Wheelchair Accessible European Vacation
by Jack Campbell 1998

Jack Campbell shares tips and insights from his 24-day cruise to England with his wife Jill and their seven-week tour of the European continent.

My wife Jill and I took this trip in the spring of 1997. I traveled in a manual chair as I am unable to stand or walk, because of Polio fifty years ago. The vacation started in Florida, followed by a 24-day cruise  to England, and then continued for seven weeks in Europe.

Everything described here was wheelchair accessible unless otherwise noted. I planned the European itinerary using the Eyewitness Travel Guide books for each country. These guides show pictures and drawings of many tourist sites and they indicate accessibility for each restaurant, hotel, or tourist site.

We used a travel agent specializing in disabled people to make most of our hotel reservations and to reserve a wheelchair lift van in England. He booked us in ten hotels, which were supposedly accessible, three of them turned out to have steps to either the restaurant or the hotel entrance. When we left one hotel a day early, the hotel promised a credit to our travel agent, but he would not pass it on to us. So I won’t recommend him.

In England, outside of London, we found our hotels by using The Royal Association for Disability and Rehabilitation (RADAR), 25 Mortimer Street, London, W1N8AB Tel: +44-171637-5400 which lists hotels by three levels of accessibility. It wasn’t perfect, but it found us places to stay when no one else could.

Cruise Ships

Cruise ships are like big hotels, only better. If you have trouble traveling but would like to have a vacation, this is the easiest way. Most ships have only about four cabins that are accessible, and they tend to be taken many months ahead of departure.

The bigger the ship the more things there are to do. I like at least 1,000 passengers. There are several restaurants, a pool, a bar with piano player, a showroom, and a casino. But they also have five more advantages:

1) As you move from city to city, you don’t have to spend anytime packing and unpacking or fighting airports. 2) There are many things to do, such as play bridge, art classes, lectures, movies, exercise classes, games, etc. 3) There is a different entertainment show nightly. 4) You are with the same people for an extended period, so you naturally start conversations and get to know some of them. If you want to make friends, ask for a large dinner table. Also tell your travel agent, he may be able to make you part of a group at no extra cost. 5) There are delicious meals served almost around the clock.

Buildings and Streets

In Europe, the buildings are very old, usually from 100 to 300 Years old, which makes accessibility difficult. Oldness is respected in buildings in Europe. The cobblestone streets are often in disrepair and are frequently torn up. But they put back cobblestones, when cement would be a more permanent surface, and would also be a lot better for wheelchairs, baby carriages, bicycles, etc.

Transportation

Most of the cabs in London are "Black cabs", which have a spacious back seat and high ceiling. These cabs have a wide back door that opens 90 degrees and they carry ramps in the trunk. The cab driver always took my manual chair, tipped it back, put the front wheels into the cab and tipped the chair up and in, just as I would be lifted over a curb. With a powered chair they would use the ramps. London has cabs all the time, like New York. So you quickly wave one down and go wherever you want.

We rented a van with a wheelchair lift and tie downs to get out of London and see more of England. I think there must be a better way. Problems start when you drive a wide van on narrow country roads and you are driving on the wrong side of the road. Your perception of where the left side of your car is, is off. And your passengers think you are going to hit every parked car. Also the van rental was over a $100 a day. Next time, I will take a taxi between cities in England.

In France, my father rented a car and we drove out of Paris on Two day trips to Giverny see Monet’s garden and Versailles on one day and Chenonceau castle, Beaugency, and the Loire valley on another. This works well if you have a driver, and can transfer. The Versailles entrance has 1,000 feet of cobblestones. We later heard we could have driven over them to let me out.

In Rome, we no longer had a driver so we hired a tour guide, Rolando Zerey (Via Curio, Dentato, 25, 00174 Roma; phone # 7612111), through our hotel, at a charge of $36 per hour. He had a new Mercedes, was very helpful, spoke excellent English and spent two days showing us Rome and its vicinity.

Getting between cities is a hassle. We like to spend at least four days to a week in each hotel.

euro3.jpg (20941 bytes)The Eurostar train that runs from London to Paris or Brussels is wheelchair accessible in 1st class. You need a reservation, made before leaving the US, and you need to tell them about the wheelchair, but you and one companion only have to pay for 2nd class. The bathroom in 1st class is big enough for the wheelchair to get in, but not oriented so that the wheelchair can get in front of the toilet.

Most other trains in Europe are a disaster, if you can’t walk. If you are lucky, you may ride in the baggage car, otherwise you are stuck on the train car’s platform holding on and trying not to fall into the exit stairwell. Don’t try it!

The airplanes seem to have aisle chairs and accommodations for wheelchairs that are similar to the U.S.

Wheelchair Access

Few buildings or restaurants have accessible bathrooms. The best chance is in a department store or a major hotel.

I used a light weight manual chair, 21 1/2 inches wide. We put a sack on the back to carry sweaters, hats, tour books, etc. An electric wheelchair causes many problems with getting over the many uncut curbs and single steps as well as not fitting in a normal taxi.

In France, I saw little interest in wheelchair access. The rest of Europe seemed willing to help, but the old architecture with its steps and cobblestones make it hard to adapt. Continental Europe’s buildings frequently have one or two steps here and there which could easily have ramps but don’t.

According to the English rating system, there are three levels of accessibility, ranging from one like our U.S. laws to "not more than three steps." Few hotels in Europe that would meet US standards, for accessibility.

Hotels and Tourist Sites

We stayed in the following hotels. They were fully accessible and comfortable unless otherwise noted.

Orlando, FL - The Hyatt at the airport is only a short ride on a monorail and a short walk from the airport.

DisneyWorld - The Boardwalk Inn has some very large wheelchair accessible rooms. This hotel has a free accessible boat which pulls up at its back door to take you on a five minute ride to EPCOT Center or Magic Kingdom. To go to Disney World, Animal Kingdom or Downtown Disney you can take the free buses which are accessible.

Fort Lauderdale, FL - The Riverside Hotel on Las Osas Road is in the tourist shopping area and next to the New River. It is interesting to sit and watch the boats come and go. The hotel also has a very nice high tea at 4:00 pm. The city has wheelchair accessible taxi vans at no extra cost. We took them to and from the airport and the Jungle Queen. The Jungle Queen is an accessible boat traveling on the "New River" past the millionaires’ homes to an island for a dinner followed by a show.

Hamilton, Bermuda - Cruise ships dock right across the street from the shops. There was an accessible bathroom in a park. We took the ferry to the Royal Navy Dockyards and the old fort which had very thick walls. The view from the top of the fort showed us "all of Bermuda". There were no steps getting up but the last part was very steep and on dirt.

Funchal, Madeira - It was a two-mile taxi ride into town. Walking around the town, shopping, having a drink on a patio and just looking was relatively easy and very pleasant.

Cadiz, Spain - We walked into town. The streets, including the sidewalks, are about 13 feet wide with sidewalks about 24 - 27 inches. The sidewalks are about 1 to 3 inches above the cobblestone streets. Sometimes cars park partly on the sidewalk and partly on the street.

Lisbon, Portugal - We got a taxi driver with good English to take us up to St. George’s Castle. The view is good and the castle walls were interesting, but it is mostly dirt with some gravel and not real easy to get around. We drove through the steep winding streets of the Alfama, or old town. We walked a little and ate at a nice sidewalk cafe in the newer and more level part of town.

Vigo, Spain - We walked ashore. The main shopping street was over a hill too high and steep for us to walk. There were shops on the dock, with lace and embroidered shawls, etc. We went up one steep block and then turned right on a level street parallel to the beach. It was a pedestrian only street, about 500 feet long and full of restaurants with outdoor tables.

Bordeaux, France - The tourist bureau had people on board the cruise, and I asked them to get us a wheelchair accessible taxi. The taxi wasn’t accessible, but a strong driver lifted me in. Through the tourist guide on the dock we asked the driver to drive us around and show us the sights, until 12:00 when he could take us to La Tupina for lunch. We paid $66.00 for the non-English speaking amateur tour, which was fun. La Tupina was on a narrow old street with cobblestones and two steps to get in. The waiters helped me in. The food was excellent. The restaurant was voted the 2nd best Bistro in the world by the readers of the Herald Express -International.

San Malo, France - This is a tender port. I stayed on the ship, as transfer to a tender looked too risky.

Guernsey Islands - Another tender port.

Rouen, France - We took a taxi to town, then walked around all day. We had a nice lunch in the Cafe de Grande Poste, which had a sign saying it was started in 1887. The Museum of Beaux Arts had an employee entrance that was accessible after Jill went up the front steps to talk to them. They had accessible bathrooms.

Cobh, Ireland - This is a stop to allow tour buses to take you to the Blarney Castle and to Cork. Since there is nothing near Cobh, and the buses are not accessible you would need a long taxi ride to see anything here.

Dover, England - This was the end of the cruise. We paid a cab $125 to take two of us and our luggage to our London hotel.

bigben1.gif (3249 bytes)London, England - Mount Royal Hotel in London was a very good choice. It was on Oxford St., a major shopping district and just blocks from Selfridge’s, a famous very large department store with lots of clothes and a huge food hall. The Mount Royal is also close to Marble Arch and the Speaker’s Corner at Hyde Park (accessible via an underpass). There are two pubs plus other restaurants within 2 blocks and the hotel itself is nice.

Our room had an ironing board, a hair dryer, a coffee pot, three phones and cable TV. The curtains and lights are controlled from the bed. One part of the closet had low hangers. There was a large roll in shower with six shower heads.

Most of the London sights are accessible. We walked around Buckingham Palace where we saw the guards march. Then we walked through St. James Park. We walked past Whitehall and past the entrance to the block that has 10 Downing Street. We watched the changing of the guard. Then walked down to see the outside of Big Ben and Parliament.

We went in the British Museum, Westminster Abbey, Harrod’s, Selfridge’s, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and to see "Miss Saigon" at the Drury Lane theater (get theater tickets from a broker in the US).

London, England - On our return trip to the US we stopped here again and stayed at the Novatel Hotel about two blocks from the Lambeth bridge over the Thames. A satisfactory hotel. We saw the Tower of London. On the grounds, the paths are mostly cobblestones, and not all buildings are accessible. We waited in a long line to see the Crown Jewels and took a guided tour of the chapel. They put down a ramp over the steps during the tour. We also saw the War museum. The museum is in Bedlam, the former insane asylum. It is only about four blocks from the Novatel.

St. James is accessible through a side door they will open on request. We walked around the City of London seeing pieces of Roman wall, and the City of London Councilman Hall, where there were trials and government meetings.

Tunbridge, England - Langley Hotel is a nice hotel but not recommended for wheelchair access. The room they offered me was not really accessible into the bathroom. They had another room that was barely accessible.

At Windsor there was no parking near the castle. We finally were told about handicapped parking about three blocks from the castle. The castle had some up and down walking on gravel, but they had ramps and elevators where necessary to make it possible to see St. George’s chapel, Albert’s chapel and the very nice castle tour.

Oxford, England - 10 minutes southwest of Oxford we stayed at the Westwood Country Hotel. It has about 15 rooms and is in a wild life preserve. The parking lot is gravel. Our room was nicely accessible.

Stratford-upon-Avon was about 50 miles by freeway. It would be less on country roads. We looked at the boats and swans on the Avon river and went through the first floor of Shakespeare’s birthplace. We saw a play at the Royal Shakespeare Theater. Our wheelchair accessible seats were in the back with a chair removed. They will also bounce you down the aisle steps and help you into an aisle seat if you prefer to be closer.

Paris, France - The St. Pierre Hotel "accessible" room had no grab bars or roll in shower. Our first night there the reserved accessible room was not available. The hotel restaurant is down a flight of stairs in the basement. The clerk said they would serve the food in our room or carry me down the stairs. I don’t recommend this hotel. It seems like the problems with the lift and the inability to get the room we had reserved were typical of Paris. They have a "so, what do I care" attitude about causing tourists problems and a particular disinterest in helping the disabled.

gargoyle2.gif hspace=The sidewalks have lots of dog droppings. The curb cuts leave a 1-2 inch drop at the bottom. Many of the curb cuts are blocked by the cars that are parked in the intersections. The only accessible toilets seem to be in the museums.


We took a taxi to the top of Sacre-Couer and walked around the working painters. The tourist information told us the accessible bathroom was three blocks away; when I got there it was down a flight of steps. Ifound a restaurant with a barely usable facility, thanks to my narrow chair. They charge 2 francs ($.40) for the use. Charging for bathroom use seems to be common in France and Italy. We took a funicular down the hill, 8 Francs each. After lunch we walked to Place Pigalle past the outside of the Moulin Rouge and continued down to Trinity Church, then went to see the Opera building and took a cab home. We got to the 12th cab in the line before we found one who would take 4 people including a wheelchair.

We took the Bateau Mouche boat ride on the Seine for a good view of Paris. The ride was 1 hour and 10 minutes. On the ride we saw a miniature Statue of Liberty (40 feet high?), the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, the Musee D’Orsay Museum, and lots of bridges.

We toured the Musee d’ Orsay to see the Impressionists. Afterwards we walked to Notre Dame.

The Louvre was free for me and Jill. The information desk had a printed English guide on how to get around in a wheelchair. One part took four or five elevator rides in different concealed rooms to get there.

paris.jpg (6262 bytes)We went to the Eiffel Tower. On the 1st landing is the Jules Verne, a restaurant that needs reservations well ahead. There is a simple buffet on the 2nd level and with an accessible bathroom. I think only the west tower elevator is accessible and only to levels 1 and 2. There is a good view from level two. It is not accessible to the top. We walked through the Tuilleries park and the Champs Elysee garden. We walked up the Champs Elysee.

Nice, France -The Sofitel hotel. We went for a walk down through the old town to the beach. One block from the shore is a 4 or 5 block long pedestrian only street filled with restaurants with some indoor but mostly outdoor table under canopies. It was called Quai Etats Unis (United States Key).

Rome - The Sofitel hotel has one step at the entrance. The restaurant has two. The Sofitel hotel elevator was about 34" x 30". I had to scoot my chair sideways in order to let the door close. Not recommended for wheelchairs.

Florence - Hotel Villa Medici has one small step at the entrance. Florence was very hot while we were there. We ran our hotel air conditioner full time, but it couldn’t cool our room. Our hotel was well located and we could walk to many sights. The Excelsior hotel lobby has an accessible bathroom.

The Uffizzi Museum elevator was less than 22" wide at the open door, making the upper floor inaccessible for most wheelchairs. Make a reservation several days ahead or you have to wait hours in line.

We toured the Palazzo Vecchio, the Il Duomo, and the Archaeology Museum. The Opera Museum was good but not accessible.

Lido de Jesolo, Italy (on the mainland opposite Venice) - We couldn’t find an accessible hotel in Venice, so we were put up on the mainland by our travel agent and told that it wasn’t far. Actually it was a 30 minute, $48, cab ride plus a 40 - 60 minute boat ride, so we never went to Venice. We stayed at the nice beach side Hotel Svezia & Scandinavia. It had a king sized bed. Most European hotel rooms have twin beds. This hotel was one of the best for wheelchairs we found. We enjoyed this hotel and the nearby restaurants, beach, and shops. A taxi to the airport took an hour and 10 minutes, and cost $72.00.

Vienna, Austria - The hotel Mercure disabled unit only had one twin bed and a very uncomfortable roll away bed. My 21 1/2" chair would fit, just barely, into the bathroom of a normal room, so we moved after the first night into a room with two twin beds.

We went through St. Stephan’s Cathedra,l which was started in the 12th century. It has an elevator up one of its towers, but after the ride there are still lots of steps so I couldn’t go. We went to the Hofburg Palace, the National Library, Schonbrunn, the Treasury to see the Royal Jewels, etc. We ate lunch at Damen (which means "ladies"), which is famous for afternoon tea and pastries and had dinner at The Griechenbeisl, which was established in 1432. It says Mozart and Schubert ate there.

Amsterdam, Netherlands - Grand Hotel Krasnapolsky is on the Dom, or The central town square. Also on the square are the Royal Palace, the Neue Church, founded in 1450, and Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum. This was the largest hotel room we had and it had things we hadn’t seen in ages, such as, face cloths and an ice machine down the hall. There was a king size bed, a couch, a desk, and lots of storage. The room also had a fax machine.

We went in Neue Church, then we went to the flower market.

We tried to catch a candlelight cruise, but they had no record of our reservation and they weren’t using the accessible boat.

Brussels, Belgium - Hotel Ibis.

New York, New York - The Helmsley Windsor Hotel, on 58th St.

Just one block South of Central Park. Our room was a suite made out of two large rooms. The entrance was into a huge living room with a closet and a mini kitchen. A door led to a bedroom with a king size bed and an oversized bathroom.

All in all, we saw a lot of historic buildings and different cultures. We enjoyed the museums, and seeing how people are different and how they are the same. We also enjoyed a lot of good meals and captured many lifetime memories.

I liked England, Italy, and the Netherlands best. There was less of a problem with language. England and Amsterdam seemed the most accessible.

For a much more complete description of where we went, see the Jack's internet page:. http://www.members.home.net/jackandjill/europe.htm

To learn more about European access, click on Travel Books. There are several books available to help you plan your trip. Also, visit our Travel Archives for access reports on European countries.

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