If you’ve seen my post on the The Perfect Wheelchair for travellers and the account of our trip to Iceland you will know how we’ve used the wheelchair to get to us around, not letting my husband’s MS get the better of us.
This month we had the opportunity to visit a friend in the Tuscany/Umbria borders of Italy. We managed to get a couple of flights to Rome’s Fiumicino Airport and off we went. The wheelchair, as usual went in the overhead bin, and the crew happily put the wheels in the closet for us (they do fit in the overhead, but the closest is just as easy!).
On arrival at Rome (and on a previous visit to Pisa) we were asked to go in a scissor lift, which is a large lift that comes up the door and can rise/lower to the ground level. We were then transferred into a minibus with an electric ramp and then accompanied by two people through the airport. It felt a little overkill, but they were polite and left us at immigration after we advised we were fine to continue alone to baggage claim.
We hired a car at the airport and as we were only there a few days we took a Fiat 500. We managed to get the wheelchair and two medium cases in there no problem, and off we went up the motorway towards the town of Panicale. (later in the week we actually got 3 people, two suitcases and the wheelchair in a Fiat500! – that’s how small the Tiga FX chair folds up!)
The streets of Panicale are narrow and cobbled and uneven as you can in the picture below…
(did you spot our doggy friend who followed us for quite a way?!)
Tuscany and Umbria region is full of hills and valleys and is absolutely beautiful. It is not, however particularly wheelchair friendly, due to the medieval hilltop towns and steep cobbled streets. However with some strength and firm grip on the chair we do manage to get around no problem. You will also find the locals are incredibly helpful. We’ve been helped into restaurants and churches by locals and we’ve seen them put together makeshift ramps as well.
(doggy friend still there, following us as you can see!)
There are some places that are inaccessible due to the age of the towns but actually we found that most of the churches had ramps, even if they were a bit ramshackle and wooden. Looking around the churches in Italy is always fun, and if you experience a downpour as we did, it’s a pleasant way to spend half an hour looking at the architecture and paintings.
Both in Rome and Tuscany, the easiest way to get around in a manual wheelchair we found was to use the Front Wheel at the front of the chair, which lifts the smaller castors off the floor, effectively making it into a tricycle and this means you can ride over cobbles and uneven floors without issue. To travel with the Front Wheel means a little dismantling, it comes with tools to take it apart so it goes flat into a medium suitcase.
The smaller towns in Tuscany and Umbria look like you can’t drive a car down the narrow streets, but we found with the town of Montepulciano if you have an EU Blue Badge for parking, you could drive through the huge town walls, and up tiny streets to the very top where there are several disabled parking bays. There are Blue Badge spaces in most of the towns we’ve encountered, and if you have a valid Blue Badge you can park there as you can in the UK. This is a real bonus!
The main concern with some of the smaller hilly towns is the steep roads and the cobbles. Add a little bit of rain into the mix and it can be a little struggle going down the hills. I would recommend driving as high as you can into the town and find a parking bay at the highest point. We did that and made our way down, then left the husband in charge of a huge cone of Gelato whilst a couple of us made our way back up to the car to drive around and collect him. It’s much easier to do this than to try and push a chair up the hill!
Eating in restaurants is usually easy, particularly in summer when there are outside areas so you don’t have to struggle going into the building. In the autumn and winter it’s a little more challenging but we’ve never experienced a problem as people will try to make way for you.
I would recommend parking as close as you can to the main town centres and using your Blue Badge to park. Be sure to read the signs on the parking meters though as in many cases you still have to pay.
Some of the smaller shops and visitor centres are small in nature and won’t have space for a wheelchair, so you will need to be prepared to wait outside if someone else wants to go into the shop.
However in larger places, such as churches and major tourist sites such as in Rome, the Vatican, Coliseum and Forum you will find lifts (including a glass one in the Coliseum – those clever Romans!) and ramps. Often you can skip the normal queue and go in the VIP side. We found that to be the case in most of the major sites in Rome so be sure to go and ask to get information on the right queue. In many of the sites you can also get a free carer’s ticket (for the Vatican you need to book that in advance online).
Sometimes the lifts aren’t obvious and you may need to ask and end up around the back of the building, but you can usually find a way.
Italy is not always the easiest place to visit due to the cobbles, but if you have the right equipment and someone to help up and down the steep hills you’ll be fine. And think of the calories you and your companion will burn. More for wine and cheese!
Have you experienced any great spots in Italy? I’d love to hear more about your travels.