Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Wednesday Wisdom - 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.

Wednesday Wisdom - Hidden Gems Amongst the Crown Jewels


"Too much of a good thing can be wonderful!" Mae West 
When you're seeing first-hand the grandeur of the Coliseum, the artistry of the Sistine Chapel; the majesty of St. Peter's Basilica; the stunning magnificence of Michelangelo's David or Botticelli's The Birth of Venus; the opulence of Venice's Grand Canal; the unrivaled beauty of Siena's Duomo (yes, even better than Florence's Duomo, IMHO); or the grand mountaintop summer palaces of the Portuguese kings in Sintra, there is a danger of your senses becoming overloaded and jaded to everything else around you. 

After two weeks in Europe, Marcie and I weren't expecting to be impressed when our driver dropped us off at the São Bento Train Station in Porto, Portugal, early one morning to begin a rail and boat tour of the Douro River Valley. Yes, we'd heard that our time on the river would be breathtaking - which it was - but we never imagined we'd discover an unforgettable gem before we even got on the train.

The São Bento Train Station in Porto, Portugal

Porto is more a working-class city than a tourist attraction. While the São Bento train station is lovely from the outside, we were blown away by the interior, which is an unpretentious but absolutely gorgeous work of art. We later learned that it was completed in 1903 and is considered by many travelers as one of the world's most beautiful train stations.

The walls in the front hall are covered with more than 20,000 of Portugal's finest "azulejos," the exquisite hand-painted blue tiles for which the country is famous. Those on the ends of the building depict great events in Portugal's rich history and those on the sides show delightful scenes of everyday life in the Portuguese countryside. Above the tiles, forming a crown molding around the entire room, are brightly-colored tiles that illustrate the progression of transportation from Roman times to the 20th Century.

Fortunately we had the time to savor this hidden gem of a workaday public building before our train carried us away to view scenery as delightful as Tuscany's. Fortunately we weren't so star-struck by other "grander" sights that we failed to notice this unassuming masterpiece.      

These so-called "lesser lights" were as essential to our enjoyment of our vacation as the blockbusters. For every Venice and its Grand Canal, there was a colorful fishing village of Burano, with friendly people, brightly colored houses, and its own Pisa-like leaning bell tower.
The main square on the island of Burano in the Venetian Lagoon.

For every Florence and its Galeria Uffizi, there was a charming Tuscan village of Pienza with its humble church, grand views, and Via Dell' Amore ("Lover's Lane").


For every Palácio da Pena perched on a rugged and regal mountaintop in Sintra, Portugal, there was an Óbidos with its more-modest castle and its 12th century walls that completely encase the village and stand a full 45 feet tall.

The history books say that when 13th-century Portuguese Queen Isabel passed through Óbidos and marveled at its beauty, her husband King Denis I simply gave it to her. For centuries after, the kings of Portugal followed suit, presenting the picturesque little town to their queens as a wedding gift. It is now known as the wedding capital of Portugal. 


This trip reminded Marcie and me that the world is made of much more than Five Star Attractions and E-Ticket Rides. Sometimes the less acclaimed settings and experiences are just as wonderful as the prima donas, if we'll just slow down enough to spot them and savor them.
Life is much richer when it is a mixture of super-star moments together with more modest but equally important and equally beautiful day-to-day discoveries and celebrations. We're grateful our time in Italy and Portugal was chock-full of both.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Wednesday Wisdom - Seeing the World Differently

"The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes." Marcel Proust

The Pena Castle in Sintra, Portugal

Marcie and I just returned from 2½ glorious weeks in Italy and Portugal, a trip that has been on our bucket list for quite some time. It was by far our longest vacation ever. We designed our own itinerary and made our own arrangements, with the aid of a superb travel agent. We had no children or traveling companions, just the two of us. We love being together and that left us free to fully soak up these two grand and colorful cultures.

During our adventure we experienced far too much to adequately describe here, even with pictures, but some highlights include: castles, cathedrals, country villas, art, museums, music, food, friendly people, great weather, orchards, gardens, forests, new discoveries (like eating barnacles - delicious!), beaches, mountains, canals, the Tuscany countryside, walled and hilltop towns, Douro River cruise, romance, extraordinary beauty everywhere. (Look me up on Facebook if you want to see more.)

The fishing village of Burano, Italy

One of the most valuable things travel affords me is the opportunity to experience the world afresh, with a new perspective and through a new set of eyes. Seeing how others live today and how they lived millennia ago changes the way I see my own life. I return from a foreign visit alive with creativity, because "a new set of eyes brings a day full of possibilities." (Mama Deb) Stepping away from my daily routines - and even out of my comfort zone - frees me to re-think what I'm doing, how I'm doing it, and why.
Another result of travel is that the essence of the places I visit becomes woven into the blood and sinew of my being. Being there changes me. What I see and hear and smell and feel and taste on foreign soil transforms me into a more informed and understanding person, leaving me more compassionate, humble, tolerant, flexible, and grateful. It is true, as Anita Desai writes, that "wherever you go becomes a part of you somehow." I feel I am now a bit Italian and a bit Portuguese, yet no less American than before.

The Alhambra Room in the Palacio da Bolsa in Porto, Portugal

When I was growing up on a small dairy farm in Fruitland, New Mexico, our family of 14 didn't travel much at all. There were simply too many people, too little money, and too few occasions to escape the urgency of milking cows twice a day. Maybe that's why in my later years I cherish every opportunity I have to visit other countries. This most recent expedition changed me in profound ways: I have a new set of eyes and a new heart. Having seen more of the rest of the world, I now see my own world differently.