--the Colosseum and the Sistine Chapel. I was a little nervous about the prospects of seeing the Sistine Chapel when I was stuck in that lift for an hour, but it all worked out in the end. It was definately worth it.
Next, our driver dropped us off at St. Peter's Square. We walked around a little bit and our guide pointed out some interesting things. Then we went in to St. Peter's Basilica. Admission was free and the church was completely accessible. It was quite impressive inside. St. Peter's Basilica is the largest Roman Catholic basilica in the world, followed by Notre Dame in Paris. There was plenty of interesting art and sculptures inside, such as Michelangelo's Pieta.
Visiting Vatican City took up most of our day, so we spent the last part making several short stops around the city. First we stopped at the Colosseum for a quick peak, and then we drove up some street where we were able to get out and have a great view of the Roman Forum. From there we took a short walk up the road to Capitol Square, where there was a big statue of Marcus Aurelius on a horse. Lastly, we drove across town to see the Trevi Fountain.
We started our second day in Rome by walking over to the Pantheon. It was completely accessible and admission was free. It was pretty interesting inside. There were a number of monuments, as well as Raphael's tomb. There was also a huge hole in the middle of the ceiling which enabled sunlight (or rain) to get in. There was not a whole lot else to see though. I don't think we spent more than a half hour at the Pantheon.
Next, we met up with our driver at the hotel and he brought us to the Colosseum. Our wheelchair permit came in handy once again as we were able to park in a little lot adjacent to the Arch of Constantine, which was right next to the Colosseum. The policeman initially waived us off, but then waived us in once our driver held up our permit.
I was a little worried about the accessibility of the Colosseum as it is so old and I had not heard many good things about its accessibility. However, it turned out to be great! The only real accessibility issue was at the entrance () to the Colosseum, where we had to get on to the sidewalk to enter the building and we didn't see a curbcut (in hindsight, I think there was a curb cut around the corner). Other than hopping that one curb, the Colosseum was generally great as most of the lower level and the whole upper level was completely accessible. One slight issue was on the lower level near the boardwalk where there were five steps () going down followed by another five steps going up leading to the walkway on the other side. That meant that we were not able to walk around that half of the lower level, but that was not a big deal as we were able to walk around the other half of the lower level and the whole upper level. There was a big, modern elevator going up to the upper level. Plus, from the upper level () we could see the part of the lower level that we could not get to, so we were able to see pretty much everything that anyone else could.
When we first got to the entrance, we were unsure about how to get tickets and whether there was a different procedure for people in wheelchairs. We were told by a staff member that there was no disabled discount on tickets and that we would have to get in line for tickets. (Incidentally, this was the only place on our whole European trip where wheelchairs had to wait in line. The lineup was huge, too.) We were not too excited about waiting in line, so we decided to take a guided tour instead.
As we were sitting outside the Colosseum, we were approached twice by people offering guided tours in English. They said the tour would last about an hour--the first 15 minutes would be an introduction outside the Colosseum and the last 45 minutes would be inside, after which we could stay inside and walk around on our own for as long as we wanted. They also said the tour would have about 15 people in it, and the best part was that we would not have to wait in line for tickets as they would get us in right away. This all sounded great to us so we went for it. The tour costed €17.50 (€10 for admission and €7.50 for the guide).
Unfortunately, the tour did not go as they said it would. By the time the tour started, there were at least 100 people on our tour, not 15. It was hard enough trying to see the guide, let alone hear him. He did make an effort to make sure I was near the front though. Another thing was that the little 15 minute introduction that was done outside the Colosseum was more like a half hour. We just wanted to get the heck inside! By the time we were ready to go inside, we had to wait for tickets. Our guide had to get tickets for everyone in the group, which was another 15 or 20 minutes (so much for bypassing the ticket booth). After getting tickets, we finally went in. We immediately took the elevator to the upper level, where the tour began. We slowly made our way around the upper level which was completely accessible. Unfortunately, the tour took FOREVER. It was frustrating because they promised a 45 minute tour inside the Colosseum, but it took about that long just to get around half of the upper level. There was also WAY too many people on our tour, not to mention the fact that it was 100°F outside making it hard to sit in the sun listening to someone ramble on. As the tour progressed, we noticed that more and more people were just walking away from the group and going on their own. We ended up doing that too because the group was too big and it was just too hot to spend two hours walking around the scorching Colosseum. We finished walking the rest of the upper level and the lower level on our own. I don't really regret taking the guided tour as the guide did have interesting information and facts. It just wasn't quite what they promised. If I had to do it again, I would have just toured the Colosseum on my own because it would have saved a lot of time. The guided tour was great for people who had a few hours to kill and wanted a good history lesson. I loved the Colosseum, though. It was easily the highlight of the whole trip!
After touring the Colosseum, we drove over to the catacombs. Our driver called them earlier in the day to find out if any part of the catacombs were accessible, and to our surprise there was. We were told the Catacombe di Priscilla was accessible. Our driver dropped us off and then went inside the main building to figure out what the deal was. He picked up the tickets for €5 each, and we were told to go across the street and down a ways where our guide would meet us at a door for the tour. When we got there, we immediately realized that it was not as accessible as we were led to believe. There were two huge steps that I had to get over to get through the door (). There was no way I could get lifted over those steps. Fortunately, we noticed a stack of metal sheets conveniently sitting just inside the door. Our driver was very helpful as he grabbed a few metal sheets and created two ramps--one going from outside to the top step, and another from the top step going down inside (). It actually worked quite well.
Once inside, a nun gave us a short tour through several tunnels. It was quite accessible, although some areas were tight. I think the ground was a combination of hard dirt and stone, but it was smooth. The tour only lasted about 20 or 25 minutes because a lot of it was not accessible due to stairs. That was fine with us though. We were happy just to see a bit of the catacombs so we had an idea of what they were like. We really enjoyed the tour.
We started off our last day with a trip to the Roman Forum. I was determined to see if I could get in there and wheel around to see all of the ruins close up. Once again, we parked in the little lot near the Arch of Constantine, which was adjacent to both the Colosseum and the Forum. We entered the Forum through the Arch of Titus, where we encountered the worst cobblestone path I have ever seen (). The cobblestone was the remains of the Via Sacra, which was the main path through the Forum. Unfortunately, it was absolutely crazy getting over the path. I'm sure people were looking at me wondering what the heck I was thinking trying to get over it in a wheelchair, but I didn't care. I wanted to see how far I could get. The good news was that the awful cobblestone didn't last the whole way. Once we got towards the middle of the Forum, it was much better. A lot of the paths were a mixture of hard dirt, gravel, and stone, so it was easy to get around and see a lot of the ruins. There were still cobblestone sections, but they were not nearly as rough as near the entrance. After wheeling around and checking out the sights for a while, we exited the Forum the same way we went in. Going over that path near the Arch of Titus was pretty ridiculous, and I certainly wouldn't recommend it for people who hate bumps or who have brittle wheelchairs. I was happy to get through it without any wheelchair problems. It was definately worth it though!
Next, we walked over to the remains of the Circus Maximus, located just down the street from the Colosseum and the Forum. The Circus Maximus was the big race track where the chariot races used to be held. It used to sit around 200,000 people. Unfortunately, there is not much left of it now other than a huge open field with a dirt outline where the track used to be. It was still pretty cool to see though. It was easy to sit on the hill overlooking the track and imagine people like Ben Hur racing around in their chariots!
Next, we got back in our van and drove to Tivoli to visit Hadrian's Villa. It was about a half hour drive from Rome. At Hadrian's Villa, you could walk around the huge estate and view the ancient ruins of the emperor's once grand villa. I found the accessibility to be really good. Instead of parking at the bottom and walking up the long road to the villa like everyone else had to do, we were able to drive all the way to the top and park by the entrance. Getting around the property in a wheelchair was fairly easy. The paths were mostly hard dirt with some gravel, which was easy to wheel over. There were a couple spots that were rough due to gravel and large stones on the path, but not many. There were also ramps in a few places. We found that there were a couple spots that did not appear to be accessible at first, but then after looking around more we would find an accessible way to get to the spot we wanted to go.
The villa itself was pretty interesting. It was hard to imagine it as the grand estate it once was as it is now nothing more than ruins of old buildings, with a couple columns here and a wall or two there. One must-see at the villa is the remains of the Canopus. We actually almost missed it as we were not aware it was there and we had toured pretty much the whole villa already. Since it was 100 degrees out and there were stairs leading to that section of the villa, we had had about enough and were ready to leave, but then we noticed a path leading through a tunnel to that area, so we thought we would give it a quick look. It was a good thing we did because the Canopus was actually the highlight of Hadrian's Villa. It was basically a huge reflecting pool surrounded by columns and marble statues.
On our last night in Rome, we decided to make some quick stops at a few places to see how they looked at night. We made stops at the Colosseum, Piazza Venezia, the Trevi Fountain, and St. Peter's Square. Lastly, we went over to Castle Sant'Angelo where there were fireworks at 11 p.m. that night. When we got there, the bridge was packed full of people. Although the castle normally closed early, it was open late that night because of the fireworks. We noticed a lot of people entering the castle, so we thought we would go in and watch the fireworks from inside the castle. That was a bad decision. We had to pay €8 each to enter the castle. There was no discount for wheelchairs. Then they immediately took us up the elevator to the upper floor. When we got out, we discovered the whole level was jam packed full of people, and of course everyone was huddling around the various little windows to see the fireworks. The level was actually outdoors, but it was surrounded by a high stone wall with little windows to look through. We raced around frantically trying to find a place where we could see the fireworks, but it was just way too crowded. I finally decided to take the elevator down again and just go outside to see the fireworks before we missed them. However, it was a service elevator so it wouldn't move until after the fireworks display. Sure enough, the fireworks started going and we completely missed them. We heard them, but didn't see a thing. I was livid. What added to my displeasure was the fact that the inner part of the castle was not even accessible as there were all sorts of stairs going in, so we could not even check out the castle a little bit afterwards. I have never felt so suckered out of €16 in my life.
Other than the Castle Sant'Angelo incident, we had an awesome time in Rome. It was easily my favorite city on the whole trip. The thing I was pleasantly surprised about was the level of accessibility in Rome. Having read different travel tales on the internet and talked to people who had been to Rome, I was prepared for the worst. I did not expect to find a hotel with a good accessible room, and I was not counting on the major attractions being very accessible. I was also expecting to find sidewalks everywhere with no curbcuts. I was wrong about everything. Our hotel was great, and we never ran into a problem with there not being a curbcut. Plus, the attractions were very accessible, even the older ones. I was shocked at how accessible the Colosseum was. I had not heard good things at all about its accessibility before, but it was fantastic. Even the catacombs and the Forum surprised me. Other than the two big steps going in to the Catacombe di Priscilla, it was quite accessible inside, even though we were limited as to what we could see. I certainly did not expect to be able to visit the catacombs at all when we were in Rome. I was surprised we could get in to the Forum as well. While it was a very bumpy ride getting in there and it would hardly be considered an "accessible" attraction, there were no steps at the entrance, so a determined wheelchair user could certainly make their way in there. Vatican City was also great as there was a lift at the Sistine Chapel and an elevator at St. Peter's Basilica. All in all, I don't think Rome gets the credit it deserves when it comes to accessibility.
After three full days in Rome, we made the seven hour drive north to Milan, where we only stayed for a half day before driving to Switzerland. We found the street signs in Milan to be quite good, definitely the best we encountered in Italy. Our hotel was pretty good. The room was fairly large. There were two beds (), and the bathroom () had a roll-in shower (). The most convenient thing about the hotel was that check-out was not until 2 p.m., which was great for us since we spent the morning sightseeing before checking out and driving to Lucerne.
The main reason I wanted to stop in Milan on the way to Lucerne was to see Leonardo da Vinci's painting The Last Supper. It is found at Cenacolo Vinciano, the former refectory located next door to Santa Maria delle Grazie. Tickets for The Last Supper are somewhat hard to get due to the high demand. They advised making ticket reservations at least 60 days in advance, which is what I did. I just called the number (39-02-89421146) and made a reservation. The operators spoke English. She gave me a confirmation number, which I had to present when we showed up to pick up the tickets. We were told we had to be there to pick up our tickets at least 20 minutes before our reservation. Tickets were €6 each.
Cenacolo Vinciano was completely accessible. There was a step at the entrance, but they had a portable ramp which they quickly brought out. After picking up our tickets inside the entrance, we waited in the hall for our turn to go inside. Only 20 people were allowed in at a time for a maximum 15 minutes. When it was almost our group's turn, they got us together and escorted us outside along a path and into a booth connected to the side of the building. The doors then locked automatically around us. After a few minutes of waiting, the door to the building automatically opened and we entered in to the big, long room that The Last Supper was in. It was really cool. The painting was huge. It definately looked its age, though. We rented an audio cassette when we picked up our tickets so it was cool to hear commentary on the painting as we were looking at it. After 15 minutes, the buzzer sounded and the next group came in and we had to immediately leave. Fifteen minutes was enough, though. It was interesting. We were glad we stopped there.
After a half day in Milan, we made the three hour drive to Lucerne, Switzerland. We stayed downtown, only a short walk from the bus station and the pier. The hotel was great. Our room was quite big and included two single beds (). The bathroom () was also large and included two sinks and a roll-in shower (). The room also had air conditioning. Parking at the hotel was 20 Swiss francs a day.
We only spent one day in Lucerne. When I was planning the trip, I didn't know where in Switzerland I wanted to go. I just knew that I wanted to spend a day in Switzerland. A couple people mentioned Lucerne and Mount Pilatus, so I thought I would try it. I am glad we did because Lucerne was one of the most beautiful cities we went to and it turned out to be one of the highlights of the entire trip.
The main thing I wanted to do in Lucerne was to go to the top of Mount Pilatus. We were able to buy tickets at our hotel for the "Golden Roundtrip," which included the ferry ride from Lucerne to Alpnachstad, the cogwheel railway trip from Alpnachstad to the top of Mount Pilatus, the cable car from Mount Pilatus down to Kriens, and the bus ride from Kriens back to Lucerne. It cost €79 per person. I had e-mailed the boat company and Mount Pilatus before we left and was assured that everything was accessible. When we showed up at the pier and went to exchange our hotel voucher for the tickets, the lady at the ticket booth told us that a person in a wheelchair did not have to pay for a ticket, so she refunded me €79 since we paid for two tickets. I wasn't arguing with that! It definitely pays to buy tickets directly from the company instead of through the hotel though, because hotel staff are not always going to be aware of wheelchair discounts or accessibility issues.
The ferry from Lucerne to Alpnachstad was accessible (). There was a ramp to board the boat (). It took an hour and half to get across Lake Lucerne to Alpnachstad. It was quite a scenic boat ride, and it is worthwhile to go for a cruise on Lake Lucerne even if you do not intend to continue on to Mount Pilatus.
Once we arrived at Alpnachstad, we had to cross a two lane highway to catch the cogwheel railway for the trip up Mount Pilatus. The problem was that pedestrians could not cross the highway. There was a stairwell leading down to a tunnel that went under the highway. The stairwell had about 20 or 25 steps, but there was a lift on the side that went down over the steps. I had visions of the Sistine Chapel incident all over again because the lift was virtually the same. It only operated with a key, so my friend had to race over to the other side to find a staff member with a key. We were afraid we were going to miss the cogwheel because it was due to leave in a few minutes, and everybody from the ferry was already over there. We did not care to wait an hour for the next cogwheel, either. Fortunately, my friend found someone right away to help us, and the lifts were not a problem. There were two lifts--one on each side of the tunnel. The man brought us right to the place where we had to catch the cogwheel railway. There was another lift going up to the platform where everyone was waiting in line ().
When going up Mount Pilatus in a wheelchair, it is important to make a reservation with them ahead of time so they know what time you are coming. That way they can have an appropriate railway car ready and they can also have someone ready to help with the steps. That is what we did (although we had to hunt someone down for help with the steps). Timetables for the cogwheel railway and e-mail addresses can be found on the Mount Pilatus website. Boarding the cogwheel was no problem at all. They had a portable ramp which they brought out for me ().
The trip up the mountain in the cogwheel was really cool. The cogwheel railway is the steepest railway in the world. It took about 30 minutes to get from the bottom to Pilatus Kulm at the top. Along the way there was a lot of great scenery. Pilatus Kulm is located at a height of 7000 feet. For quadriplegics worried about altitude, I did not experience any dysreflexia at all at the top, unlike my trip to the top of Haleakala in Maui last year (although Haleakala was 3000 feet higher). At Pilatus Kulm, there was a hotel, a gift shop, and a restaurant, so you could spend quite a bit of time up there. Of course, the main thing to do was to check out the great views of the surrounding lake and mountains. Aside from the main lookout area, there was a tunnel through the rock that lead to different lookouts (). The tunnel was accessible. The path consisted mostly of a relatively smooth hard dirt and rock. There were a couple areas that were quite bumpy though, but I was able to make it through the whole tunnel.
For the trip back, we took the cable cars down to Kriens. The cable car that we initially took from Pilatus Kulm was completely accessible. The door was level with the platform so I just wheeled right in (). I think it fit around 15 or 20 people inside. However, that cable car did not go all the way down to Kriens. When we got part of the way down, it stopped at another station and we all had to transfer into the smaller gondolas, which typically sit four people. I was a little concerned at first because there was at least a 12 or 15 inch height gap to step in to the gondola. Fortunately they had a portable ramp, so they ended up stopping the whole gondola system while I wheeled in to the gondola. It was a little awkward inside because he wanted me to sit sideways instead of just wheeling straight in and staying put, so he was trying to move me around, but he didn't have much success. Anyway, I ended up getting the gondola to myself because there wasn't any room for anyone else to sit. That was really cool, it was a sweet ride down. The scenery was amazing. It's funny, I didn't imagine myself ever taking a cable car ride because I never would have thought those tiny gondolas would be accessible for a power wheelchair. It was totally a fun ride. There was a bit of an issue when we got to the bottom though. I don't know if they had another portable ramp at the bottom or not, but when they opened my door the guy did not feel like stopping the system or waiting for a ramp. I said something and he just kept waiving at me and pulling my handlebars to back me out, so I backed out. I'm sure he never anticipated that kind of weight because it was quite a hard thud when I hit the ground, especially for my front wheels since there was no one to lift that end. I was just glad to be off in one piece, though.
After gettings off the gondolas, we made the five minute walk to the bus stop to catch the bus back to Lucerne. This was the only part of the Golden Roundtrip that was not really "accessible." None of the buses had lowered floors, ramps, or lifts for wheelchairs to board. However, a number of the buses did have back doors that were quite close to the ground. There was probably a 10 or 12 inch gap. It was a pain, but after visiting cities like Venice my friend was getting used to lifting me over gaps. He just had to lift the front wheels up into the bus first and then go and lift up the back. Once I was in, I just drove straight ahead and there was a designated spot for wheelchairs. The bus ride back to Lucerne took about 15 minutes.
Since it was only mid-afternoon when we got back to Lucerne, we still had time to walk around town and check out some sights. We walked over to the Chapel Bridge first. Unfortunately, there were steps on both sides of the bridge. I think there were 4 or 5 steps on one side, and even more on the other side (). The good thing was that there were lifts on both sides of the bridge. They were those key operated lifts that go over the stairs, though. I hate those! Better than nothing, I guess. Of course, there was no one around with a key to operate the lift, but there was a sign there with a hotline number you could call for help with the lift. We were not in the mood for the hassle though, so we kept on walking.
The other big attraction that we managed to get to in Lucerne was the Lion Monument. A lion was carved out of rock in 1812 in memory of the Swiss guards who died at the Tuileries in 1792. Mark Twain apparently described it as "the saddest and most moving piece of rock in the world." It was just a short walk on the other side of the river to get there. It was totally accessible and was pretty cool to see.
That was about it for our day in Lucerne. The thing that impressed me the most about the city was its accessibility. Our hotel was great. Mount Pilatus was amazing as the ferry, the cogwheel railway, and the cable cars were all completely accessible, while the bus was doable with a bit of help. Even the Chapel Bridge had a lift to get over the steps. I would definitely recommend a trip to Lucerne. It was one of the highlights of the trip.
After a day in Lucerne, we made the 8-hour drive to Paris. We stayed at a hotel located within easy walking distance of the Eiffel Tower. The hotel was great. We had a nice room that included two beds () and a bathroom () with a roll-in shower (). The room had air conditioning, which turned out to be a life saver as Paris was experiencing a heat wave. It was over 100°F every day we were there. The buffet breakfast in the hotel was quite good. It was located in the restaurant on the first floor. There were steps going down to the restaurant, but there was a service elevator near the kitchen that was accessible. There was also parking at the hotel, which was around €30 per day.
On our first day in Paris, we had a six hour tour of the city with a private guide. As usual, the guide met us in our hotel. Our first stop was Notre Dame. There was a nice wheelchair parking spot on the street adjacent to the cathedral. Admission to Notre Dame was free. I am not sure if that is always the case or if the guide just talked our way in. There was a good 6 inch lip to get over at the entrance to the church, but it was completely level at the exit. By this time in the trip, I was a little "churched out" as Notre Dame was the 13th church that we had visited on the trip so far, so I didn't find it to be overly exciting. It was impressive inside, but so was every other church that we had seen so far. It was worth the visit, though.
Next, we drove over to the Arc de Triomphe. To get there, pedestrians have to take the tunnel underground since you can not walk through the heavy traffic in the roundabout. However, the tunnel was not accessible, so our private guide told us to just drive in to the center of the roundabout and hop the curb on to the sidewalk surrounding the Arc de Triomphe. The security people immediately walked over to our van because you are obviously not supposed to park there, but after my guide spoke with them, they had no problem with it as long as we were only parked there for a couple minutes in order to drop me off. After I got out, my friend had to park the van on a sidestreet and walk back. I doubt we would have had the courage to do that on our own, so that was the benefit of having a local guide with us who knew the city well.
I had read somewhere that there was an elevator in the Arc de Triomphe, so I was hoping we would be able to go to the top. However, we ran into two problems. First, there were three steps going from theoutside into the elevator. Second, the elevator only went up to a museum which did not have windows, not all the way up to the observation area. That obviously made the issue of the steps moot. Therefore, we decided to just walk around a bit outside and our guide pointed out a few things about the Arc de Triomphe and the tomb of the unknown soldier located beneath the arc.
From there we drove to Montmartre to visit Sacré Coeur. The main entrance to the church was not accessible, so we had to go all the way around to the back to get in. There was a slight step to get through the gate, and once inside the church there was an elevator going up to the sanctuary. It was pretty interesting inside. Admission was free. There was a good view of Paris from outside the church as Montmartre is located on a hill.
One thing we wanted to do in Paris was to see a Moulin Rouge show, so we stopped there with our guide to see if it was accessible. Unfortunately, there were 15 or 20 steps at the entrance, so that was the end of that idea. Apparently they were used to carrying people in manual wheelchairs over the steps, but an electric chair is just too heavy. Our guide recommended that we go to the Lido instead. It was a similar type of show and it was accessible, so we went the next night. There were steps at the entrance, but they hauled out a nice portable ramp that fit perfectly over the steps. Since tickets for the dinner and show were expensive, we opted to just go to the show alone. It was still €90 per person. We sat near the back. There were another four steps going down to the main floor where all the "dinner and show" people sat. I am not sure if they had another portable ramp for those steps or not. The show itself was great. It had all the singing and dancing of a Broadway show, but instead of a central plot it was just a number of different acts, such as acrobats, magicians, ice skaters, etc. The acts were all connected by lots of dancing, singing, and big costumes. Of course, most of the dancers were topless for a lot of the show which caught us a little by surprise, although.it was not suggestive in any way. In fact, there were some children in the audience, and they even had a children's menu.
We started the second day off by taking a cruise on the Seine. The boarding point was located only a short walk from the Eiffel Tower. Tickets for the Seine cruise were €7 each. The boat was accessible as there was a ramp to board it (). We were able to sit either inside or outside on the lower level. The cruise itself was pretty good. It took us for an hour long ride along the Seine passing by attractions such as the Musée D'Orsay, Notre Dame, the Louvre, the Statue of Liberty, and the Eiffel Tower.
We also took a walk by the tunnel where the Princess Diana car accident occurred. It's not easy to get a good peek inside the tunnel unless you actually drive through it in a car or van, but you can go right up to the Flamme de Liberté located on top of the tunnel. The Flamme de Liberté was originally connected with France giving the Statue of Liberty to the United States, but it served as a memorial to Princess Diana immediately after the crash.
Next, we walked back to the Eiffel Tower. We went to the North entrance where there was a huge lineup of people waiting to get in. We went to the front to ask a staff member about accessibility and where we should go, and he immediately escorted my friend to the front of the line to get tickets. After he got tickets, the staff member lifted up a rope and escorted us past the long lines to the very front, where we caught the next elevator up. It was great! We did the same thing a couple days later when we went up the Eiffel Tower at night. I always feel a little guilty for slipping in front of all those people, but it was sure better than waiting in line for an hour in 100-degree heat. We took the elevator to the second floor. There was another elevator that went up to the top level, but people in wheelchairs were only allowed to go to the second floor. That was okay, though. You can still get a great view of the city from the second floor.
On our third day in Paris, we got up and drove over to the Hôtel des Invalides, site of Napolean's tomb. This is where I experienced the biggest disappointment of the trip. The Hôtel des Invalides was not accessible. There were 14 steps at the entrance (), and we were told there were even more inside. So, we were not able to see Napolean's tomb. It was disappointing that such a major attraction would not be accessible to wheelchairs. There was another museum next door with exhibits related to French involvement in World Wars I and II. It was accessible and was free since we could not tour the Invalides, but we did not find it incredibly interesting.
Next, we drove to the Louvre. Parking was an interesting experience. We were not sure where to park, so we ended up in the underground parking garage where all the buses parked. There was a disabled parking space there, so it seemed perfect. We talked to the parking attendant inside, and he pointed us to a sign on the wall which listed parking rates for disabled vehicles. It was going to cost us €6.50, which was fine with me. However, when we returned to our vehicle a few hours later, a different parking attendant quoted us €60. Needless to say, I almost flipped. I pointed to the sign that displayed the disabled parking rates, and then he pointed out the small print on the sign which said that those were the 2002 rates which they no longer follow. That was irrelevant to me, because the other parking attendant (who turned out to be his boss) pointed us to those rates. There was no way I was going to pay €60 to park somewhere. Anyway, after about 10 or 15 minutes of bickering with the guy (who refused to phone his boss), we finally wore him down and he just told us to go, so we didn't pay anything.
Admission to the Louvre was free. Although we entered the museum from the underground parking, you could also enter through the Pyramid, where there was a huge elevator (). Just bypass the lineup at the pyramid and go straight in to catch the lift. The Louvre was completely accessible, although getting around was a little confusing. There were elevators and lifts all over, but a lot of elevators did not go to certain floors. Therefore, it was always a challenge to read the floor plans to first, find an elevator, and then to second, determine if that elevator went to the appropriate floor. The easiest and quickest thing to do was to just to ask a staff member, who were always very helpful. The museum was really interesting. Of course, the highlights were the Venus de Milo and the Mona Lisa.
On our last day in Paris, we went to the Palace of Versailles. Versailles was only a 15 or 20 minute drive from our hotel. We were able to find it without any difficulty. The signs were quite good. The regular parking area was outside the palace gates. From there, it was apparently about a 400 metre walk to the palace. Much of that walk was over thick cobblestone. The palace courtyard was all cobblestone and was incredibly bumpy (). Fortunately, they allowed vehicles with a disabled permit to drive right up to the palace. We drove right up to the disabled entrance to the palace, where I was dropped off. My friend then parked the van in a little parking area off to the side.
The wheelchair entrance to the palace was on the right side at entrance H. From there, we caught the elevator to the upper floor. Only the upper floor was accessible as there were many steps on the main floor. Admission to the palace was free. The inside of the palace was quite interesting. The highlights were the Hall of Mirrors, which was a long hall full of chandeliers and mirrors, and the Hall of Battles, which displayed paintings depicting scenes from historical French battles. It was also worthwhile to take a walk behind the palace. The area was huge and it was full of gardens and fountains.
After returning from Versailles in the late afternoon, we decided to drive over to the Conciergerie. We parked in the disabled spot on the street next to Notre Dame, which was only a few streets from the Conciergerie. The Conciergerie, the Palais de Justice, and Sainte Chapelle were all right next to each other. Unfortunately, it turned out that the Conciergerie was not accessible as there were four steps at the entrance and more inside. So, we decided to go next door to Sainte Chapelle instead. However, we ended up missing the last entrance by about two minutes. That left the Palais de Justice, which we did get to see. There was an elevator to get in and ramps inside the building that went over the stairs. There was not much to see though, other than some empty halls and empty courtrooms.