Visiting Rome with a Wheelchair User

Rome, like Venice,  is a city known to be notoriously difficult for people in wheelchairs to visit. I am writing this post as the partner of a wheelchair user, to share some of our experiences of this beautiful and fascinating city.

Of course, before we went we did our research which confirmed, from lots of comments on Trip Advisor and the like, that we would find Rome difficult, but also that it was worth the effort, so we spent some time planning how to reduce this effort.

Questions we tried to answer before we went.

We know that Manchester Airport, where we flew from, is good with people in wheelchairs, but what about Rome airport? We spent a lot of time trying to organise an accessible taxi (i.e. one with a ramp or lift) to take us from the airport to the hotel. In the end, after hours spent on the phone and online, we gave up. Instead we decided to take the train from the airport to the city centre. We didn’t pre-book, but just turned up on the platform. It was so easy and a fraction of the cost of taking a taxi.

Right up to the day before leaving we kept changing our minds about which wheelchair to take – should it be the fold-up one that would go in a taxi and was light to push, or should it be a heavier unfolding wheelchair with a bike attachment (tracker – as in photo)? Ultimately we decided on the tracker (the best decision we made), which wasn’t damaged on the outgoing or return flight, to which a good-sized rucksack would attach on the front, and which we discovered would not only go up steep curves, but also over big cobbles.

We couldn’t get in a taxi with this wheelchair, but we could get on the train and we just squeezed onto the hop-on/hop off bus, where passengers were very tolerant in edging past us.

On choosing a hotel, we followed the rules we always follow. The hotel must be central, so that as much as possible it is within walking distance of the main sites. The bedroom must be big enough for a wheelchair and the bathroom must be wheelchair friendly. We booked the Ariston Hotel, near the train and bus station. This worked really well as we were able to walk to and from the station in less than five minutes and to all the key sites, although we did get the bus to Vatican City (we walked back though!). The Ariston was not perfect, but we have no complaints. It was not as spacious as it appears on their website photos. In particular the corridors were very narrow, the lift was tiny, the bar was up some steps, and our bathroom was right on the edge of being wheelchair friendly. But by moving a bit of furniture around and doing quite a lot of lifting in the absence of well-positioned grab-rails in the bathroom, we managed. The hotel staff were very friendly and helpful and the breakfast was extremely good and certainly enough to set you up for the day. The other good thing about the hotel was that it was very near a lot of good restaurants.

Getting about in Rome

There is no doubt that Rome is difficult for a wheelchair user. Many kerbs are very high and do not have ramps. Most surfaces are cobbled, which along with gravel is a wheelchair-user’s nightmare, and some sites and restaurants are inaccessible. But despite this there’s plenty to see and do. This was our first time in Rome, so we took the approach I will describe below, an approach which depends on being reasonably fit.

We decided to walk/ride and observe from the outside rather than try to get into sites such as museums, although we did get into St. Peter’s Basilica, the Vatican Museums, the Pantheon and Santa Maria Maggiore.

 

The Santa Maria Maggiore and the Pantheon were free, but for those sites which charge, such as those in Vatican City, the good news is that not only do disabled visitors and their carers go in free but also don’t have to queue, being taken by a different route to the front!

It was very hot whilst we were in Rome – 30 degrees or above on most days. Although we walked/rode about 10 miles a day, we made an effort to stay on the shady side of the street and drink plenty of water – common sense really.

We tried to avoid hugely crowded areas,  or only stay for a very short time, e.g. Trevi Fountain. In my opinion and that of my partner, The Sistine Chapel is really not worth it for a wheelchair user. As an able-bodied standing person you are shoulder to shoulder with hundreds of others. For a wheelchair user this means you are pushed up against hordes of people at below waist height – not pleasant. In this hugely over-crowded space I got no sense of the beauty of The Sistine Chapel and even more annoying was the voice over the tannoy shouting at us to be silent! (I found when I worked in schools that if you want silence, you whisper!). So, either book a special tour for just a small group to visit the Sistine Chapel, or give it a miss and buy some photos.

It is possible to avoid the crowds though. We did this by roaming through the back streets and visiting sites such as the Circus Maximus. The video makes it sound noisy, but I wasn’t aware of the noise at the time, or at least didn’t find it troubling.

 

The most important lesson for us was …

You either need three wheels or four big wheels (a sturdy scooter), ideally assisted by battery power. A regular wheelchair with small front casters must be a nightmare – extremely hard work for whoever is pushing (we did see some). Even if you tip the chair backwards, so that it is only travelling on the two back wheels (which is the only way to get across cobbles without rattling the wheelchair occupant right out of the chair), there are so many difficult surfaces in Rome that this could not be sustained for very long.

The system we use is a Batec – expensive, but so worth it.

We only scraped the surface of Rome, in the four and a half days we were there, despite being out for about seven hours each day. I would love to return and see more. Hopefully we will be able to do this. If you are a wheelchair user, don’t be put off by the bad press Rome gets in relation to access. It is definitely possible with a bit of fore-thought. The people are very helpful and I got the impression that the city is doing its best to improve access, but, unsurprisingly for such an ancient city, there remains a lot to do. You don’t need to plan out every detail or even to go very far. There is something beautiful to see on just about every corner in central Rome.  It is such a special place to visit.

For more photos of what we managed to see in Rome – see https://www.flickr.com/photos/jennymackness/albums/72157695420925550

And for a similar post on visiting Venice – see https://jennymackness.wordpress.com/2014/09/27/visiting-venice-with-a-wheelchair-user/  We used the fold-up light-weight wheelchair when visiting Venice. Here are some photos – https://www.flickr.com/photos/jennymackness/albums/72157649650530148

Hand-cycling for the Prince’s Trust

A week ago today at this time, I was congratulating myself and others on having completed the Palace to Palace charity ride in aid of the Prince’s Trust.  This is an annual event. The ride is 45 or 90 miles, depending on which route you choose from Buckingham Palace to Windsor Castle. Around 4000 riders take part.

I am making this post to encourage hand-cyclists to consider taking part in this event. It is definitely do-able, especially if the weather is kind, which it was to us, despite forecasts of heavy rain and high winds – which fortunately didn’t materialise. You can find further information on the Prince’s Trust website.

The ride was a wonderful experience. We joined a small group of hand-cyclists – four in total – for the 45 mile route. The Prince’s Trust went out of their way to accommodate us. Many cyclists meet and park in Windsor (easier than London) and are ferried on buses to the start line on the Mall in front of Buckingham Palace, with their bikes being loaded onto lorries. We did this and the Prince’s Trust arranged for a special mobility van to transport us and the hand-cycle. They couldn’t have been more helpful.

We arrived at Buckingham Palace early in the morning.

The organisation of the event was impressive. For the 45 mile route there were 3 water stops at, 10, 20 and 30 miles, with not only free water provided, but also free bananas. Toilets were also available. The route went through wonderful countryside and for someone who lives in the South Lakes, appeared almost flat for most of the route. There were a few hills but our village is surrounded by hills, so the Palace to Palace ride was not difficult. It was also entirely on hard surfaces, so ideal for hand-cyclists. There were Marshals at every junction and the route was very clearly signposted.

This is the description of the route copied from the Prince’s trust website:

  • The ride starts out along the Mall with the stunning view of Buckingham Palace ahead and continues through southwest London, over Putney Bridge, towards the first water stop at (mile 10) amongst the deer in Richmond Park. 
     
  • You’ll then head out through Kingston (mile 13) and Hampton towards your second refreshment stop at (mile 20).
     
  • At Walton on Thames, the Ultra cyclists split off and head South through the beautiful Surrey Hills, heading towards Dorking to battle the highest ascent of 200m on Ranmore Common.
     
  • Those taking the shorter Classic route will continue along a fairly flat ride, pass through Chertsey and Chobham.
     
  • During this time, the Ultra riders will have passed through Dorking town centre (mile 36), before heading west passing the nearby towns – Newlands Corner (mile 45), near Guildford, Deepcut (mile 70), near Farnborough and up to Bagshot.
     
  • The Ultra cyclists will then rejoin the Classic route around Virginia Water, with the final water stop at Kitsmead Lane, Longcross (mile 30/80).
     
  • FINISH! The Ultra and the Classic will then continue through Virginia Water and Old Windsor before finally come to a much needed rest at Windsor Racecourse to enjoy the festival village. 

Gradients
Classic
Ultra

The icing on the cake for the hand-cyclists was having their photos taken at the end of the ride with Chris Froome and David Weir! These are photos to keep for posterity!

With Chris Froome

With David Weir

Many thanks to the Prince’s Trust for making this ride possible for four hand-cyclists.

For a few more photos see: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jennymackness/albums/72157687173126231 

Hand Cycling around Bali


Map of Bali

At the beginning of this month I joined a group of hand cyclists who were raising money for REGAIN  by cycling 320 km around Bali.

Photo by Liz Pardey, Volunteer at Bali Sports Foundation

(click on the photo to see it more clearly)

REGAIN is a charity that aims to support British men and women who have become tetraplegic as a result of a sports injury.  The charity provides many different types of support, but one of its activities is to arrange events which will help to improve the independence of people who have been seriously disabled by a sporting injury. In this case the event was hand-cycling around Bali. REGAIN organised this in conjunction with the Bali Sports Foundation – so we were joined by 7 disabled Indonesian riders. The route was organised by the Bali Sports Foundation.

Whilst I joined this ride in support of REGAIN, I was impressed by the Bali Sports Foundation and the work they are doing to promote sport for the disabled. It was wonderful to witness the stoicism and enthusiasm of the Bali cyclists.

Source of video: Bali Sports Foundation

14 people went to Bali from the UK including four tetraplegics and their carers. It’s interesting to reflect on how facilities for the disabled have improved. 50 years ago, which is when my husband (one of the four tetraplegics) suffered his spinal injury, an event such as this would have been impossible. How things have changed. Whilst facilities for the disabled could still be improved, some places needing more improvement than others, the intrepid tetraplegic can now get out and about as never before, taking on challenges that are daunting for the able-bodied, never mind those with a spinal injury.

Speaking from the perspective of an able-bodied partner of a disabled hand-cyclist, one of the wonderful things about a trip like this is how much you learn, not only about the country you are visiting, but even more from the people you meet and the experiences you share.

The Bali ride was definitely a challenge. Not only did we cycle 320 kms over four days, quite often in heavy traffic, but we also did this in 100 degrees heat. I have never taken in so much daily water; neither have I ever purposely ridden a bike soaking wet to the skin, which was the only way to keep cool. Keeping hydrated was essential for the tetraplegics who easily over-heated. I learned that a spray bottle is useful for cooling down tetraplegics without soaking them too much, but for myself, I simply poured ice cold water all over me! And of course, whilst you might want the best of suntans, Factor 50+ is a must.

Photo by Liz Pardey, Volunteer at Bali Sports Foundation

Perhaps the most wonderful thing about joining a REGAIN event is the friends you make and the amount of support you get, both from the able-bodied riders, but also from the tetraplegics who are always on hand with advice as to the best way of managing such a challenging ride (and life in general). The four tetraplegics on our trip, Dom, Tim, Piers and John, are inspiring, truly amazing people, all of whom meet life head on with humour and courage. And this account would be incomplete without a shout out to Dom, Tim and Piers’ amazing carers/partners, Daniela, Sarah and Erika, who are all equally inspiring.

If you are a hand cyclist looking for a new challenge, maybe these photos will be of interest.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/jennymackness/albums/72157680913131863

You can also have a look at  Liz Pardey’s photos:

https://1drv.ms/f/s!AnfMHZJyMQ0kkn44ueMTtQ1ayI4F. Liz is a volunteer with the Bali Sports Foundation and helped to organise the event.