Italy (Venice, Florence & Rome) – May 2019

Venice

This past May we took the plunge and instead of booking a cruise we decided to visit Italy by land.  I did a lot of research before we left and we decided that we would start in Venice and then train to Florence and then Rome.  Upon arriving at Venice’s Marco Polo Airport,  we were told that Shawn needed to transfer to a transport chair and that his powerchair would have to be picked up at the baggage claim.  Normally I would argue this because Shawn has limited core strength and transport chairs cause him discomfort.  However, we were all tired after flying all night and just wanted to get going.  We were escorted by the special assistance team through customs and down to baggage.  We didn’t have to wait too long before his wheelchair came and my heart sunk when I saw that the wheel had come off.  After careful examination, it looked like a bolt was missing but it could sit on the screw and still be useable until we could get a bolt.  So off we went and looked for ATVO Express Bus that takes you from the airport to the main bus terminal of Piazzale Roma.  I did contact  ATVO Contact  ahead of time to make sure the bus with the wheelchair lift would be available when we arrived.  You have to let them know which time you want to take the bus, so I thought an hour after landing would be best and it turned out just fine.  We didn’t have to wait more than 15 minutes for the accessible bus.  The cost of the bus is 8 EUR and I was informed the bus lift can hold up to 440 pounds but please double check if you use them yourself.  Piazzale Roma is the last stop for vehicles so we decided to book a hotel near there and then take the Vaporetto (water taxi) to the various places within Venice we wanted to visit.

 

 

 

 

 

The hotel we booked was called Santa Chiara and they have a separate building called Residenza Parisi that can accommodate wheelchair users.  If you book this hotel you need to check in at Santa Chiara (which is very close to where you get off the bus).  Once you have checked in a porter will help take you over to a separate building where the rooms are (it is not far but not right beside the main hotel).  We did not care about not being part of the main hotel because we had no plans to eat at the hotel anyways.  Residenza Parisi is a 500 year old monastery and does have that church smell but the rooms were spacious and the location was excellent.  There is a grocery store right next door to pick up breakfast, snacks, beer, wine or whatever else you want.  Tip:  Be careful of the pickpockets in the grocery store.  The main Vaporetto lines all leave from just outside the annex hotel gates so that made it very easy to get around without long walks.

 

 

 

 

 

Venice is without a doubt more accessible than you might think. All vaporetto landing stages are accessible with ramps. Problems may, however, arise during particularly high tides when the access ramps may slope excessively.

In the vaporetto line 1 and 2, travelling along the Canal Grande, 4 wheelchairs at a time are admitted.

Boats on line LN connecting the city with Lido di Venezia and the Cavallino- Punta Sabbionilittoral are also accessible.
The motorboat are equipped for only one wheelchair at a time.
Two ferry boats operate between Tronchettoand Lido di Venezia, with lifts and accessible washrooms.

A special price of 1,50 Euro (from July 1, 2015) is applied for wheelchair users and is comprehensive of the possible accompanying person’s fare.

Adult One Way Pass – 7.50 EUR .

(Good for 75 minutes after validation)

Two-Day Travel Card – 30 EUR

We only used Vaporetto lines 1 & 2 since we only had a couple days in Venice and the main places we wanted to visit were on those lines anyways.  Please always make sure that the information provided is still current before travelling on your own.  The staff on the boat will ask you when you get on what your stop will be so that they can move people away and have the ramp ready for exit.

 

 

 

 

 

Prior to deciding on Venice, I did my fair share of research because a city full of bridges sounded like a wheelchair user’s nightmare.  As much as there is a lot that is not accessible there is plenty that is.  I downloaded accessible maps of the main areas of Venice and we decided on Cannareggio (close to the hotel), San Marco and Rialto Market.

Cannaregio District  is known for the 16th-century Jewish Ghetto. The Strada Nova is a popular local shopping thoroughfare, and the backstreets are a destination for crafts and vintage goods. Plenty of casual canalside restaurants are everywhere.  We only had time to stroll around and have dinner.

 

 

 

 

 

Marciano area (St Marks’s Square) is a very busy area with tourists, it can be reached directly without obstacles by taking the Vaporetto 1 to San Marco Vallaresso stop.  Be prepared for lots of people and the alleyways were narrow.

 

 

 

 

 

Rialto Market – It is fun, lively area with lots of outdoor patios and shops.  We did not go to the fish market but we definitely could smell it lol.  We spend a few hours here and then headed back to the hotel so Shawn could rest. We did love the vibe so much we went back for dinner and then ended up in Campo Erberia to have some drinks along the canal, which is a popular place for the nightlife.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Train Station – Santa Novella train station is across the canal from the hotel so you need to take Vaporetto 1 or 2 to the first stop at the other side of the canal.    The accessible seating on the train needs to be pre-booked by email with Sala Blu.  You are provided with a PNR number and with that you create an account  and pay online.  The arrival time is 30 minutes before train departure at Platform 14.  Special assistance personally escorts you and your travel partners onboard before anyone else gets on the train.  We had to fasten the chair ourselves, not sure if that is normal or if they just figured we could manage.  There is no table or anything handy to use for food, drinks, electronics on the train ride for wheelchair users.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Florence

Next stop after the roughly 2 1/2 hour train ride was the city of Florence.  We booked a hotel that was about a  15 minute walk from the train station.  It was a bit challenging with the narrow sidewalks and luggage.  I wish I had paid more attention to the best route because there was much better route with wider sidewalks and some pedestrian roads on the way back to the train station a few days later.    There was 5 of us so we managed but had we not had extra help it would have been very troublesome.

We stayed at Il Guelfo Bianco and the hotel was absolutely charming and the location was so central to everything.  We had arrived in the afternoon and since museums are free on the first Sunday or every month, we wanted to pop in and see the statue of David.  This is one thing I dropped the ball on, no one just pops in to see David.  Without Skip the Line tickets you need to be prepared to wait hours in line to get in.  Seeing as that was not an option we decided to try and see David another day.  The other thing we had a bit of a challenge with was trying to find a restaurant open because apparently on a Sunday most things shut down early.  There was a nice deli next to the hotel so we grabbed some sandwiches and relaxed for the night after a tiring day of travelling.   The hotel is very quaint and probably our favourite of all the hotels we stayed.  The rooms are not huge by any means but they worked for the 2 of us.  There is also a single accessible room next door for those travelling alone.  The window overlooked a courtyard which we used to eat take-out one night (we did have to use the portable ramp we brought to access it).

 

 

 

 

 

We booked an accessible Tuscany wine tour with Mirjam at Disabled Accessible Travel and we requested the same guide we had the year before,  His name is Valerio and he is fantastic.  Wonderful and kind person who knows alot about wine since he is also a Sommelier.  He picked us up early and took us to Piazzale Michaelangelo, which is a beautiful spot to look out over the city.  It seemed quite far by car so I would guess that it would be quite the hike if you planned to walk/roll there yourself.  We were some of the handful of people that were there so early (around 9:30am) so it was quiet and not crowded at all.  If you go there later in the day then be prepared for a crazy amount of people.  We drove by it later in the afternoon and it was packed.   Off we went  to the first of our 3 winery stops on our wine tour.

 

 

 

 

 

Antinori Winery

Nice modern winery but the least favourite of the 3 wineries we visited.  When we are in Tuscany,  I like the more traditional feel and the personalization of the tasting.  This winery felt very corporate.  The tastings are pricey but the scenery is spectacular for photos.  Since this is a very modern winery so this would be the best place to stop for a bathroom break.  The next 2 wineries do not have accessible washrooms.

 

 

 

 

 

Tenuta Torciano

This winery was an interesting surprise.  My aunt had sent me some photos of a wonderful winery she visited a few years back but only had pictures and forgot the name.  Well it turned out to be this specific winery.  It is a family run winery and the lunch and wine tastings were incredible.  The lasagna was the best lasagna I have ever had in my life!!  I ended up buying multiple bottles of wine, balsamic vinegar and truffle oil that were all made there.

 

 

 

 

 

Castello Vicchiomaggio
This winery was not on our original tour but our guide told us about this local hidden treasure and I am so glad he did.  It was not overcrowded with other tourist and we were the only people other than another couple there.  The staff were so friendly and the red wine was probably the best red wine I have ever had.  We did have to use our own portable ramp to get inside.  The winery also owns a beautiful resort so we were able to have beautiful views of the countryside.

 

 

We did make a quick stop to San Gimignano for what is considered the best gelato in the world and it did not disappoint!!  It is called Gelateria Dondoli and Valerio knew the owner and he came out and spoke with us and was such a charismatic and kind person.  I want to go back and spend more time here because it was really beautiful.

 

 

 

Our final full day in Florence started with waiting in line at 7:45am to get in to see David at L’Accademia.  Luckily the museum was roughly a 5 min walk from the hotel.  We did know that Shawn and his attendant would be able to get if for free but we were not sure where the accessible entrance was.  We waited in line with everyone else because the Skip the Line for those in a wheelchair only applies to one wheelchair with one companion and we were a group of 5 and wanted to stay together.  When we got to the front of the line there was a step to get in.  The staff at the entrance seemed completely confused on what to do with us and we ended up having them help lift the chair up the step.  I am sure there must be an accessible entrance but it was not offered to us.   When we exited, we noticed the exit was accessible so maybe that was suppose to be the way we got in.  Not sure.    It was not that crowded that time of the morning so if you can manage getting there that early it is a perfect time.  We waited no more than 30 minutes to get in.    The rest of the day we spend strolling around Florence.  We walked around the Medici Gardens (Riccardi Medici Palace), which is located very close to the hotel,  then to the  Duomo and then headed over to the Oblate Library, which has an incredible view of the Cathedrale from it’s top floor cafeteria.   There are ramps and elevators around the library so accessibility was never a concern.   Most of the day was spend just walking around Piazza del Signoria and walking across Ponte Vecchio and then a few blocks down for a fantastic view of the bridge.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I researched great things to do for free that we could walk to and what looked fairly easy to walk to.  Sometimes we had to backtrack and had to use the portable ramp once to get off a sidewalk because a parked moped was blocking the curb cutout.  It is quite common to have bikes, motor scooter etc to block your way but other than that one time we used the ramp it was never a problem again for us.  The sidewalks were very narrow and I could see the crowds at the height of tourist season posing a problem getting around easily.

 

 

 

 

 

After four fabulous days in Florence, we boarded the trains from Florence to Rome.  In Rome,  we had arranged for a private accessible tour that would pick us up at the train station, take us to the Colosseum for a private tour and then take us back to our hotel.  The Colosseum was every bit as amazing as I would imagine it to be.  Our transportation and guide was provided by the company Driver in Rome.  We also used this same company for our accessible airport transportation to the Rome airport and they were incredible.   I booked with Disabled Accessible Travel for our half day tour like I did in Tuscany.

 

 

 

 

 

We stayed at the Mercure Colosseum Centro.  The location was absolutely fantastic.  Our room was spacious but the hallways were a bit narrow.  The top floor of the hotel has a rooftop bar and pool.  The bar is accessible but sadly closes so early at night (7pm) that we never got to take advantage of the Colosseum at night while drinking cocktails.  The early closing could be because it was early May and it could be open later during peak tourist season.  The pool however is not accessible.  There are steps getting up to the pool area.  The hotel includes a hot breakfast buffet but there are steps down to the restaurant.  They do have a stair lift installed to take you to the breakfast room but we waited awhile for someone to come and operate it.  The person that did come was uncertain had to work it and was basically training herself as she did it.  On the way out we decided to take an outside exit door and walk to the lobby since it was accessible and just easier than waiting for the lift help again.  It was close enough that if it was nice weather it was ok but if raining it would be crappy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Colosseum for the most part is very accessible with elevators and ramps everywhere.  I found having the private guide was a huge bonus because she knew the best vantage point to see the entire Colosseum that was not obstructed for a wheelchair user.  Not only did she know the in’s and out’s of the Colosseum but the knowledge and information she knew about the history of Ancient Rome was priceless.  With a small group it is so much easier for Shawn be able to hear and ask lots of questions.

 

 

 

 

 

Next day in Rome we took a half day tour that took us to some familiar places but also some new places we missed on lasts years cruise excursion.  We went to the Trevi Fountain and Piazza Navona again but we also stopped at some new places like the Pantheon and Campo de’ Fiori.  It was all very accessible because the driver made sure to park in the best accessible areas that he knew had no barriers.   I won’t go into details about these very popular tourist attractions and their accessibility because there is TONS of information online.

 

 

 

 

 

 

We couldn’t have had a more incredible vacation.  It definitely gave me the confidence to start doing more land only trips and not just cruises.  Other than the wheel issue, which could have happened at any time, we did not encounter one single accessibility issue that we could not solve.  Having the portable ramp made things alot easier for sure.   We are already planning our next trip back!

RCCL Symphony of the Seas (Mediterranean) -May 2018

This past May ,we were fortunate enough to cruise on RCCL’s brand new mega ship, Symphony of the Seas, out of Barcelona, Spain.  This was our first time travelling to Europe so we were nervous and excited about travelling to unknown waters.  Normally we book at least a balcony stateroom but opted to book an Oceanview since the itinerary was fairly port intensive.  We figured we would not be spending much time on the ship, let alone a balcony, so we decided funds would be better spent on excursions.    The last time we stayed in an Oceanview was our very first cruise many years ago and after this trip I think it will be the last time.  I honestly would prefer an inside room on a higher deck than a low deck Oceanview but that is just personal preference.  Our stateroom was located close to the Conference Centre and the housekeeping area so there was constant foot traffic and noise.  Not to mention that we were directly below the nightclub and listening to pounding music until the wee hours.  Normally I would not be so concerned but we did have very early mornings due to excursions so the noise was a nuisance.  The room was pretty basic and did, as usual, lack any real storage space for 3 people.  I was not overly impressed with the stateroom or the service of the stateroom attendant.  However, this cruise was all about just getting us form point A to point B so all the bells and whistles these mega ships offer was kind of wasted on us.  For this type of cruise anyways.

 

 

Let me also mention that I started planning this cruise and our excursions almost 1 year before we went.  I found an accessible company, based in Barcelona, that was able to take care of all of the accessible excursions in each port, transportation as well as our stay in Barcelona.   We left Toronto on Saturday night and flew all night and board the ship as soon as we arrived.  The transfer from airport to port was flawless, thanks to Mirjam at Disabled Accessible Travel, who took such great care of our family while vacationing.  Mirjam is based in Barcelona and her company took care of all our transfers, excursions and hotel accommodations.  Our first port was Palma de Majorca, Spain and even though there are accessible excursions available we decided not to utilize any and just rest.  It takes alot out of anyone flying over night and even more so someone that has a disability so a day of rest is necessary.

The second port was Marseilles, France and again Shawn did not get off at this port.  The availability of accessible excursions was so limited that the one and only company changed such a ridiculous amount of money it just was not feasible.  Instead the kids and I took a ship excursion to the seaside town of Cassis.  It was okay and at least we can say that we saw something in France.  Now for the cream de la cream of ports and excursions and the whole reason we chose this itinerary…..Italy.

Florence, Italy (La Spezia)

This port we had to take a free shuttle from where we got off the ship to where the area is to meet the private transportation we had booked.  The shuttle is wheelchair accessible  (as shown in the picture below).  Our first stop was in Pisa to see the Leaning Tower.  We just decided to spend a short time here and wandered around Miracles Square, saw the Duomo (cathedral) and browsed some local shops.   After a quick visit and some pictures we headed to the town of Lucca.  Lucca is a quaint and charming town and was fun to just wander the cobblestone streets and have some traditional Italian bruschetta and espresso.  It was nice to just take in the atmosphere and not feel so rushed like most excursions.  Lucca has many options to see during free time like Roman Amphitheatre, San Martino Church, San Michele and Napoleon Squares as well as Via Fullungo, the main street with all the shops.   Soon after we were on our way to the Tuscan countryside and the part I was most looking forward to…..wine tasting!  We decided to have lunch and have a wine tasting at Tenuta del Buonamico.  Unfortunately this winery, although beautiful and scenic, was not as accessible as they had made it out to be.   Not letting it get us down, since we were in Tuscany, we made the best of it.   The plan was to have lunch overlooking the countryside but the restaurant was closed on the day we were there so they have us set up in an upper level of the winery.  Obviously this was not going to work for a wheelchair user so they set up a small table in the tasting area.  The entrance was also not accessible so our van driver had to back up and put the ramp down over the curb to allow us to be able to get in.  There also was no accessible washroom.  I do have to say the staff were more than helpful and did everything they could to make sure we enjoyed our visit.   After a long day we headed back to the ship to rest before our next stop Rome.

 

 

 

Rome, Italy (Civitavecchia)

The port of Civitavecchia is about 90 minutes from Rome but was a fairly easy drive with little traffic.   Our first stop was seeing the Colosseum from a fantastic view point that our driver knew about.  We decided not to enter the Colosseum on this trip due to the incredible heavy itinerary we had.  The wait times to get into the Colosseum are quite long so it is on our list to see next time we visit Rome.  From here we drove past the Arch of Constantine and Chariot Races Arena on our way to stops at Trevi Fountain.  After a quick stop at the fountain we then had a driving tour past Piazza Venezia and Spanish Steps before stopping and wandering about Piazza Navona.  After a quick bite to eat we headed to our private guided tour of the Vatican Museum.  Everything I have mentioned so far posed no issues as far as accessibility.  I was surprised how easy it seemed to get around for such an ancient city.  However, we had the benefit of a private driver who knew the in’s and out’s of the city and were the best places were to park and curb cutouts for a wheelchair user.  That information is so invaluable the you have limited to time to see a lot of tourist sites.  Once we got to the Vatican, we met our guide and started on a private tour.  The only real accessible washroom I saw here was right at the beginning so best to use it before you head on a long tour of the museum.  We explored the museum and the history and artifacts were incredibly fascinating.  We were able to view Tapestries and Geographical Maps Galleries, the Candelabra Gallery and the Raphael Rooms that lead to the Sistine Chapel.  Just a note on the Sistine Chapel and the lift it presently uses to transport wheelchair users.  Apparently recently they changed the weight and width restrictions and made Shawn transfer from his power chair in to a manual chair.  This is obviously a deal breaker for anyone that is unable to weightier or have a companion that can help with this transfer.   The most recent information I have is are here:   Measurements: 76 cm x 104 cm – Weight: Max 230 kg.   We absolutely loved Rome and are already planning are next trip back.

 

 

 

Amalfi Coast, Italy (Naples)

Our last stop on the cruise was Naples and we were heading straight to the Amalfi Coast. Our private wheelchair accessible tour began with a scenic drive to the Ravello, which had the most breathtaking view imaginable.  It is located at the top of Dragone Valley and has endless amazing views.  Here we stopped for some pictures, strolled around the small town and enjoyed some Espresso.  Next stop was the Amalfi Town, it was definitely the opposite of the quiet pace of Ravello.  Amalfi Town, while beautiful, was incredibly crowded and we found it very difficult to navigate around the mass amount of people, mainly other tourists.  While it was beautiful, we are not big on huge crowds so we made are way down the road a bit and enjoyed a beautiful lunch overlooking the water.  The accessible washroom was not very accessible and there was a small step but we managed nonetheless.   After lunch we continued on a cliff aside drive with a stop at the looking down at the town of Positano.  Positano is not very accessible because it is so steep but I wanted to see it based on the movie “Only You” from the 80’s, it was a bucket list place for me.  Last stop before returning to the ship was Sorrento and a Limoncello Tasting Centre.  We had never tasted Limoncello before and it was delightfully.  Even if you do not like alcohol you need to try lemon coated chocolate almonds…heaven!

 

 

Barcelona

Upon disembarkation, we opted to stay a few days in Barcelona, since we had heard so much about the fantastic accessibility and we were not disappointed.  As soon as we left the ship we we were met my our private driver and English speaking tour guide.  Given how tired we all were we thought it best to see the highlights on a half day tour, rest up and then go to a traditional Tapas Dinner with Flamenco entertainment.  Our tour took us to many beautiful spots throughout Barcelona including Christopher Columbus column, Palau de la Music, Ciutadella Park, Olympic Stadium and a guided tour of Guidi’s La Sagrada Familia.     We then checked into our hotel, freshen up and heading to the Spanish Village for dinner.  Spanish Village is an open-air museum of replica’s of Spanish buildings, squares and streets.    It was a very tiring day and we were happy to get back to the hotel for rest.  Our hotel was completely accessible and had a fantastic location not far from La Ramblas, where all the action is.    The next day we did not a Game of Thrones tour in Girona.  Shawn did not come on this tour because he is not a fan of GOT and we were getting mixed information about accessibility.  Just to be clear, this tour is not wheelchair accessible and if a company tries to tell you it is than they are very wrong.  Girona is has many stairs and very bumpy cobblestones and even though we brought a wheelchair for my slow walking mom, she basically had to walk and we had to carry the wheelchair up many flights of stairs.   Our last full day in Barcelona we just decided to walk from our hotel and discover the city on our own.  This city has so much to offer and I cannot wait to return!