Roaming around Rome and Assisi

A View of St. Peter's Basilica from the Square — Unless otherwise stated, the photos in this post were taken by my dad, Jim Rutledge

A View of St. Peter's Basilica from the Square — Unless otherwise stated, the photos in this post were taken by my dad, Jim Rutledge

From March 11 to March 15, 2019, I roamed around Rome and Assisi, Italy in my portable wheelchair. Here’s the accessibility assessment of my adventures. I’ll organize my assessment in the order I encountered the features about which I will be sharing my experiences.

The Vatican Museum

The objects in this museum are from various centuries and have been either found in Vatican City or gifted to the Vatican.

I recommend ignoring the vendors offering to sell you tickets so that you can avoid the line at the museum. Sometimes these vendors say they will also be giving you your own personal tour. My group purchased our tickets inside the museum. I, as a wheelchair user, did not have to wait in line. Furthermore, because I am a wheelchair user, my ticket and the ticket of one of my companions was free. I don’t think the tour guide is necessary, as once you get inside the museum, you may also purchase an audio guide. I did not purchase an audio guide and found it enjoyable just to look at the architecture and the objects on display.

A significant portion of this museum is wheelchair accessible. There is an accessible route through the museum that is different from the direction in which crowds are usually sent. There is a standard elevator up to the main museum level and down to the cafeteria. A wheelchair lift is available to provide access to the Sistine Chapel. Signs will direct you to accessible routes, and there are plenty of multilingual staff members posted throughout the museum to guide visitors.

St. Peter’s Square and St. Peter’s Basilica

There are ramps onto the square and into the main level of the basilica. One companion and I were offered the opportunity to avoid the line on the square and to access the ramp there. We chose to keep our party together and to have someone lift my chair up the couple of steps. The line moved quickly. The speed at which it moved may have been partly because we visited in the morning. I highly recommend visiting any of the major tourist sites in Rome at this time of day. If you are visiting in the summer, you will have even more reason to hit the high points in the mornings. Roman summers are HOT! There is also an elevator in St. Peter’s Basilica that provides access to some of the papal tombs underneath. The tomb of St. Peter can be accessed using this elevator.

Castel Sant’Angelo

This structure was originally built by Emperor Hadrian to be a tomb. It was later used as a papal fortress, castle, and prison. The entrance level is accessible, and there is an elevator to the second level. Various lookout areas on the second level provide stunning views of Rome. For the best views, I recommend visiting Castel Sant’Angelo on a sunny day.

The Coliseum

The Coliseum

The Coliseum

Here, too, you may encounter vendors outside that have a message much the same as the ones outside Vatican City. At the Coliseum, if I remember correctly, I and the other six members of my party all got to skip the line. Once again, my ticket and the ticket of one companion was free. The level on which visitors enter is accessible, and there is an elevator up to the second level. Additionally, there are ramps leading to some parts of the stage area.

The Forum

The Roman Forum

The Roman Forum

in the time of the Roman Empire, the Forum was the location of several temples and public buildings. At the entrance to the forum these days is a map of the entire complex. I recommend studying this map carefully before moving on, as it indicates accessible routes. Staff members may also be able to guide you to the accessible areas of the forum.

The members of my group later wished they had paid more attention to the map. We learned only by accident, after members of my group had pulled my chair up several hills, over giant rutted cobblestones, that there is a smooth path leading to an elevator. This elevator provides access to certain parts of the forum.

Assisi

This town is the very definition of quaint and hilly. I don’t remember the streets being covered in cobblestones, large or small, as many streets are in Rome, but I do remember that the sidewalks felt like they were paved with bricks. Most shops that line the main street have one or two steps leading into them. From my perspective, Assisi is a town consisting of two steep hills with a church at the top of each one, and the main street connecting the churches. These churches, the Basilicas of St. Clare and St. Francis, are examples of Italian Gothic architecture.

Most accessible vehicles may be too large to be allowed into the streets of Assisi. To visit Assisi, I had to be transferred out of my chair and into a seven-passenger van. Then, when we got to Assisi after about a two-hour drive from Rome, it was difficult for my parents to push my chair up the hills and to keep my chair from rolling down the hills at full speed. Nevertheless, if there is a way for a wheelchair user to be dropped off at the basilicas, I recommend visiting them. The remains of St. Clare are interred on the lower level of her basilica. Unfortunately, this level of the church is not accessible to wheelchair users.

Similarly, St. Francis is buried in the lower level of the basilica named to honor him. I was told there is a wheelchair lift to access this tomb, but I chose not to do so. I was under the impression that asking to do so would require making certain arrangements or finding certain people, and I didn’t want to delay my group.

The Basilica of St. Clare

The Basilica of St. Clare

If you don’t think you can navigate Assisi safely in your wheelchair, and you happen to know someone else who’s going there, see if they will bring you back a souvenir from one of the shops. Some shops may offer items that are hard to find elsewhere. A necklace pendant patterned after the rose window in one of the basilicas comes to mind.

The Trevi Fountain

On March 14, we were back in Rome, and made our way to the Trevi Fountain. Its Baroque statues and carvings should stay looking great for years to come, as the fountain has recently been cleaned, and when the sun is out, its white is so bright, it’s almost painful to look at. Visitors from all over the world toss in coins and make wishes. They also take plenty of pictures, and for good reason.

The Trevi Fountain

The Trevi Fountain

The roads that lead to the fountain are cobblestone and a bit bumpy for wheelchair tires, but the stones in this area of the city aren’t as large as the ones on the forum, and they aren’t spaced as far apart either, so the ride is smoother.

The Pantheon (Also Called the Church of St. Mary and the Martyrs)

The Pantheon

The Pantheon

This structure is a largely intact temple from ancient Rome. The round building with a circle cut out of its dome was constructed as a temple to all the Roman gods, hence the name “Pantheon.” Its floors, walls and dome are original to the construction of the temple. Today, you will find pews and Christian statues inside, as the structure was converted to a church in 609 A.D. There is a ramp into the building, and as the structure consists of one circular room, there’s nowhere a wheelchair user can’t go once he or she arrives at the Pantheon.

The Etruscan Museum at the Villa Giulia

This museum displays artifacts, pottery, jewelry, statues, and temple fragments from the civilization that lived in the area before the Romans did. It is accessible using a series of elevators and stair lifts. We repeatedly had to ask staff for help to find the right elevator because so many different elevators and lifts provide access to the sprawling, multilevel Renaissance palace. Unfortunately, (or maybe fortunately from a wheelchair accessibility standpoint) the Renaissance architecture is largely invisible from the inside of the museum. The interior, for the most part, has been replaced with ultramodern flooring, walls, and ceilings.

I recommend a walk along the building’s many courtyards. Such a walk gives visitors a feel for the building’s architecture. Stroll the outdoor areas of the second level and look down on the courtyards and mosaic work below. If you can find accessible transportation directly to the museum, I recommend taking it. The park where the villa is located is expansive, and we had to take quite a hike to get there from just outside the park. We even had to ask for directions when we were already in the park.

So Many Other Basilicas and Churches

The Cathedral Basilica of St. John Lateran

The Cathedral Basilica of St. John Lateran

Given that it’s Rome we’re discussing here, there are so many other basilicas and churches a traveler could include in this blog. We visited several churches and didn’t even make it to all the ones designated “major basilicas.” Each church has its distinguishing design characteristics and features, whether those features are artwork by Michelangelo or Caravaggio or the fact that the church houses notable relics or a crucifix that miraculously survived a medieval blaze. I think if I discussed here all the churches we wandered into, my descriptions would start to sound repetitive, and you would stop reading before you got to the end of this blog post, simply because of the sheer number of churches. When in Rome, you will find a church in any direction you turn, and you will find more than one church without having to walk very far in any direction. I recommend that you consult a guidebook for complete listing of all the major basilicas. I think all of these provide access for wheelchair users, as they are common places of pilgrimage for people from all walks of life. Of the churches that are not designated as major basilicas, some will have ramps and some won’t. We visited churches that did and churches that didn’t.

Wheelchair-Accessible Restrooms and Buses

What follows is a list of locations with wheelchair-accessible restrooms

  • our apartment on the Via Aurelia — It could have slept six, and it provided a restroom with plenty of room for turning a wheelchair. This room also contained grab bars and a sprayer for cleaning. To some, this sprayer might look like a shower, but it was not intended as such. The first-floor apartment did contain a shower with grab bars, and we found a shower chair in the room. However, the shower was small and would be difficult for many people to get into and out of. The shower did contain a hose that could be moved around for ease of washing. Unfortunately, the neighborhood where the apartment is located is very hilly, and there is a short distance without a sidewalk just outside the gate.

  • ·St. Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican Museum

  • the Coliseum

  • The Forum

  • Castel Sant’Angelo

  • the center of Assisi and the Basilica of St. Francis — The accessible restrooms are near the Basilica of St. Francis, not inside. Other accessible restrooms are roughly between the two basilicas, as well as where tour buses and vans park outside the gates of the city. I used the ones at the Basilica of St. Francis. I tried to use the ones in the parking area, but the accessible restroom was locked.

  • The Etruscan Museum at the Villa Giulia

Photo by  Paul Green  on  Unsplash

Photo by Paul Green on Unsplash

It may be helpful to know about a few common design characteristics of accessible restrooms in Rome and Assisi:

  • ·Unlike in the United States, where you’ll often find supposedly accessible stalls inside both the men’s and women’s restrooms, in Rome and in other parts of Europe I’ve been to recently, there has always been only one accessible toilet in its own very large room. Still, I never encountered an occupied accessible restroom or a line waiting to access the accessible restroom. There are not separate accessible toilets for men and women. This unisex arrangement is handy for people whose companions may be the opposite gender.

  • Most public accessible toilets don’t include seats. This is somewhat of a problem for someone like me who has balance issues and would normally sit on the seat. The accessible restrooms at The Forum had a toilet seat.

  • There are grab bars on either side of the toilet. They are paperclip shaped and attached to the back wall. They are designed to swing from a vertical to a horizontal position, in other words to move from being parallel to the back of the toilet to extending past the length of the commode. Because they are designed to swing up and down, my mom and I didn’t immediately recognize that they were grab bars when we first walked into one of these restrooms. One of the bars unexpectedly swung out of the upright position and bumped my mom.

Finding an Accessible Restroom When You’re Not at a Well-Known Attraction

When you’re not at one of the attractions listed above, you’ll have to do some looking to find a wheelchair-accessible restroom. I read on another site last year that international fast food chains require their restrooms to meet accessibility standards. I had occasion to test this claim on this trip. In one McDonald’s I stopped into, there was a restroom as spacious as and similarly designed to the ones at the facilities listed above. The catch: my chair had to be lifted up three steps before I could get into the McDonald’s to use the perfectly accessible restroom.

When we visited the base of the Spanish steps, I went into a McDonald’s nearby, hoping to use the restroom there. This location did not have an accessible restroom that we could see. There was a McCafe on the street level of the location, and then, it looked like there were two flights of stairs up to the traditional McDonald’s part of the store.

That day, we found accessible restroom in a jazz club that I forgot to get the name of. I know two things: that it was in the area of those famous steps and that it had a toilet seat. As a result of the discovery of this restroom, I would recommend looking for theaters and other, similar establishments, if you are looking for an accessible restroom and are not headed to a famous location.

Accessible Transportation

There was a train station near the apartments where we stayed. It had a ramp on the outside, but we were told that we would eventually encounter stairs in the train and subway system, so we didn’t use it. We used the bus system. All the city buses have ramps the driver can pull down to let wheelchair users onto the bus. Buses to tourist areas tended to be crowded, but ambulatory bus passengers were very kind about making room for my chair if the lack of space allowed for any shifting at all. There’s a tram system, and its accessible, but, according to RomeMap 360 and Civitatis Rome, its lines cover only 24 miles and are not particularly near to popular tourist attractions.

Madrid Accessibility and More

Reflecting

May 25 came and went more than four months ago. In the meantime, I've come to some realizations:

For me, the enthusiasm for writing about my travels fades more and more the longer I'm home.

I find that my interest wanes because I don't want to sound like a guidebook. If you want detailed descriptions of what you can see in Madrid, I highly recommend that you consult one of the multitude of guidebooks available. But I want to tackle travel writing in a different way. I want to come as close as I can to providing instant reactions about accessibility. I can do this best by recording my experiences as I travel and sharing them on social media whenever I get back.

I realize that I have a unique perspective to offer in the genre of travel writing. I understand why I’ve been encouraged to publish my perspective. However, that perspective doesn’t feel at home on this blog. I’ll explain my plans for this blog at the end of this post.

In the meantime, I promised to write a blog post about my accessibility experiences in Madrid.

What follows are my takeaway points on that topic.

 

Accessibility in Madrid, Spain

I have observations on the accessibility of public transportation and of religious sites and palaces that are popular with tourists. I will also comment on the accessibility of a couple of museums and other attractions.

 

Public Transportation

Buses are accessible. I didn’t use the buses, but they were clearly marked as accessible.

Each local train has an accessible car. A wheelchair can enter this car without being lifted. The accessible car I used included an accessible restroom with enough space for a wheelchair user and an assistant.

I don’t know whether taxis with wheelchair lifts are available.

 

Tourist Attractions

Several historic buildings are either fully or partially accessible. See the website for Spain’s Patrimonio National for information hours of operation, for ticket pricing, and for additional information about the accessibility of various Royal sites. If you need to switch the site from Spanish to English, there is a pulldown menu that allows you to do this in the upper right-hand corner of the Patrimonio National home page.

I visited the following:

 

Religious Sites

El Escorial (Real Sitio de San Lorenzo de El Escorial )

At this centuries-old monastery and former royal residence, I saw religious art. The gardens, the royal burial sites, and some royal living quarters are open to the public, but only the chapel, a few courtyards, and a few indoor rooms are accessible to wheelchair users. Apart from the chapel, the accessible indoor spaces are empty of everything but their artwork. The accessible outdoor spaces are paved with large, uneven cobblestones. If you use a wheelchair, be prepared for a rough ride. El Escorial does offer accessible restrooms, though the one I found was locked, and I would have had to ask for a key if I had needed to use it.

The Monastery of The Barefooted Royals (Monasterio de las Descalzas Reales)

We went here but didn’t go inside because we were told it is not accessible.

The Royal Monastery of The Incarnation (Real Monasterio de la Encarnación)

Unlike the other chapels we saw in Madrid, the chapel of this monastery is done in pastels. .

This convent is partially accessible. Wheelchair users can access several rooms on the first floor. Ramps were under construction at the time of our visit.

 

Palaces

We visited two palaces. The interiors of these palaces were decorated and vibrant jewel tones. Each residence contains a room paneled with painted porcelain. Here is additional information about each site, including accessibility information:

The Royal Palace of Madrid

The Royal Palace of Madrid

The Royal Palace of Madrid (Palacio Real de Madrid )

In addition to housing opulent rooms, this palace houses a collection of armor from different periods. Any spaces where the public is allowed are accessible. Wheelchair users get to ride an elegant elevator, many of the likes of which have been relegated to the past. But don't worry. This one worked fine when I was there.

The Palace of Aranjuez (Palacio Real de Aranjuez)

Among the variety of decor at this palace is a room displaying wedding dresses worn by members of the Spanish royal family.

Any areas where the public is allowed are wheelchair accessible.

A view of the palace at Aranjuez from one of the gardens

A view of the palace at Aranjuez from one of the gardens

The Island Garden and Prince’s Garden in Aranjuez must be lush in late spring and summer. They were, nonetheless, a pleasure to stroll through in mid-March when the trees were still hibernating a bit and the weather was misty. Be advised that they are paved with gravel. A wheelchair ride on these paths is bumpy, and some wheels would get stuck. However, the atmosphere of the gardens was worth the discomfort required to see them. I also recommend visiting the Royal Barge Museum in Aranjuez.

Other Attractions

The Royal Theater (El Teatro Real)

The Royal Theater (Opera)

The Royal Theater (Opera)

We followed an audio version of the theater's general tour. It was interesting to learn about the design of the building’s interior and exterior, as well as its history. The opera house The upper house is totally accessible. Still, if you use a wheelchair, you might want to call ahead before purchasing tour tickets. Staff will need to get you access to a stair lift for you to reach the first level above the street. We didn’t plan ahead and had to wait a bit before beginning our tour.

El Prado (art) museum (El Museo del Prado)

This art museum is totally accessible.

All over Madrid, Las Meninas, a painting of a princess and her ladies in waiting is reproduced on mugs and purses. Want to see the original work of art? You can find it here. Want to see paintings depicting central figures from the Spanish Inquisition? Want to see portraits of nobility? Want to see religious art? Want to see artistic interpretations of mythical figures? You will find all the above here.

Thyssen Museum

This art museum is totally accessible. In its collection are works of art from around the world — not so much from Spain.

A Private Tour with Professor Stephen Drake-Jones

My traveling companions and I also purchased a private walking tour led by Professor Stephen Drake-Jones, Chairman of The Wellington Society. On this tour, which was relatively accessible, we learned about the Habsburgs, who ruled Spain from 1516 to 1700. We walked to various locations associated with the that royal line. Between these locations, we made three stops for tapas. The tapas were included in the price of the tour. At all the places we ate, my chair had to be lifted up a single step to get in the door. If wheelchair users have someone who can do this for them, this tour is worth considering. The restrooms in each tapa stop were on the same level as the eating areas. However, the restrooms I saw were small — not accessible in the sense of having ample room for a wheelchair or an assistant to maneuver. On this tour, we entered buildings only for tapas. I cannot speak for the content of The Wellington Society’s other tours. The professor offers another centered around Hemingway's time in Madrid, for example, and he says it's also accessible.

Mercado San Miguel

The Plaza Mayor

The Plaza Mayor

If you want accessible tapas without a tour, try the Mercado San Miguel. I and several other people on the Internet describe this place as a tapas food court. It is a totally accessible entrance. Inside, you will find traditional tapas, which are snack-sized. Or, if you want more of something, you can get meal-sized quantities.. I saw three kinds of paella, ham and olives, ice cream, hamburgers, fruit and whipped cream, various cheeses, and so much more. You can stop here during your visit to the historic Plaza Mayor.

 

Additional Accessible Restrooms

It was our experience that museums and palaces had accessible restrooms. I’ve read online American fast food chains are required to have accessible restrooms, though I didn't test the accuracy of this claim myself. I'm putting this information out there in case someone needs it.

 

Looking Forward

I’ve decided not to schedule my posts to this blog. And when I do post here my posts will be shorter. They'll be glimpses into my creative process. I'll also post announcements here whenever I use social media to share my travel and accessibility experiences.  "Like" my author page on Facebook or follow my author Twitter and Pinterest accounts for more information on travel and accessibility around the world. You can get to all of these accounts using the social media links on this website.

Changes — In My Posting Schedule and in Technology

Today was the day I planned to make my first travel post, describing my accessibility experiences in Madrid Spain.

But I still need to go back through the books I bought during my trip. I wouldn't want to identify people and places incorrectly. I do want to research accessibility laws in Spain. Teaser: I was impressed, and I want to look into whether the standards are as consistent as they seemed.

Why haven't I done the above in the two weeks since my last post? Because I have a job outside of writing. Okay, okay, also, there were times in the last two weeks when I could have researched instead of watching TV. I chose TV.

Regardless of the reasons, my travel post wasn’t ready today. Yet, as you can see, I posted. This is a cheat post. It comes with a treat though. I'm way into this 60 Minutes segment. It's about technological research and development going on at MIT. Several of the projects highlighted could benefit people with disabilities.

Scott Pelley goes to MIT's Media Lab where crazy ideas become reality Subscribe to the "60 Minutes" Channel HERE: http://bit.ly/1S7CLRu Watch Full Episodes of "60 Minutes" HERE: http://cbsn.ws/1Qkjo1F Get more "60 Minutes" from "60 Minutes: Overtime" HERE: http://cbsn.ws/1KG3sdr Relive past episodies and interviews with "60 Rewind" HERE: http://cbsn.ws/1PlZiGI Follow "60 Minutes" on Instagram HERE: http://bit.ly/23Xv8Ry Like "60 Minutes" on Facebook HERE: http://on.fb.me/1Xb1Dao Follow "60 Minutes" on Twitter HERE: http://bit.ly/1KxUsqX Follow "60 Minutes" on Google+ HERE: http://bit.ly/1KxUvmG Get unlimited ad-free viewing of the latest stories plus access to classic 60 Minutes archives, 60 Overtime, and exclusive extras.

Have thoughts about this segment? I'd love to hear them. Why not comment below?

In my other two posts, this is where I wrote, “See you in two weeks." This time will be different. From now on, I plan to post here monthly, so that when I have a travel post in the works. I have more time to give it depth. I also need to spend more time revising my novel manuscript. Since I started this blog, the time I would have spent on my novel, I've spent on drafting, designing, and posting on this page.

I'm going to keep this blog going. If you're reading this, I'm assuming you want to read what I write. This blog lets me give you content regularly. It also gives me another opportunity to connect with you. The downside is, while I'm hanging out here, you can't read a novel I haven't released, or a short story. I haven't written. So expect another post from me on May 26th. I'm excited to tell you more and to unveil a new banner design. In the meantime, if you haven't done so already, subscribe to my blog using the form in the right-hand sidebar.