Tristram Peters is a writer, editor, and disability advocate with a keen passion for powerchair football. He currently sits on the sport’s executive board for the Asia Pacific Oceania zone. Most importantly, he’s part of the Clicka-family!
Last year, I was lucky enough to jump on a plane and head to Europe for a wheelchair sports conference. I was equipped with a less-than-passable knowledge of French or Dutch, a portable ramp for traversing curbs, and two of my adventure-loving cousins (e.g. the muscle).
Being only my second trip overseas, and my first to Europe, I was unsure how I was going to fare. For instance, how would my wheelchair go with the old-style roads? Could I use public transport? Is it possible to take my wheelchair to the very top of the Eiffel tower?
The truth is, accessible travel in Europe is super easy. Here’s the rundown.
1. Trams, trains and automobiles
When at home, I have the luxury of an accessible Kia Carnival – and family, friends and carers to drive me around in it. Obviously, in Europe, getting around was going to prove more difficult. Or so I thought. Public transport is amazing, with almost every bus stop proving accessible.
In Paris and Amsterdam, when the bus driver saw me at a stop, they would simply press a button for an automated ramp to flick out and rest against the footpath. Even better, the drivers were super cautious. I never felt like I was unbalanced or likely to fall.
In Amsterdam, the greatest discovery was that every tram was accessible too. We stayed 20 minutes out of the city centre, so would hop on a tram every day to go sightseeing. It was so easy I now wonder why Brisbane ever got rid of its tram network. And to get from Paris and Amsterdam? We jumped on a Thalys train (book the day before and arrive at the station two hours prior to departing!).
However, the highlight was Christophe, the greatest taxi driver you’ll ever meet. He owns his own fleet of accessible taxis in Paris and would happily arrange any pick-up for us, even when he was holidaying in Greece. On the way to the airport, he even called every taxi driver we’d had throughout the fortnight so they could farewell us. If you’re ever in town, flick him an email.
2. The big attractions
I was attending a sports congress, but I still wanted to see the sights! The first and most obvious port of call was, obviously, the Eiffel tower. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get to the very top, but there’s a lift that can still get you pretty damn high. Like Australia, Paris has a pseudo-companion card system – simply alert the authorities to your requirements and they’ll give you a free ticket for your companion. (I have two cousins, remember? This meant one of them had to run up the stairs… you can’t win every battle.)
This system is in place for the Louvre, as well as special dispensations for the Heineken brewery tour in Amsterdam, and almost everywhere has accessible arrangements so that you can enjoy the full experience. The Louvre has probably one hundred lifts or stair lifts (no exaggeration) so don’t fret about missing anything. If you’re in a chair, you’re even allowed to sit right in front of the Mona Lisa.
3. River and canal cruises
Fancy a cruise down the Seine? Below the Eiffel tower is a regular cruise service, with a ramp for you to jump onto the boat. It’s super easy – and security will offer you the chance to park at the front of the boat so you can see all the sights. If you want a picturesque, yet leisurely tour of Paris, this is perfect.
Blue Boat Company offers the same in Amsterdam. You’ll have to book in advance for this one, as not every boat has a hoist to lower your wheelchair down onto it, but it’s easily one of the best things you’ll likely do in the Netherlands.
4. Food and drinks (need a straw?)
Food and drink? This seems a weird one when discussing access, but it’s worth discussing just to demonstrate the generosity of Europeans. Straight up, almost everywhere we went was accessible – I didn’t go to one cafe that I couldn’t get into. Most restaurants and cafes had accessible toilets too – or at least one nearby.
But it was the people who made everything so memorable. In Paris, the waiter, despite speaking no English, deduced that I needed my food cut up to eat it, which he promptly directed the chef to do. He obviously did everything with a French flourish.
Even better was Tales & Spirits in Amsterdam. On asking for a straw, the waiter walked away before returning with an entire wheel of it, which he unfurled and then directed me to cut when it was an appropriate length. Suffice to say, for the novelty, I ended up with a one-metre long straw, through which I drank my highly alcoholic drink.
5. Curbs and cobblestones
I’m not going to lie, I hate curbs and cobblestones. My wheelchair has decent suspension, but even it struggles with the bumps of an old road. It also fails to jump anything more than 10cm in height. Lame.
The smartest thing we did (okay, the smartest thing one of my cousins did) was remember to pack my portable ramp. If you’re in a wheelchair, this is a must. Most places are accessible, but the ramp was a godsend and ensured the perfect holiday.
And that’s it! Amazing, perfect, memorable. Comment below if you’d like any more pointers. I’m thinking India for my next trip, but who knows. The one thing I’ve realised is that, despite the wheelchair, almost everywhere is possible.
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