Paris, Brugge & Ieper by Wheelchair September 2009
 By John L. Smith  © 2009

John & Maria Smith journeyed from Australia to Europe to visit Paris, Brugge and the WWI battlefield of Ieper.

John Smith

In early April 2009, my wife and I took advantage of some cheap airfares from Australia to Europe offered by Singapore Airlines and booked a trip to Paris for 15 days in September 2009. We had previously travelled to London, Ireland and Italy in 2003 so we had a good idea of what was needed in preparation. Also we had learned lots of lessons in 2003, and we made sure we put our experience to good use.

I should here acknowledge the highly informative reports Paris Passerelles 03, and Paris Passerelles 05 by Howard L. Chabner and Michele E. DeSha, as these reports not only gave me great information about Paris and what to watch out for, but they have inspired me to write this report for the benefit of others. As Howard and Michelle write so well about access to many attractions, I have not repeated that information here. (See http://www.globalaccessnews.com/parispasserelleswheelchair03.htm and http://www.globalaccessnews.com/parispasserelles05.htm)

First, about me: I contracted polio at age 2 which affected both my legs, my right arm and back. I walked for most of my life with the aid of calipers on both legs and forearm crutches. Unfortunately, an accident in 1998 left me fully reliant on a manual wheelchair to get around. I cannot stand up or weight bear on my legs at all, although I am reasonably fit and can transfer in and out of the wheelchair using my arms. I am fairly proficient in the use of the manual wheelchair, but a further accident in 2008 which resulted in me breaking my leg, left me somewhat wary of being tipped out on rough terrain.

Our trip was fairly limited in scope. We were to spend 15 days in Paris, with an over-night side trip to Belgium to visit the grave of my wife’s great uncle who was killed at Ieper in the First World War, and to make a day trip to Brugge before returning to Paris. We booked a private battlefield tour in Ieper through Flanders Battlefield Tours http://www.ypres-fbt.com/

Planning

Our previous trip to Europe in 2003 had shown the value of pre-planning, especially the transport links. We were lucky that all our links worked on that occasion but we noted major flaws in our process, such as booking trains through an Australian website that did not take into account my need for a wheelchair accessible carriage.

Obtaining suitable accommodation was the number one priority, and Howard and Michele’s warnings about accessible accommodation in Paris were timely. Luckily, we found just what we wanted on http://www.globalaccessnews.com We booked the wheelchair accessible apartment owned by Lea Lior and listed at http://www.globalaccessnews.com/paris_apartment%2007.htm More on that later.

Our other main concern was booking the trains to get to Ieper and Brugge in Belgium. There are lots of train travel web sites and we explored them all. However, none provided a way for me to book a wheelchair accessible seat on a train, and ensure I had the required assistance to get on and off the train.

In the end I decided to ring the relevant train authorities in Europe before leaving Australia to guarantee the arrangements. This was a long drawn out process but fortunately the cost of such a long international call was not as expensive as I had feared.

I rang the Thalys High Speed Train office in Paris (see http://www.thalys.com/de/en/practical-travel-guide/during/disabled-travellers) and was fortunate to get an operator who could speak English. Unfortunately the trains I had wanted a seat on were fully booked but she eventually got me booked onto the next available services, and I was able to conclude the booking and ticket purchase over the phone. This included having assistance available at each stop to get on and off the train. We were advised we could pick up the tickets in Paris. I cover this aspect in more detail later, as it is a little more complex, and took much more time, than I expected or they indicated.

I also rang the Belgium train authorities at SNCB after looking up their website

(http://www.b-rail.be/nat-r/E/practical/limitedmobility/index.php ). They were able to confirm assistance at each stop for all the local trains, and did so via an email. There is a web-site ( http://pmr.b-rail.be/pbm_prd/webform1.aspx?lang=fr) where you can book assistance on-line, but it is not in English, and I decided that speaking to a real person was a better bet in this instance.

However, the Belgium rail office I called could not provide ticket purchases over the phone, and said to buy them at the ticket office at the rail station on the day. This caused me concern as there was not a lot of time between connections, especially if, as was the case, a change in platforms is required. After a little more searching I found that I could pre-purchase the tickets on line up to 31 days beforehand, and the tickets can be printed out on your own computer and printer.

See http://buy.brail.be/eTicketing/ETicketOrdering/welcomePage.jsp;jsessionid=0a0222605872a80865b9f2e64a67983fee6432174795

To Paris and Belgium.

Air Transport

Singapore Airlines (SAL) were excellent. I booked the cheap flights on line, then rang them on the next available work day to discuss my needs. All they required was a doctor’s certificate of fitness to fly signed the week before I flew (which I got but it was never asked for), and information about the extent of the assistance I required.

I always make sure I get to the airport well before time, and this paid off as we avoided queues, and got first class treatment.  SAL staff escorted us everywhere, and that sped up access through customs and security checks. If I have one small complaint it is that they were over-eager to get us to the departure gate, and we missed out on the duty free shopping at the airport. This was particularly so at Charles de Gaulle Airport (CDG) on the way home where all the best duty free was prior to the customs check.

We flew on a Boeing 747 to Singapore, then on an Airbus A380 to Paris. We flew economy class (of course). In all cases the airline seated us as close as possible to the toilets. The A380 has an aisle-wheelchair accessible toilet, which is a huge improvement compared to our 2003 trip where getting to the toilet was a major undertaking. The seating arrangement on the A380 provided a reasonable amount of seat room. Of course, sitting in the one spot for 13 hours is a tough call, and after that length of time, no seat is comfortable. I always take my ROHO air cushion on the plane and sit on that, although due to the increased height, it means my feet tend to dangle, which can become uncomfortable over a long flight, but it is better than the pain I get if I sit on a standard seat for more than a few minutes.

The staff of SAL were unfailingly friendly and helpful, and I would happily fly with SAL in the future.

I also did not experience any problem staying in my own wheelchair until boarding at Sydney, Changi (Singapore) or Charles de Gaulle (CDG Paris). I did note the unusual moving walkways at CDG, and I did need to put the wheelchair brakes on, as well as hold on to the handrail. However, this was not a major problem for me.

Changi Airport Singapore is a wonderful building. It is very large, but beautifully designed, and quiet, even with all the people passing through. It is carpeted which I am sure helps, but it lacks all those hard concrete surfaces found in so many terminals that are so noisy and dirty. It is spotlessly clean, and the facilities for people with a disability are excellent. All the wheelchair accessible toilets are regularly cleaned and they were the cleanest toilets I came across anywhere.

We made use of the Transit Hotel at Changi on both the forward and return journey. You can book a wheelchair accessible room with roll in shower etc. for 6 hours for about 76 Singapore dollars (AUD$63). We found this invaluable as we were able to catch up on sleep and refresh ourselves with a shower. We had a long wait between flights on the return journey and were tempted to head into Singapore itself, but were glad of the hours of sleep we got in the Transit Hotel instead.

Rail lift.

Trains

Paris RER B

On arrival at CDG, we had resolved to catch a train to Paris as our accommodation was only 500 metres from the RER station at Denfert-Rochereau. We had to get on the CDGVAL shuttle train to take us from CDG Terminal 1 to Terminal 3/Roissypole to catch the RER B train to Paris. This shuttle has designated places for wheelchairs and getting on and off is very straightforward with platform and carriage at the same level and only a very small gap between.

There is a web site http://parisbytrain.com/airport-to-paris-terminal-1/ that has excellent descriptions of the airport and train stations, and clear advice on how to get from the airport to Paris. It has photos of all major areas as well and I relied heavily on the information from this site in deciding to take this option as opposed to using a taxi or other means to get into Paris. In my view it paid off as the total cost one way for two was about 17 Euros compared to upwards of 60 Euros for a taxi. It is also very fast taking about 40 mins from the airport to my local station.

On arrival at Terminal 3/Roissypole, you need to purchase a ticket for the RER B to Paris (there is a ticket booth as well as machines, I used the booth), and then go to the information desk where you can arrange assistance to get on the train. The RER B carriages and the platforms are not at the same height and you must have assistance by way of a ramp to get onto the train, although it is possible with assistance to get off without the ramp (see below). The staff also call ahead to your destination and arrange for the train to be met there with a ramp. With one exception, this system always worked for me on the RER B line.  On this one occasion the destination help did not arrive, however, by this time my wife was getting pretty good at getting the chair on and off trains and buses, so we did it ourselves. I must say though, that generally, the train staff are very helpful and reliable in this regard.

We also used the RER B to get to Gard du Nord Railway Station to catch the Thalys high speed train to Brussels and back, and also on the homeward journey to CDG.

We did not attempt to use the Paris Metro as wheelchair access did not seem possible. In addition, buses were so accessible, that further investigation of the Metro was unnecessary. (More of buses shortly).

Thalys High Speed Train

The Thalys High Speed Train leaves from Paris Gard du Nord Railway Station, and we caught the RER B from Denfert-Rochereau to Gard du Nord to make the connection. The Thalys leaves from a different platform and level than the RER B. In order to make the trip as worry free as possible we went to Gard du Nord the day before our trip to Belgium to check out where we had to go and to investigate the tickets we had to pick up for the Paris-Brussels leg and return.

This reconnoitre was a wise move as we were able to ascertain which platforms we needed to get to, and where the lifts were so we could get the wheelchair between platforms. Also we had to line up at the Thalys information desk to ask about the tickets and were then re-directed to another counter (another wait) to get the tickets issued. If we had put it off until the morning of the journey I doubt we would have had sufficient time.

The Thalys staff brought a ramp out to load the wheelchair onto the train, and we were well looked after. The wheelchair allocation is in the first class carriage at the head of the train, adjacent to a wheelchair accessible toilet. Although I did not have to pay first class fares, we did get first class service, including an in-journey meal. And the trip only took one hour and twenty minutes, city centre to city centre, to cover the 305 kilometres. We need a high speed train like this in Australia!

The only problem encountered, and this was the only time this happened on the whole holiday, was that the promised assistance to board the Thalys at Brussels Midi Railway Station for the return journey to Paris failed to appear. This was despite arriving an hour and a half early, and attending the information desk to make sure all was in order. With five minutes to departure, we informed the attendant at the Thalys counter that we would head up to the platform. With no-one in sight to assist and everyone boarding with a minute to go, other passengers in our carriage, manhandled the wheelchair on board, and the train departed. We were met at the Paris end and assisted off the train.

SNCB

The Belgium local train services, were very efficient and the promised assistance was available at every stop. The local train carriages have high steps and a mobile ramp (see photo) is deployed to enable the wheelchair to be pushed on to the train. Depending on the carriage configuration (some having a place for wheelchairs) I had to ride near the entrance on most occasions. Those with wheelchair access were designed with wider doors to allow entry into the carriage itself. All the connections ran on time, and the station assistants were most helpful.

Paris Buses

The Paris buses were a pleasant surprise. Before leaving I had looked at the Infomobi site at http://www.infomobi.com/ but I had no idea how good the buses were for getting around Paris. As this site is in French, I used Google Translate to translate the pages into English. This site has information on accessible bus lines, Metro and other transport, and checking it is a must for any person with a disability, whether a mobility issue or other disability.

For me, the most valuable part of this site is the accessible bus lines map found at http://www.infomobi.com/pdf/9.pdf

This map shows most of the wheelchair accessible bus lines in central Paris, and using it, one can plan how to get to any location. I printed it in full colour (absolutely critical) at A3 size, but even then, the printing is very small, and it can be hard in poor lighting to see the details. I would recommend having it printed at a larger size if possible (probably would require a specialist plan printer).

However, once in Paris we found that there were more accessible lines than indicated on the map. The accessible lines are also shown on the bus itself, and on the bus stops, and one can be assured that all the buses on the lines so marked are actually accessible.

The bus drivers generally did all they could to pull the bus in close to the kerb so they could extend the ramp. A couple even reversed the bus to get as close as possible. Many also asked our destination so that they could ensure the bus was as close to the kerb as possible. This was helpful as the call button for the wheelchair did not always work. I always made sure I acknowledged the driver after getting off the bus.

On a number of occasions the ramp did not deploy, but my wife was able to get the chair on the bus, (fairly easy from the kerb) and we found the Parisians most helpful in assisting with this. On two occasions the bus was not able to pull into the kerb due to road works or illegally parked vehicles. Luckily my wife is very experienced with the wheelchair (and strong) and with some assistance we managed both times. An electric chair user would have more difficulties if the ramp does not deploy. Overall, we found the Paris bus system to be an excellent way to get around the city.

We purchased 5-day Paris Visitor Passes which enabled us to travel on any type of transport (bus, Metro, RER etc) as often as desired within certain zones. Zones 1 and 2 cover the main areas of interest. These cost a little over 25 Euros each and we bought ours at the Denfert-Rochereau Rail Station.

Belgium

As mentioned earlier, our main purpose for going to Belgium was to visit the grave of my wife’s great uncle, Private Robert Smith, who was killed in 1916 in the First World War. It transpired that we arrived in Paris on the 93rd anniversary of his death, and we went to see his grave a few days later.

A friend had recommended Flanders Battlefield Tours http://www.ypres-fbt.com/ after he and his wife visited their relative’s grave a year or two ago. I looked at the web site and found that they used a minibus for their tours and I knew that getting in and out of a vehicle like that would present great difficulties, so I e-mailed to see what else was available. Genevra Charsley responded with a proposal for a private tour in a sedan car for the day, including a pick up at the railway station, lunch, and drop-off at our hotel afterwards. Genevra also offered to arrange the hotel booking for us.

Whilst this private tour cost considerably more than a standard tour, we had the undivided attention of Jacques Ryckebosch all day. He has a superb knowledge of his subject, and gave us an excellent understanding of the battles around Ieper (Ypres) and he took us to all the main points of interest, including the Railway Dugouts Burial Ground at Zillebeke, where we laid a poppy cross on the grave of my wife’s great uncle. It was an information packed, emotional day for us. His wife, Genevra, also conducted additional research for us and was able to give us details of how Private Smith was killed.

While transferring in and out of the car a large number of times was tiring, I would highly recommend this tour as being a highlight of our trip.

Part of this tour included a visit to the Hill 62 - Sanctuary Wood Museum at Zillebeke. This museum retains the only original British trenches preserved from the Great War. It also houses artifacts collected from the surrounding battlefields. We had our packed lunch there. Access is up a step or two into the café/entry area. As with most museums of this type, access is tight between the exhibits. The artifacts and photographs (especially the 3D photographs) are most interesting and informative, giving a good understanding of the harsh reality of war.

While there are no designated wheelchair accessible toilets as such, the toilets are reasonably spacious and with my wife standing guard, I was able to access them fairly easily.

 Ieper and Brugge

Both Ieper and Brugge are a wheelchair nightmare with cobblestones everywhere. It makes for difficult and dangerous wheelchair use, especially with the small size front wheels that I have on my chair. However, both destinations are worth the effort.

We had some rough cobblestoned streets to traverse from our hotel in Ieper to the Menin Gate for the playing of the last post at 8pm in the evening. It is recommended that you arrive here early so that you can get a vantage point at the chain rail along the kerb near the eastern end, as the crowds gather up to 10 or more deep. The eastern end is where the last post is played.

The Ariane Hotel in  Ieper where we stayed is very comfortable and reasonably priced, but it is not strictly wheelchair accessible, although the bathroom is quite large and my wheelchair fitted in easily. However, it has a shower over steep-sided bath, which made for a difficult exit from the bath after. I wouldn’t think it would be possible for me unaided.

There was another hotel, the Best Western Flanders Lodge, Ieper, which advertises “Rooms for the Physically Challenged: Available” that might be worth checking.

Brugge is a very pretty , World Heritage listed medieval town in West Flanders. While getting around the cobblestoned streets is tricky, the town is worth the effort. There are many historic buildings, and museums, while the canals make this truly a Venice of the north. But we were after the renowned waffles covered in Belgium chocolate, and later more of the local cuisine at one of the many cafes. There is an excellent wheelchair accessible public toilet (kept spotlessly clean) through the archway under the Belfry - situated on the south side of the Grote Markt. Access into most shops is up a step, and they are fairly cluttered, so visiting the shops with a wheelchair is problematic.

Paris

As previously mentioned, access around Paris by bus was excellent. Nearly every kerb in old Paris has a cut in it for wheelchairs, and it was rare to find a kerb without one. The pavements are generally bitumen, with cobblestones in some of the older areas, but nowhere near as many cobblestoned areas as I expected. As Paris is mainly flat, pushing a wheelchair around was pretty straightforward. We didn’t visit Montmartre mainly because it is steep terrain and we had plenty of other things to see.

Access to the river was generally down stairs or steep cobblestoned ramps, except in one area, the Port des Champs-Elysees, which is a World Heritage site, and where access was down a bitumen road. We could have caught a taxi to gain access to some of the other areas where cruises ran from but it was never high enough on the priority list.

We visited the Louvre three times, the Musee d’Orsay twice, and the Musee Rodin once. We ate regularly at the multitudinous street-side  cafes, learning quickly that the ones on the corners are much more expensive than the rest.

I generally used toilets in museums, department stores, or railway stations. There are public toilets with wheelchair access signs in the streets of Paris, but I did not attempt to use these. While some cafes have toilets, I didn’t find any which were wheelchair accessible. As a backup, I carried a urinal bottle in my pack on the back of the wheelchair. It came in handy on one or two occasions when I could get access to a restroom, but not to the toilet itself, mainly because of narrow doors.

The main museums such as the Louvre and Musee d’Orsay are well equipped to handle wheelchairs, and unlike Australia, entry for someone in a wheelchair, and their assistant, is free, even to the special exhibitions. Even though these are old buildings, they have lifts to all levels. The lifts are sometimes hard to find, and occasionally out of order, but there was not much that I could not access.

The Musee Rodin was the most difficult to access as the ramp into the main building was steep. The toilets, while clean and well equipped, were accessible only across deep gravel or down a steep rough cut path that I judged too dangerous to negotiate. We took the gravel approach.

We could not find a way to get a close look at the Arc de Triomphe. It is a wonderful structure, but totally surrounded by roads which are not meant for pedestrians to cross. Access is via a subway under the road, but it is not wheelchair friendly so we had to forgo the close up look.

The Eifel Tower does have wheelchair access to the second level from at least one of the legs, but there were long queues and my wife is not good with heights, so we did not take the ride up. There is a wheelchair accessible toilet near the Eifel Tower, but it is underground, and the day we visited, the lift was out of order.

Paris Accommodation

Our accommodation in Paris was in a wheelchair accessible apartment in Montparnasse (14th arrondissement).  We located the apartment through Global Access News at http://www.globalaccessnews.com/paris_apartment%2007.htm

The apartment is a fairly spacious one, with a kitchenette, a living area with dining table, a night and day bed, as well as an electrically operated single bed. My wife and I used the night and day. It is a bit low, and I used a two stage maneuver involving a kitchen chair, to get from the bed into my wheelchair. Others may find the electric bed at a better height.

The bathroom is small, but fits a wheelchair in and there is room to turn around. There is a supplied commode chair to use in the shower. It is kept in a box under the kitchen table.

The apartment is on the 5th floor, and we were able to get cooling breezes of an evening through the large windows overlooking the street. The building is secure with an electronically locked gate and doors. There are two lifts, the one on the right being larger and better suited to a wheelchair.

The apartment is well equipped with a wall mounted television, and a wireless internet link. The latter was very useful as I took my tablet PC with me to Paris and used it extensively to keep in contact with home as well as to explore places to see in Paris, and to use Google maps to help locate the best way to get to places of interest.

There is a supermarket in the building next door, providing easy access to the daily requisites of life, and a number of small cafes nearby.

The main advantage of this apartment, apart from being wheelchair accessible, is its proximity to the major transport hub of Denfert-Rochereau where one can catch the RER B to Charles de Gaulle Airport, and buses to various points including Orly Airport. It is only a slightly uphill walk of 500 metres to the station. Our main bus into the city was the No 68 which goes via the Louvre. It was also only a short walk to restaurants and shops on Rue d’Alesia and Avenue du General Leclerc.

If we visit Paris again, we will be looking to use this apartment again.

Luggage

One thing we learned after our 2003 trip was to pack lightly. In 2003 we didn’t do this, and took two large suitcases packed to the brim. We also bought lots of stuff while travelling around Ireland and Italy, and our homeward journey had my wife trying to handle four suitcases, all packed tightly. Not good!

This time we put considerable thought into our luggage arrangements and decided to take one smaller suitcase on wheels, and we purchased another similarly sized one with wheels that also could be converted to a back-pack. It had a smaller day pack attached as well. My wife was able to wear one as a backpack and drag the other behind.

Finally, I decided to purchase a Tom Bihn Tri-Star carry-on travel bag from the USA. It converts to a backpack, and comes with a ‘brain cell’ in which I packed my tablet computer. It was invaluable throughout our trip and we used it every day. I took it as carry-on luggage on the plane.

It fitted neatly over the handles of the wheelchair and we could pack jackets, guide books, cameras and other items (as well as the urine bottle) into the one bag, leaving both our hands free to handle the wheelchair (see photo). We carried all our toiletries and clothing on our overnight excursion to Belgium in this bag as well.

Conclusions

Paris is a very accessible city with lots to offer. Some aspects such as access to the river side and the cruises could be improved, or at least more information could be provided about accessible areas and cruises.

The Parisians were unfailingly friendly, polite and helpful, despite our poor knowledge of French.

We had a very enjoyable stay in Paris, and especially appreciated the side trip to Belgium and the battlefields around Ieper.

Useful links

While these links are also placed in the relevant areas of the text, I have found it useful for quick reference to have a list of the main ones.

General travel tips for Paris

http://www.globalaccessnews.com/parispasserelleswheelchair03.htm

http://www.globalaccessnews.com/parispasserelles05.htm

Flanders Battlefield Tours http://www.ypres-fbt.com/

Accommodation:

Paris apartment:   http://www.globalaccessnews.com/paris_apartment%2007.htm

Ambassador Transit Hotel Changi Aiport Singapore: http://athmg.com/

Ariane Hotel Ieper:  http://www.ariane.be/index.asp?taal=uk

Best Western Flanders Lodge Ieper:  http://www.bestwestern.be/overview.asp?hotelid=60

Transport

Thalys High Speed Train: http://www.thalys.com/de/en/practical-travel-guide/during/disabled-travellers

Belgium Rail:  http://www.b-rail.be/nat-r/E/practical/limitedmobility/index.php

Belgium web form for assistance (not in English)  http://pmr.b-rail.be/pbm_prd/webform1.aspx?lang=fr

Belgium on-line ticket purchase site:  http://buy.b rail.be/eTicketing/ETicketOrdering/welcomePage.jsp;jsessionid=0a0222605872a80865b9f2e64a67983fee6432174795

Using RER B Paris to CDG Airport:  http://parisbytrain.com/airport-to-paris-terminal-1/

Singapore Airlines:  http://www.singaporeair.com/saa/en_UK/flights_australia.jsp

Paris Transport site for disabled travelers: http://www.infomobi.com/

Paris Accessible Bus Map:  http://www.infomobi.com/pdf/9.pdf

Luggage http://www.tombihn.com/page/001/PROD/500/TB0940

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