EUROPE IN A WHEELCHAIR
"I have a disability, yes that's true, but all that really means is I may have to take a slightly different path than you." Robert Hensel
We were warned beforehand that "doing Europe" in a wheelchair would be a challenge. "There's no Americans with Disabilities Act there," they said. Ancient ruins, medieval castles, and Renaissance cathedrals just weren't built for the mobility impaired, nor were the cobblestone streets and piazzas. Facing these obstacles would be difficult both for the rider and for the pusher, we were told. While new construction is often handicap-friendly, anything older than five years in Italy and Portugal isn't likely to easily accommodate an American-size wheelchair.
Undaunted, we opted to adopt author Shane E. Bryan's attitude as we contemplated our trip:
"I do not have a disability, I have a gift! Others may see it as a disability, but I see it as a challenge. This challenge is a gift because I have to become stronger to get around it, and smarter to figure out how to use it; others should be so lucky."
We decided up front that we wouldn't stay home, but we would cheerfully do as much as we could do and not worry about what we couldn't do. We took Stephen Hawking's counsel to heart:
"My advice to other disabled people would be, concentrate on things your disability doesn't prevent you doing well, and don't regret the things it interferes with. Don't be disabled in spirit as well as physically."
I studied travel guides and videos extensively to see where we could go and where we couldn't go. Some places we wanted to see - like Pompeii - seemed to not work at all for a wheelchair tourist. Some places we wanted to stay - like the 12th Century castle in Óbidos, Portugal, now a swanky hotel - were totally inaccessible to us. Some activities we wanted to tackle - like a semi-private tour of the Sistine Chapel and the Vatican Museum - cancelled our reservation when they learned we had a wheelchair because it's impossible for a wheelchair to come into the Sistine Chapel via the regular path.
So we found other options. When we were dropped from the semi-private tour, we found a private guide who could bring us to the Sistine Chapel the back way, through the Vatican Museum. In lieu of the Óbidos castle, we booked a stay at a 5-Star hotel built in a 15th Century fortress on a cliff overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, and had one of the best meals of our lives at their Michelin-rated restaurant. We avoided the water taxis in Venice and took a larger boat tour to three enchanting islands in the nearby lagoon. There were a few places where Marcie read a book while I explored an ancient castle, but mostly we did things we could do together.
Because there is so much to see and do in Italy and Portugal and so little time (2½ weeks), we had no trouble filling our itinerary with tons of stuff within our realm of possibility. In fact, by narrowing down the choices somewhat, our "limitation" actually made planning a lot easier.
We did encounter some challenges during our journey. For example, many of the handicap entrances to historic building were out of the way and difficult to reach. Several elevators were so narrow that Marcie had to stand up in them while I folded her chair so it would fit. Some of the Italian hill towns severely tested both of us, challenging my physical strength pushing the chair going up and her courage staying in the chair coming back down.
We determined to laugh and take all these obstacles in stride. We remembered another piece of sage guidance from Stephen Hawking:
"If you are disabled, it is probably not your fault, but it is no good blaming the world or expecting it to take pity on you. One has to have a positive attitude and must make the best of the situation that one finds oneself in; if one is physically disabled, one cannot afford to be psychologically disabled as well."
Perhaps because of our smiles (and my wife's can charm almost anyone anywhere), we met kind and helpful people everywhere, like the policeman in Sintra, Portugal, who commandeered a handicapped parking space for us near the Castelo da Pena; or the handsome band of teenage boys who pushed the chair for us up the last hundred yards of steep hill in San Gimignano, Italy; or the thoughtful staff of the Douro River cruise boat who arranged our own private table on the main deck so we didn't have to go downstairs to the dining room.
We came across modern buildings in which the handicap bathrooms are far better than those found in the states. We learned that most museums and historic areas offer free admission to those in wheelchairs. We found the views from a wheelchair to be every bit as beautiful as from any other vantage point. We discovered that we could be as happy as we made up our minds to be, even with a wheelchair.
So what's my advice? GO! Figure out what you can do and don't worry about the rest. Get past your "limitations" and savor every opportunity. We can truthfully say our experience was wonderful in every way.