Have wheels, will travel! Accessible adventures in Western Europe

Taken near the edge of a walkway at the Cliffs of Moher. My dad and I couldn't resist  posing with this sign. I guess it's the adrenaline junkie in us. (Photo courtesy Hannah Langlie)

Traveling Western Europe in a wheelchair can be a bumpy road at times, but it’s well worth it.

I couldn’t believe it. After years of begging and pleading with my family, I was finally going to Europe on the graduation trip of my dreams!

I always knew that traveling with a wheelchair would be difficult, but could be done, with proper planning. Oh, where to start …

First, which countries to go to and where to stay? My family members had been to many destinations in Europe on past trips so they started offering suggestions about the accessibility of different cities and activities. From the start, Rome was out — too many hills and stairs, given that I would not be taking my precious hot rod (the Permobil Power Chair that I use in Seattle) on the international flight.

Having had cerebral palsy since birth, I have found traveling is always an adventure. But I was curious to see how this would translate into the laws of another country and that country’s way of life.

We flew into London late March 2011. Not only did I love the Brits and their accents before going (who doesn’t?), but also I would have to say that these were some of the most helpful strangers I’ve met so far.

Unlike in America, where the default role of the passerby is often to stare and keep on walking, we were continuously asked, “Would you like a hand, mate?” as we came across the many flights of stairs that would stand in our way.

Personnel at the many places we visited were always trying to find ways for us to avoid the queues (lines), and I even got to ride in a fancy module on a fork lift to get me into a small plane with stairs to the tarmac, something that I’ve never done before.

Arguably our best group shot, a rare clear day in London as my dad, my stepmom, and I enjoyed the world's largest Ferris wheel. (Photo courtesy Hannah Langlie)
Arguably our best group shot, a rare clear day in London as my dad, my stepmom, and I enjoyed the world’s largest Ferris wheel. (Photo courtesy Hannah Langlie)

One key pointer on the accessibility front: The UK has great bathrooms! In order to make up for having to put many bathrooms downstairs to save space in narrow shops, they have something called a radar key, which you can rent during your visit to allow access to clean, incredibly accessible, restricted-use bathrooms throughout the UK. This made up for the tight spaces in the many restaurants we visited.

Sights we saw in London included the Tower Bridge, Harrod’s, Kensington Palace, Piccadilly Circus and The Eye, the world’s largest Ferris wheel. It had cars big enough to fit at least 20 people, including those in wheelchairs.

Public transportation was also wonderfully accessible, with those trademark red buses use a card reader system, comparable to the ORCA system in Washington. The card-based payment system is fabulous for uncoordinated people like me. Visiting London was undoubtedly one of my favorite parts of the trip.

Next on our list was Paris. It was probably the part of the trip that I was most looking forward to, as I had taken French for almost six years. I was excited to put my skills to the test.

Unfortunately, the people in Paris were probably the least helpful of the whole trip, even when I made quite the effort to speak in French and interpret for my parents.

The Eiffel Tower is accessible, but only to the second deck. We stayed in an apartment that was formerly part of a very old convent. It was really neat for historical reasons, but unfortunately the basement — where the kitchen and dining area was — was not accessible.

People did not go out of their way to be helpful without being asked, but again, different places, different cultures. If I were to return to France, I would probably go outside the touristy areas, for example, Aix-en-Provence in the south.

Third on the agenda was Dublin. None of my immediate family had ever been to Ireland, and I had always wanted to go. My overall goal for this trip was to hit all of the big cities. Fortunately, though, we did a lot more than that in Ireland.

After having dealt with London’s incredibly tiny elevators, I was pleased to find that both our hotel room, and the Kia SUV we rented, were plenty big enough to serve our purposes and still have extra room for my wheelchair.

A view down the cellar stairs of our very old apartment in Paris. Obviously this portion of the place was not accessible. (Photo by Hannah Langlie)
A view down the cellar stairs of our very old apartment in Paris. Obviously this portion of the place was not accessible. (Photo by Hannah Langlie)

A memorable highlight of Dublin was when I unexpectedly met a guide dog in training and his owner as the dog was playing outside of a Viking museum. We struck up a conversation and still keep in touch via social media.

From Dublin we drove around most of the coastline during our five days in Ireland. We saw some of the most beautiful castles and rolling hills around, and visited quite a few pubs.  Every attraction we visited was accessible — well, almost. One of my favorite shots is of my dad and me standing next to a sign on the edge of the Cliffs of Moher that said “Extreme Danger.” I am giving a thumbs-up and grinning from ear to ear.

Ironically, earlier we had seen a road sign for the “accessible” path to this area, which basically went uphill at a 45-degree angle.

The place I’d really love to go back to is the small seaside college town of Galway. We enjoyed tea at a restaurant overlooking the water, and people everywhere were warm and welcoming.

Our final stop was the beautiful country of Belgium. We visited Brussels, the capital, famous for its shopping and medieval architecture, and the small canal town of Bruges. Brussels is your average bustling big city on a weekend day; it is also headquarters of the European Union.

It is worth mentioning that the only franchise hotel we stayed at, the Crowne Plaza, had one of the biggest accessible bathrooms I have seen. It was outdone only by the refurbished castle we stayed at in Kilronan, Ireland.

The Eiffel Tower, beautiful from the street, but only accessible to the 2nd deck. (Photo by Hannah Langlie)
The Eiffel Tower, beautiful from the street, but only accessible to the 2nd deck. (Photo by Hannah Langlie)

Although our hotel room in Bruges was very small, the people there were incredibly friendly. Bruges was like something out of an old German fairytale, complete with chocolate shops and horse-drawn carriages roaming the cobblestoned square. It was also spotlessly clean. If I had to pick a place to retire, this might be it.

Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by my European adventure, given the age and history of many of the areas that my family and I visited. In most places, the positive attitudes of passersby who were willing to help us made up for any physical constraints.

If I had to pick the hardest things about traveling abroad, I would say determining the pace of how much to pack into one day, and how to extrapolate what each country’s definition of “accessible” actually means. Moral of the story: Know the exact dimensions of your mobility equipment, both folded and unfolded, in standard and metric units. It will save you a lot of time and hassle.

There is definitely an art to traveling abroad, and I will not say I have mastered it yet, because I had a lot of help from my family. However, I am slowly but surely working on it.

Wish me luck on my next adventure!

If you’re looking more information on accessible travel see “Rick Steves’ Easy Access Europe.”