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

#FLvirtualrome : An exciting MOOC about Ancient Rome

Last week I stumbled across a fantastic MOOC – FutureLearn’s course on the history and architecture of Rome.

I wasn’t looking for this course, but Rome is a city that I have recently thought I would like to visit and then FutureLearn’s newsletter listing this course landed in my inbox. I signed up, thinking this would be an opportunity to find out whether I really do want to visit Rome. I have completed Week 1 of the course and now know that I do.

It’s been a while since I have felt excited by a MOOC. I am surprised by my response. I am not a historian and have never had more than a passing interest in history. At school I had to choose between history and geography for my ‘O’ levels (that dates me!) and I chose geography. In my school days history was memorising dates and facts and I have always had a terrible memory! Of course geography and history are closely aligned so over the years when I have visited sites such as Machu Picchu, whilst the geography is spectacular, it has been impossible to ignore the history, but I have never tried to commit this to memory. Whatever sticks, sticks and I have learned that whatever sticks usually sticks because of some sort of emotional reaction.

Dr Matthew Nicholls, from the University of Reading, who is the tutor for this 5-week MOOC, is succeeding in eliciting an emotional response from me, i.e. I feel motivated. After the first week I already know that I will probably not engage in social interaction in this course. At the moment I do not want to do a history project or take this further. I just want to know enough to know what I am looking at when I visit Rome.

Why, after just one week, do I think the course is so good?

Matthew Nicholls is clearly very knowledgeable, passionate about his subject and an excellent communicator. He makes the subject come alive and is not at all patronising despite obvious considerable expertise, not only with Ancient Rome but also with technology.

The course content is colourful and lively. The text is easily accessible and there are lots of references provided to follow up on for those who want to extend their study. There are also lots of photos and the videos are very good. We see Dr Nicholls in Rome, and also in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. I never realised before that so much historical information about buildings, aqueducts, roads, sewers and people could be gleaned from coins.

But best and so impressive has to be the 3D digital model of ancient Rome built by Matthew Nicholls using SketchUp. This is used extensively to explain how Rome was built and the significance of different buildings and roads. To see how amazing this model is you would have to join this free course, or there is also a very interesting video on YouTube by Matthew Nicholls in which he explains how he built the model and how he uses it with his students at Reading University.

A friend recently told me that he didn’t think it was possible to have an emotional response to an online course in the same way as you can in a face-to-face course and implied that this diminishes the online experience. I have had lots of social experiences online over the years which have elicited an emotional response. I am intrigued that this course is able to do this through its content alone, without the need for social interaction, although there are plenty of opportunities for adding comments to the discussion forums and making social connections if you wish. Maybe I will change my mind about participating in the discussion forums as I work through the course. I think Phil Tubman’s Comment Discovery Tool, that I wrote about in a previous post, would make a great addition to this course.