Holiday as respite
As I mentioned in the last blog we like to explore our boundaries during our trips. The boundary this time was going on a fully organized trip in a coach in a group, not just the two of us. This trip especially catered for people in wheelchairs, including full (respite) care during the trip. The group consisted of 8 full-time wheelchair-users (mostly in electric wheelchairs), 2 people who used a wheelchair during longer excursions, 4 non-wheelchair-users, 5 carers and the driver/guide. The interior of the coach we used is very flexible, normal chairs can be removed to create room for the wheelchairs and there is even an accessible toilet on board. As we didn’t need to use it, I cannot comment on its useability. The travel-organization also brought all the necessary aids like commodes and hoists, as much as would fit in the coach.
The day before the trip we drove down to a hotel in Heerlen, close to the starting point. We still needed to get up early, but not as early as it would have been would we have started from home. The room was booked for us and was very comfortable for us. Quite large, with not only enough room around the beds, but even a separate seating area, and french doors to a terrace outside. The bathroom in this hotel would prove to be far out the best accessible bathroom of this holiday. Plenty of room, washbasin at a comfortable height, toilet with good and sturdy grabrails, well placed grabrails around the shower, with a comfortable foldable seat. As we had requested a monkey pole above the bed during the trip, it was also provided (by the travel organization) in this hotel.
Our designated carer starts the morning of the trip in the hotel. Of course I still have to explain a lot to her, but it does save my energy. Especially since I only have to pack the bags, the carer makes sure they get to the coach. We even have enough time to enjoy the breakfast in the hotel. The coach is supposed to pick J up at the hotel and then drive to the starting point, but as it is very late we decide to drive over in our car together.
The trip down
As we arrive at the starting point the advantages of an organized trip soon become clear. All I have to do is get J in his wheelchair. Someone collects the luggage at the car, brings J to the coach, collects the car keys to park it out of the way. All I have to do is accept a cup of coffee and find a seat on the coach and put the hand luggage away. The disadvantage is clear as well. Not everyone is there so we have to wait and can’t leave at the agreed time. Not that we normally leave exactly at the time that is in my original planning, but now it is not something I can control. Also it is a lot more busy than we are used to.
In the end we set off only about 45 minutes late. The trip down through Belgium isvery comfortable and swift. I enjoy being able to look out of the window and enjoy the countryside more than when I am driving. When we pass through Luxemburg we encounter some have traffic due to roadworks.
We make our first stop somewhere in Northern France at a roadside restaurant. The driver tries to warn us about the state of the toilets in these restaurants, but the toilets here are fine. I don’t think they still have the old-fashioned ‘hole in the ground’ toilets on the toll roads. Anyway, they always have accessible toilets, which always have a toilet and toiletseat. After the obligatory rest period we set off again towards Alsace, where our first stop is at the Ibis hotel on the outskirts of Mulhouse. We arrive here in time to enjoy a pre-dinner drink outside in the sun. So far we have never used the Ibis hotels, because they are quite a bit more expensive than the B&B hotels that we normally use. The quality of the disabled rooms is not equivalent to it. As J still uses the toilet we have one of the few rooms with an accessible bathroom. This is only just adequate, and comparable to the size of the bathrooms in the cheaper hotels. The bedroom is even smaller than we are used to. The wheelchair can just get through the door and stay on one side of the bed. For a comfortable transfer it would have been better to have J sleep on the other side of the bed, but I can hardly get around the bed myself, let alone with the wheelchair. I can imagine it is not easy to find hotels with a lot of accessible rooms for just one night, but I will be quite carefull before I book a room in this chain. The only noticeable difference is that the restaurant of the Ibis hotel also serves dinner, which would not be possible in the B&B hotel. But then again, we usually are very happy to have dinner in the restaurants in the neighbourhood. The food wasn’t that special in the hotel either.
The next morning we have to get up very early again, as the coach leaves at 7.30. We do have time for breakfast, although the french bread seems to have been cut the evening before, as it is quite dry. We cross the border to Switzerland quite soon after setting off, with reasonably nice weather so we can enjoy the gorgeous views. The trip continues quite straightforward, crossing the Gotthard tunnel without any hold ups and reaching Italy quite swiftly. We stop for lunch at a roadside restaurant just past Milan. Just like in France, there is a wheelchair-accessible toilet, but it takes a while to get so may wheelchair-users to use the toilet. It is also a bit difficult to get everyone in and out of the restaurant, and the wheelchair-users need someone to help them to pay at the till and to collect their orders, because all the counters are much too high.
We continu the trip trough the Po valley and then down through the hills towards Tuscany. We manage to reach our destination with only one stop on the way. We are staying in the accessible holiday resort I Girasoli near Lucignano, to the southeast of Florence. It takes a while until all the luggage has been unloaded and all the guests have been shown to their rooms. The first room we are shown to is on the same level as the reception area and the dining room. However, the set up of the bathroom is such that I am afraid it is going to be difficult to manoeuvre the wheelchair around it. Not a problem for one night, but we are staying here for a longer period. No problem for the organization. Before I have a chance to start unpacking the suitcases someone has already had a look around the hotel and they have found another room on a lower floor, closer to the pool. The bathroom here is not necessarily larger, but the set-up suits us better. After the room is cleaned we are moved to this other room. There are two single beds in the room which we can move around to create the best set up for us. Plenty of room left to leave an empty wheelchair standing around without me being in danger of falling over it in the middle of the night.
As we are in Italy, dinner is served quite late. The dining room is not very cosy, but very functional with plenty of room for wheelchairs on one side of the table. After dinner there is a small bar area next to the pool, two floors down from the dining room. Again not really very inviting, but this first night most of us are too tired anyway after the long coach trip.
The next day is a rest day, quite welcome! Not that I sleep in very long. After breakfast I can’t wait to give the pool a try. Unfortunately the opening hours are very strict: 10-12.30 and 14.00-19.00. The water is pleasantly warm, and as it can get quite cool during the night this time of year the covering roof has been closed. When I am not in the water I enjoy the sun on the terrace, reading a book, talking to other people from the group. Every once in a while I check up on J as my usual system with the wireless door bell won’t work because the distance from our room to the pool is a bit too long. Unfortunately, once he finally does get out of bed, he does not want to give the pool a try. A week later, when we have another rest day in the same spot, he finally gets into the pool and really enjoys it! The lifeguard helps with the transfers from the wheelchair to the chairlift into the pool, and he also handles the chairlift. We are not the only group using this resort and every day there are people using the accessible facilities into the pool.
The hotel has several facilities for people in wheelchairs. There is a little van in which tours are organized for people who don’t have their own mode of transport. There are a few mobility scooters which can be borrowed for a day. There is also technical staff available to help with any technical problems with wheelchairs or other aids.
We have two day trips from the resort. The first is to Florence. Even with a special wheelchair accessible coach we are only allowed in to the edge of the centre, and you need a special permit to do that. The driver drops us off at the general drop-off point near the Ponte S Niccolo. From there we walk along the Arno to the famous Ponte Vecchio. First on a reasonably flat sidewalk, but later we have to change to the street where the surface isn’t too flat. That is the general problem in the centre of town, lots of uneven surfaces, and even if it is the end of September, it is very busy with tourists, so difficult to stay together. For me it is nice not to have to push the wheelchair, but I still don’t have much chance to take photographs, because the carers we have with us today are walking at a very brisk pace. We see the tourist hot spots like the Piazza della Signoria with the Pallazzo Vecchio and Michelangelo’s David, we visit the Cathedral and have lunch at a restaurant next to it. After lunch we walk around the centre a bit more. It is not very obvious where to find disabled toilets, so when we need one we go back to the Uffizi. Of course there are toilets there, but not all the guards are very helpful showing us the way, which means I get to see a lot more of the museum than I had in mind, especially since we were getting near the time we had to be back at the drop off point. In the meantime we got separated from the carers, so I also had to push the wheelchair back to the coach.
The next day we visit Siena. Here our coach is allowed a little closer to the city centre than most coaches. He drops us off at the Basilica San Domenico. But Siena is built on hills, so we do have to find a way where the roads are not too steep. Avoiding the cobbles is not possible. We find out the hard way that with a wheelchair it is better not to follow the roadsigns to the sights, because they show the shortest route which can be quite steep. Possible for the electric wheelchairs, not for the push wheelchairs. We start at the cathedral, which is the highest point in town. After a while we find the accessible entrance, but then find out that we have to get tickets at the other end of the square. Wheelchairs get in for free with one carer. However, you can only see part of the church, because there is no way to bypass the steps in the church. Still, very much worth it. Opposite the cathedral we ask for advice at the tourist information for the best route to the Piazza del Campo. It is the long way round, but well worth it as you get a good impression of the historical buildings and the road is a lot less steep. We have to go all the way to the other side of the square to get on it, but it is a lovely spot to have lunch and enjoy the view. We have seen notices around pointing to public toilets, including disabled toilets, but when we need them they are a bit far away, so we ask at the city hall if we can use the toilets there and are allowed in. Looking at the map carefully we find a way zigzagging back to the drop off point avoiding the steeper slopes. In the end we enjoyed Siena a lot more than Florence. Cosier, even if it is just as busy.
In the middle of the trip we move to Rome for a few days. In Rome we are staying at the hotel Barcélo Aran Mantegna, just south of the city centre. Our room, just above the main entrance, is quite spacious. At first I wonder about the accessibility of the bath room, but that is before I find out that there is a second bathroom that is completely accessible. Quite useful, because it means I don’t have to find another toilet when J is using the bathroom.
The first afternoon we have a ‘walking’ tour around the old centre of town with a guide. We start off at the bottom of the Spanish steps, then go to the Trevi fountain and the Pantheon and end at the Piazza Navona. Sometimes you have to look for the dropped bit of the curb, sometimes you can’t avoid the cobbles and as everywhere, it is very busy! It is a good thing we have an Italian speaking guide with us, because sometimes guards have to unlock gates for us, or release chains. However, we can get everywhere we want.
The next day we visit Vatican city. First St Peter’s. We have to get into a lift one by one, so it takes some time to get in. On the way out they let us go over a ramp, which makes it a lot quicker. We are then allowed to cross St Peter’s Square and are able to make a lovely group photograph right in the middle of the square without any people around us. Afterwards we go to the Vatican Museum. All kinds of extra rules and regulations to adhere to, making the guides life quite difficult. To get to the gardens where we are supposed to have lunch we have to get up one floor in one lift, cross the museum, then go up one more floor, and then down two floors again. Every time we have to be accompanied by a guard, and every time the lift takes only one wheelchair at a time, so it takes a very very long time. Leaves us no time to see anything in the museum, but we have a lovely lunch. The only bit of the museum we get to see is when we cross some corridors to get to the Sistine Chapel. There again a chairlift that takes one wheelchair at a time, and then has to wait to let people through from the other end. It takes at least an hour to get everyone downstairs. But we have seen it, and it was well worth it. After we get back upstairs it is fortunately only one lift to the exit and that takes three wheelchairs at once.
After the exertions at the Vatican we are happy that the next day the excursions are a lot easier. We start in the morning visiting the Forum Romanum. The coach drops us off on the square next to the Vittorio Emanuele monument and Trajan’s column. We start with looking at the Forum from the sidewalk alongside it. But it turns out it is possible to visit the Forum properly. From one of the entrances there is a long ramp down to the level of the Forum. The ramp is accessible to the electric wheelchairs. The few push wheelchairs can get down in a lift. Part of the pavements in this dig have been leveled out enough with hardcore so it is accessible to wheelchairs. It makes for a lovely experience.
From the Forum we walk towards the Collosseum. First we have a picknick lunch in a little park with lovely views of the Collosseum. Then we cross the road and get into the building. There is a separate entrance for wheelchairs so we don’t have to get into the queue. Afterwards it turns out that the strict security measures apply only to half of our group. We get through without having to get our bags through the scanner, but some others have to completely undo all the bags from their wheelchairs, even the bags containing drip feed. At one end there is a lift to the top floor where you can walk around all the way looking down on the inside of the Collosseum. In some places the gates are a bit too high for people in wheelchairs to look over, but in other places everyone could enjoy the view. But there are always others in our group willing to take a photograph if someone in a wheelchair can’t get a good view.
While most people in the group make most of the opportunity to do some shopping after these excursions we sit down by the statue of Julius Caesar and enjoy the view over the Forum a little bit longer and talk about some of the history programmes about Rome we have watched. Just when the first of the showers of this trip hits us the coach arrives to bring us back to the hotel.
The last morning we have to leave the hotel earlier than expected so we get an extra excursion. We are dropped off in the area of Trastevere. A lovely picturesque area with a lot of street sellers. We spend a lot of time drinking coffee on a terrace on a square in the middle of the area, before we walk back along the Tiber. The roads in the area are all cobbled, the sidewalk along the river is a flatter surface, although the dropped curbs are sometimes difficult to find.
The trip back home
After all the busy excursions in Rome we are very glad with another rest day in Tuscany. Some people visit the neighbouring village of Lucignano, but we leave it because we don’t fancy anymore trips, especially with steep cobbled streets and a push wheelchair. But after that day we have to get up early again to set off on our two-day journey back.
This time we don’t cross Switzerland, but go straight north from Tuscany, all the way to the Brenner Pass, to Austria. We have one stop at a roadside restaurant somewhere in the Dolomites. It is busy on the Brenner Pass, but we still make it to our hotel for the night. This lovely looking hotel, hotel Brauwirt, is right in the centre of Kirchberg in Tirol. Although it looks like a traditional Austrian chalet, the whole hotel is wheelchair accessible. The room is spacious, so is the bathroom, and there is a lovely balcony. However, it is a bit cold to sit on the balcony, especially after the nice weather in Italy. Also, the wooden construction of the balcony triggers my vertigo. Funnily enough, in a hotel that is completely accessible, I find the dining room a bit too cosy, with not a lot of room between the tables. With all the wheelchairs next to each other we completely block one end of the dining room. The food is excellent, though, and after the long drive the comfortable beds and nice mountain air help to have a very good nights sleep, albeit a bit short.
The next morning we have to get up very early again, because we have a 825 km drive ahead of us. In principle we should have been able to do this again with only one stop. However, with the amount of roadworks on the German roads, all creating long traffic jams, it becomes clear quite early in the day that we will need two stops on the way. This makes the trip a lot longer. The facilities along the German motorways are quite good, though. In the end it takes us 12,5 hours to get back to the starting point. There we have to transfer to our own car and still have just over two hours to drive to get home. So after arriving home we needed another holiday to recover. Having said that, it was a lovely holiday, well organized, and worth having another go.