Italy Su Ruote (On Wheels)
From mouthwatering pasta to awe-inspiring palazzi, Italy has been delighting tourists since the Roman Empire. But its ancient cathedrals and cobblestone streets — not to mention the canals of Venice — don’t exactly sound like anybody’s concept of accessibility for travelers in wheelchairs, right?
Wrong, says Denise Ann McQuade, vice chair of United Spinal Association’s board and a public information coordinator for the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s Paratransit Division. McQuade, a manual wheelchair user due to childhood polio, spent 10 days this past October in the land of Leonardo and linguine and says she would definitely recommend it to other wheelers.
“It is possible to see a lot,” she reports. “We saw more than we anticipated … There is a lot of walking/pushing, so you will get a workout, but Italy is beautiful! Seeing such ancient places, viewing the artwork, [and meeting] the people them- selves are things I will treasure always.”
“We” is Denise and her husband, Larry. They had wanted to visit Italy for a long time, she says, primarily for the art and history. Only after talking to Able to Travel, which worked closely with sources in Italy to ensure the best possible accessibility, did the McQuades begin to plan.
One of Denise’s favorite spots was the Villa d’Este in Tivoli, near Rome, a villa and gardens built in the 16th century. “There are beautiful drawings on the walls and ceilings,” says McQuade. “The views from the windows are gorgeous, and there is a lovely wooded garden with fountains and pools and statuary.”
True, 600-year-old buildings aren’t exactly up to code, but McQuade was pleasantly surprised. “There were elevators so you can go to the various levels, an accessible toilet and cafeteria,” she says.
That’s not to say access was perfect. “To go around the garden I had to trans- fer onto a golf cart, [and] the inclines were so steep that, in some spots, it was like being on a slow-moving roller coaster,” she recalls. Still, by sticking to the plan assembled by Able to Travel, most problems were manageable. “I found the places we visited to be remarkably accessible,” she says.
Exceptions? “Some of the sidewalks [are] too narrow or too rutted to wheel on,” she says. A supposedly accessible bathroom in the medieval town of San Gimignano, a walled village that’s famous for its towers in the hills of Siena, Tuscany, turned out to be up an extremely steep side street.
Perhaps McQuade’s biggest disappointment was at the Galleria Borghese, which houses masterworks by Caravaggio, Raphael, and Titian, as well as ancient Roman works. “The elevator was too small, so we could only view the first level,” she reports. “However, there is a lovely park area around the museum to walk through.”
McQuade advises travelers to double-check hotels and attractions that advertise their accommodations as wheelchair-friendly. “Bathroom showers were not all usable because some were narrow with only a small, low, unsecured stool to sit on, even though the bathroom was spacious,” says McQuade. “Toilets and sinks were fine [but] some beds were low, making transfers back into my chair impossible unless I removed the seat cushion.”
The couple rented accessible vans for some side trips, arranged in advance by Able to Travel, but found the major trains to be accessible too. “We took trains from Rome to Florence and Florence to Venice,” she says. “These trains have accessible, portable lifts to allow you to board the train. There are two seats that can be flipped up so one can secure a wheelchair to the back of one or transfer to the seat. I stayed in my chair. The wheelchair-accessible toilet is near the wheelchair seats.”
Everywhere she went, McQuade met people who were eager to help. Nowhere was this more crucial than getting on and off the “vaporetti” (water buses) in Venice. “You have to make sure you’re getting on an accessible vaporetto, where staff tips you down onto the boat and up onto the pier,” she cautions, noting that she’s not sure how they would handle power wheelchairs.
Toward the end of the trip, returning from the Piazza San Marco, the main public square in Venice, the crossbars of McQuade’s wheelchair broke while being transported off a vaporetto. “Two workers from the boat found a string to tie up the bar and then pushed me to our hotel, stopping on the way to arrange for a local mechanic to fix my chair the next day,” she says. The next day, the mechanic was able to improvise “a temporary repair that enabled me to get home,” she says.
If you would like help booking a trip, call 888.211.3635 or visit www.abletotravel.org.
Note: This article was originally published in the March-April 2012 issue of United Spinal Association’s membership magazine Life in Action. To read full issues online, access our digital archives here.