We checked off a major item from our family bucket list in June; we took the entire family to Europe for two weeks! If you follow me on social media, you know I tried to share some pictures as Wifi allowed, but typically I was so exhausted by the end of each day, details of our trip were sparse. So now, over the course of at least three blog posts, I will share the highs and lows of visiting Paris, Venice and Rome as a family of seven, with two wheelchair users thrown into the mix. TL;DR – it was amazing, though we learned a lot, and would change several things if we ever travel overseas again.
We arrived at the Orly airport around 12:30 p.m. Of course no one slept all that well on our overnight flight from Newark, NJ, but we were happy to see both boys wheelchairs were intact. Our first challenge arose when our ride to our hotel was not waiting for us. When they did arrive after calls from the airport special services representative, our driver showed up in one minivan. The transfer company then insisted we didn’t request the right vehicles and that they couldn’t provide any other drivers at that time. We were encouraged by the driver to split up with half our party taking his minvan and the rest requesting a wheelchair Uber…of which there were none in the area. We told him we weren’t splitting up, and then he said he had another group of people to pick up, so we let him go. Thankfully, a wheelchair taxi pulled into the airport, and although it was already taken, the driver helped us request two more wheelchair taxis which quickly arrived and took all of us and our mountain of luggage to our hotel. So my first recommendation is for G7 taxis in Paris. We sometimes struggled to request a ride (you can’t get a wheelchair taxi through their app and when you call it’s all French speaking), but we found that if we approached another taxi driver in the G7 fleet and explained our situation they would call and help request taxis for us. It was not the way we wanted to start our trip, but the hospitality of our drivers really helped turn it from a disaster into a mere inconvenience.
Our hotel was in what I would call a residential area of the city, and was very large and accessible. But, as we were quickly finding out on this warm June day, Parisians don’t use air conditioning. (They also apparently don’t sweat and always look stylish.) That night we ate at a restaurant across the street from our hotel whose menu we couldn’t understand all that well, but which created delicious seasonal, “fusion” French food, according to Google. The meal was wonderful and in that moment, I was content and happy and excited about the next few days.
Most mornings we got pastries from one of the many bakeries a short walk from our hotel. I still dream about those pastries. Fueled on carbs, we headed off to Notre Dame to meet up with the Big Bus, an open roofed ‘hop on hop off’ tourist bus that would take us to the Eiffel tower that day, and ideally other sites during our visit. We quickly learned that what Google maps considered a 30 minute walk, would actually take much longer for two power wheelchairs with narrow sidewalks, surprise curbs with no cuts/ramps, and rough urban terrain.
Unfortunately, Notre Dame is still surrounded by quite a bit of scaffolding. We could admire some of it, but the heat and our exhaustion from the longer than expected walk dampened any enthusiasm and we focused on finding our bus stop. Assured by our travel agent, who had been reassured by the Big Bus company that their busses were wheelchair accessible, we held our breaths and waited at a crowded stop as the bus arrived with no discernible ramp or accessibly features. The ticket agent told us another bus with a ramp would be along soon. After a couple more busses passed, finally one with a ramp arrived. We then waited for the driver to figure out how to deploy the manual ramp which he appeared to have no experience using. And the advertised two wheelchair spots were actually one large spot, and so the boys squeezed in the best they could.
Traffic in Paris is at another level far beyond anything I’ve seen anywhere in New Jersey, New York City, Philadelphia or Los Angeles. We slogged through lanes of cars, with scooters and motorcycles dodging every which way completely ignoring all rules of the road. We passed the Arc de Triomphe (not accessible) and several other sites before finally arriving at the Eiffel tower. Unloading took awhile as the bus stop was at a curb lined with posts so it took awhile for the driver to park the bus at just the right spot to get out the ramp, and then the ramp stuck and wouldn’t come out. But eventually we made it and refueled underneath the tower before being ushered to the front of the line for the elevator after purchasing our tickets. Despite all the difficulties we faced in traveling with two wheelchairs, our whole family was treated like royalty when we arrived at an attraction’s entrance gate in every city on our trip. We avoided so much waiting and so many lines and it made all the long walks and heavy lifting worth it. A few tourists complained (usually to staff, not to us) but it was nice to have something be easy, when everything else on our vacation had the tendency to be harder than usual.
Part of the tower is under construction in preparation for the 2024 Olympics, and wheelchairs can’t go to the top level, but we enjoyed the views from the first and second levels. Afterwards we refueled with water and candy and lounged in the shade in a park outside the tower grounds before heading to a pier for a Seine river cruise. The tickets were included with our Big Bus tickets, and I didn’t think anyone would want to try to grab the Big Bus back out that way again to do the cruise another day, so after walking far out of our way to one of the few ramps that could take us down to the waterfront we settled in for our hour-long tour. The boys could easily roll onto the boat, however the wheelchair parking spots were in the middle of the lower level so during the tour they got minimal airflow and views. It wasn’t terrible, but had I known how little they would’ve been able to see, I don’t think I would’ve pushed so hard to go.
We had already decided to not take the Big Bus back to the hotel; we weren’t sure how long it would’ve taken us anyway since we’d never seen any other Big Buses drive past with handicap signs. I think they only had one, maybe two buses in their whole fleet. With the help of a G7 driver, we got two wheelchair taxis to pick us up and take us back. We got McDonald’s for supper and compared French fast food to American. Similar, but portion sizes are smaller and the burgers are from locally sourced beef, and taste like it!
We all slept in! After pastries, Tony and I went shopping around the town for groceries. We discovered a farmers marker, a cheese shop, more bakeries than I thought any city block could support, and a cute book store. In the afternoon we took the public bus, all of which are accessible (automatic ramp and two handicap spots), to the Basilica of Sacré-Cœur . We got caught in a downpour, but arrived not too wet in Montmartre. Perched at the top of a hill, the older kids hoofed it up a tall flight of stairs while the boys rode up on the Funicular. Everywhere around the church was bumpy cobblestones and steep hills. The handicap entrance to the church was at the back and required us to be buzzed in through a gate. Eventually we got inside. It’s an impressive church with many beautiful side altars and mosaics. I also appreciate that you can light candles and pay with your credit card using the many payment machines placed right next to the candle racks.
Unfortunately, we couldn’t go to the shops or restaurants around Sacré-Cœur as none seemed accessible. We grabbed a crowded bus back to the hotel and had crepes for supper which suited everyone fine anyway.