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Episode #183: Wheeling around Italy: Accessible Travel Tips

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Italy is a country we believe everyone should visit at least once in their lives. But some of the things that add to Italy’s charms, like cobbled streets and hill-top towns, can be a challenge for anyone with accessibility issues.  We get some tips on how to make the most of a trip for those in a wheelchair and issues getting around and get inspired to do things your own way. 

Show notes

We are joined by Italophile and wheelchair user Aimee Maldonado. Aimee was born in the US, her parents are from Mexico, but she has completely fallen in love with Italy and likes to spend as much time as possible there. She first went there by accident, and then never stopped returning. She loves it so much that she even got herself an apartment in Florence to use as a base for her frequent visits. 

What you’ll learn in this episode

  • Aimee is a full-time wheelchair user and many people are surprised that she spends so much time in Italy and wonder how she gets around. She actually finds it fairly accessible and points out that the three most inaccessible cities she’s ever been to are actually in the US – Washington DC, New York, and Boston.
  • Aimee loves the people and culture of Italy. When she’s there, she feels at home and thinks if there is such a thing as past lives, she must have lived there. When she is in Itlay she feels at peace – calm and stress free
  • When traveling anywhere, including Italy, there are a lot of things that most able-bodied people likely take for granted that can cause some challenges for the less mobile and wheelchair users
  • It is important, of course, to understand that everyone is different, and has different levels of mobility – so there are no one size fits all situations or solutions
  • Aimee reminds us to have an open mind as to what accessibility is – because everybody’s version of accessibility is different and everybody’s needs are different. It’s going to vary from person to person. What works for Aimee might not work for somebody else
  • Aimee uses a manual wheelchair which is fairly light and fairly narrow so she can fit in through a lot of doors that might not be wide enough for other wheelchair users – particularly those with electric wheelchairs

Hotel stays in Italy

  • When it comes to hotels, Aimee always firstly checks their information for accessibility details, but at the same time knows you can’t just just go based on what it says. You also have to ask the right questions. A hotel might say that there has an elevator, so then you make the assumption that it’s wheelchair accessible. But, in Italy and many places in Europe, there may be 2 or 3 steps to get to the elevator. Having an elevator in that case is no good, unless they have a ramp. There might also be an elevator, but to get into the hotel it is 2 or 3 steps
  • Aimee tries to look for pictures of the hotel to see what the entrance looks like –  if it’s at street level and if not, if there’s a ramp. There could be a side entrance where there might be a ramp – so just ask
  • There’s a hotel in Rome that Aimee really likes – the Albergo del Senato, right in front of the Pantheon. If you look at it from the outside, there are 3 steps to get in, but they have a ramp that they bring out and so it’s not a problem staying there for Aimee and she loves it
  • Aimee finds a quirk of Italy, in particular, is that sometimes when it’s a wheelchair-accessible room, it ends up having two restrooms inside. That makes it really nice when you are traveling with somebody else and 2 people are trying to get ready at the same time. It’s happened to Aimee at 4 different hotels in Italy
  • Many hotels have a few steps to get down into the main breakfast area. In this situation, there are some that have ramps that they’ll bring out, and some are willing to accommodate you and will take your breakfast to your room, or set it up in another part of the hotel. How you feel about this depends on the individual – whether you’re comfortable with that. Aimee is very flexible with that, so to her, she’s generally happy with that whilst many people want to be with everyone else
  • Aimee finds in most hotels in Italy, the breakfast is set up buffet style and the employees are always willing to help. They’ll ask what you want and go get it for you if you want – or you can go get it yourself. They’re always willing to accommodate and help. Sometimes Aimee accepts the help, especially if it is very busy and she doesn’t want to be in the way or drop anything. But every time she does it differently, depending on the situation
  • It helps to know the measurements of your wheelchair, both the width and the depth. This means you can find out the sizing of the hotel’s elevator doors to see if they are going to be wide enough. Usually, the hotel room doors are no issue, but in most places around the world, what Aimee has found is that the doors to go into the restroom are often narrower than the doors to go into the room and so an issue might arise there
  • Aimee normally starts off, again, by looking carefully at the pictures on the internet, and over time she’s gotten pretty good at being able to tell if the door looks wide enough or not. If you don’t see any pictures of what you need you can also  Google to see if there are any reviews from anybody that stayed in a wheelchair. When Aimee leaves reviews, she’ll include that she’s a wheelchair user tell help people. If she can find the info she is after, she will email the hotel and ask them these questions
  • There are new booking services now that have started trying to cater to wheelchair users. Aimee has not used them, so doesn’t know how reliable they are or how big of a selection they have. Aimee normally just checks on TripAdvisor and does a general Google search
  • Booking.com has a filter for accessibility, so you narrow things down as a starting point. You can immediately see if it doesn’t have an elevator for instance. BUT Aimee advises just because it says wheelchair accessible, it might not necessarily mean it is accessible – always double-check those things
  • Aimee is fortunate enough that she can use a manual wheelchair and does not use an electric wheelchair  – which is not a choice for many. If you do have the choice, she suggests using a manual one because it’s generally easier. It gives you more flexibility, it’s lighter and opens up more accessibility because the manual ones tend to be smaller/more compact

Taxis

  • For getting around the city, normally Aimee just rolls around everywhere in smaller cities like Florence. In much larger Rome, she usually stays in the center and can roll around most places. If she is ever going to take a taxi, then the small manual wheelchair means she can take any taxi. She doesn’t have to wait for an accessible one, which might be harder to find – and might be non-existent in smaller cities. She can just transfer from her chair into the taxi, and then the chair can be placed in the trunk or the back seat
  • Italian taxi drivers may not have the best reputation but has never had an issue with any of them. They’ve all always been kind and helpful. They’re always willing to put the chair in
  • She travles by herself f a lot and when she wants to grab a taxi, they take care of putting the chair in the back. It’s just a matter of telling them how to collapse it and how to take the wheels off or whatever needs to be done
  • It is worth mentioning that Aimee’s Italian is very good – so that is going to help with explaining such things

Airports

  • When Aimee arrives in to any city around the world, she’ll have a private driver pick her up and take her to the hotel or wherever she’s staying. This is because when she first arrives there are bags and suitcases, so it might be harder to fit the wheelchair, as well as the suitcases, into a standard taxi – especially if traveling with other people. This is also in case of strikes. Having a driver guaranteed, means not having to stand in a taxi line after a really long flight
  • Navigating an airport with luggage can be a challenge. Aimee travels a lot, so is well-practiced at rolling her case by her side or pushing it in front of her. But not everybody can do that. One thing Aimee has found in Italy is that they are very nice at the airport. They helped help her get on and off the airplane. getting her suitcases off the conveyor belt, and then bringing the suitcase with her all the way to the taxi. This is in contrast to her experiences in the US where they help her get off the plane and then she is on her own
  • This is not related to the airline. The people that get you on and off the plane, are ground staff run by the airport and have nothing to do with the airline. But when you’re traveling by air, you do have to let the airline know ahead of time that you’re going to need wheelchair assistance because they’re the ones that book and communicate with the ground staff from the airport so that all of that is coordinated and they can get you on the plane
  • In Florence, Aimee now already knows all the ground staff by name!

Trains

  • The trains in Italy are very easy to use – it’s just a matter of organization. The first thing Aimee typically does is to look at the train schedule and see what train she might want to take. She tries to take the fast train versus the regional trains because they’re just going to be more efficient with fewer stops. Once she figures out the schedule she then sends an email to Sala Blue, which is a free service at train stations that can help you board your train
  • Sala Blu is with the Trenitalia. Aimee has never used Italo, but they have their own similar service
  • Trenitalia have the largest train schedule, so Aimee find it easier to use them. You can find their email details here. You can also email the one in Rome and then they’ll direct you to wherever you need or forward your email if you’re going to go somewhere else. You need to contact them at least 24 hours before your train departs or the train you want to take because then they have to coordinate the service. The first thing they have to do is make sure that the wheelchair-accessible post is available at that time – because there’s just a limited amount of them and it may have been booked by someone else. As long as it’s free, they’ll reserve it. When it is not available they’ll advise the next closest train to that time
  • They’ll generally ask you if you have a blue card, which someone who lives in Italy would – but because she lives in the US she doesn’t and just has to explain this
  • They will also ask you if you’re traveling by yourself or with someone else. If you’re traveling with a companion, they can reserve you and one person with you. If it’s you have more – even 3 people traveling, then they won’t reserve for the third person. That third person has to make their own travel arrangements
  • Once she gets the email confirmation from Sala Blue, then she has to go to the train station and buy the ticket. Unfortunately, currently, you cannot pay for the ticket online, but your reservation secured. Aimee has only just figured for sure. She used to go to the train station the day before and buy the ticket but now she just gets to the train station early on the day that she’s departing, buys the ticket and then goes to the meeting point. They usually ask her to be at the train station about 45 minutes before the train departs but always check your communication
  • The meeting point changes every time, even within big stations like Florence and Rome. So you have to read the instructions carefully for where you will be met. Generally, they do not speak English at the Sala Blu but you can use Google Translate to send that email and figure it out
  • What Aimee does now is to have an email template that she uses every time. She does re-uses that email, that she’s used before and just changes the date, the times, and the train number
  • The seat is usually in carriage 3 – in what you might call the business section, so is a little nicer than standard and there is an accessible restroom
  • A tip from Aimee is to use the restroom on the train versus at the train station because it’s usually easier than finding an accessible restroom in the train station
  • Aimee usually transfers from her wheelchair into the seat, but you can stay in your wheelchair. They have it set up both ways. The Sala Blue people at the station will help you with your luggage as well – getting in and out of the train with your suitcases and then walking you to the taxi if you need

Driving/Parking

  • Aimee has a badge/placard at home that allows her to park in certain spaces, as is common in most countries. Italy also has its own system but whether you are allowed to use them from other countries, Aimee is not sure but hopes to find out and possibly try it out herself at some point

Restrooms

  • There are accessible bathrooms with grab bars etc, set up for wheelchair users. One thing that Aimee really likes in Italy, is that when they do have wheelchair-accessible restrooms, they are very respected. In the US and in a lot of other countries everybody wants to use the wheelchair restrooms because they are bigger and more comfortable (especially in airports), but in Italy, they are separate, usually kept locked and even when not locked, people respect it and don’t use it unless they are in a wheelchair or have some type of special need as to why they have to use it
  • Those restrooms arent’ everywhere, but you can usually find them at museums. Museums are usually free for wheelchair users in Italy. If it’s an emergency and you need to go to the restroom, sometimes you can just run into the museum because they’re not going to charge you. They will let you skip the line, go in and out, use the restroom
  • You’ll also find wheelchair-accessible restrooms at the big shopping centers
  • Rinascente and Coin departments stores have restrooms too. They also have rooftops which are wheelchair accessible, but worth checking the size of your chair as larger chairs may not fit as the elevator to the top is quite small
  • The Vatican also has accessible restrooms
  • When you find one, go even if you don’t want to go as you don’t know when you’ll next find a suitable one

Restaurants

  • Aimee has found that a lot of restaurants now have wheelchair-accessible restrooms. There’s even a restaurant in Rome, Osteria dei Pontefici, where the restroom is downstairs, but they have an elevator that you can use to get down to it
  • In a lot of places the restrooms are downstairs, but they will have a wheelchair-accessible restroom in some part of the restaurant that’s upstairs – you just have to ask. Not everywhere has them, but just because it seems like they’re not one it doesn’t mean there’s not one hidden somewhere, so always ask

Cities

  • All of the city centers in these historic cities are generally going to have cobblestones, so it’s likely going to be a bumpy ride at some point. Aimee is used to it and is fine with it. To her rolling through a park and being hit by tree limbs or whatever might be there, is something she is used to. For some people, these things are an issue
  • Aimee prefers to push herself. People who want to help her or try to push her, tend to push down which means a likelihood that the small wheels are going to get stuck between the cobblestone and so you might flip out of the wheelchair. When she navigates the roads herself, she tends to just look down and concentrate on the cobblestone in front of her and to go around the rougher spots etc. She prefers to not have people push her, but if there are some steps or an uphill, then she might ask someone to help her up. Or she can just pay attention to how she’s navigating and she’s going downhill, it might be easier to go down backwards, so there’s less likelihood of flipping out of the wheelchair
  • There’s this thing called a third wheel that is a wheel that you can stick at the front of the wheelchair that a lot of people like to use it. Aimee used one last year when she did the Camino de Santiago de Compostela trail in Spain and it worked well there where she was walking all day. But she can’t imagine herself using one in Rome or Florence where she is constantly going in and out of shops/museums etc because it is bulky and extends 2-3 feet on the wheelchair. She has seen people in touristy cities using it – perhaps removing it when they go in and out of places
  • Aimee likes to roll around everywhere because that way she can explore the streets and get lost which is something she and many visitors to Italy loves to do. That’s also how she finds those unique and wonderful restaurants that aren’t filled with tourists. That is what Aimee likes and is able to do. Some people prefer to use taxis because they can’t go long distances, or they might prefer to have some sort of driver – that way, they can leave you right at the front and pick you up right at the front of places so it reduces the amount of time spent rolling around in complicated streets
  • Most restaurants are pretty accessible. There are lots of options of restaurants that don’t have a step to get in or maybe just have one step. With Aimee in her manual chair, it is very doable to do 1 step. There are some restaurants that maybe have 2 or 3 steps, but at those restaurants, they’ve always been really nice and are usually willing to carry her in Cleopatra style, and she is fine with that. But not everybody’s going to be up for that. If you have a powered wheelchair, then it might be too heavy for them to be able to do that, or there is a risk that the wheelchair might break, so it might not work. But if it’s feasible and you’re willing to do it, people are always willing to help

Rome

  • Rome is fairly flat. The areas around the Vatican and the Pantheon in particular are flat. Aimee even finds that as long as she doesn’t want to go up the Spanish steps, the area in front and around it is flat as well. It’s not until you get up towards the Colosseum and up to Monti that you start getting more steepness
  • Aimee’s trip last month was the first time that she had gone exploring the Monti neighborhood, and whilst it is certainly steep it was still doable. She was by herself and was able to push herself up and down the hills without any big issues. She was definitely a little bit slower. There were people that she came across who would ask if they can help. This time she said, “No, thank you, I’m good”. Other times she’ll accept help – it just depends on how tired she is. She moves around pretty slowly because she is one of those people that stops and takes pictures at every street corner
  • The Trastevere is fairly flat but the cobblestones there are rougher there, but it is still doable if you are slow and steady. Aimee finds that the shops, restaurants and churches in the area are pretty accessible as well as the church
The Vatican
  • They are really helpful to people with mobility issues at the Vatican. Katy has been there with someone who uses a stick and found them really helpful. Due to it being a religious destination, they are used to having all kinds of people visit including the elderly and those less able
  • They also have different ways of accessing parts of the Vatican. To get to the Sistine Chapel, there is an accessible route and one of the people from there will escort you once you’re ready to go and see it. Most people get out of the Sistine Chapel and there’s a route to get to St Peter’s Basilica through the inside. When you’re in a wheelchair, you can’t do that same route. You have to exit the museums and then come around the outside to the front to get into St Peter’s, but you do get to skip all of the line
  • Once you’re inside St Peter’s Basilica, there’s a rooftop, which a lot of people don’t know and there’s an accessible route elevator to get to the rooftop. The views up there are beautiful
  • There is also an elevator at the Colosseum. When people are talking about things not being able to be made accessible because they are old and we don’t want to ruin them, Aimee always points out that if they were able to manage to put an elevator in the Colosseum without ruining it, they can do it anywhere
  • The Colosseum is very accessible – it has that elevator to go up, and they have just apparently opened a new elevator to go up to the upper level in the last week or two
  • The huge, white Victor Emmanuel II Monument which dominates that part of Rome also has an elevator to get up to for amazing views. There is actually a fee, but if you’re in a wheelchair, they don’t charge you 
  • There’s also an elevator to go down into the Forum and the Baths of Caracalla are another great accessible spot where they’ve made platforms so you’re not so much rolling over the gravel
  • Somewhere at the top of a hill, like the Capitoline museums, Aimee’s trick would be to get a taxi to take her up there. Then after visiting the museums, she just rolled back down. It was quite steep, so you have to be careful
  • Aimee also suggests having gloves so that you don’t mess up your hands when rolling around a lot and dealing with hills

Florence

  • Florence is fairly flat and Aimee finds it very easy to get around. Again there are cobblestones but the cobblestones in Florence are different than the cobblestones in Rome which are flatter and bigger. So you have to adjust to how you roll around them – you have to look at the ground, and make sure that there are not any big gaps where you might get stuck or flip out of your chair
  • One thing Aimee has noticed that they’ve been doing in Florence lately is a lot of street improvement. So in some of the streets, the cobblestones have been reset and are much smoother than they used to be which is great for anyone with mobility issues
  • One thing Aimee finds anywhere in Italy (and in fact anywhere in the world) is the sidewalks can be an issue – many of the sidewalks have a curb cut of at the end or there are cars parked on the sidewalks, or sometimes they just become very narrow so you can’t get down them. Aimee likes to roll on the street a lot. It makes many people nervous but it works for her – but you have to be conscious of your surroundings. You need to be alert for taxis and cars coming along and understand that they have the right of way, so you should scoot over and let them go by
  • In Florence, one of the main roads has huge buses that run along it. The road is already narrow and then you have the busses. Aimee usually tries to squeeze in between two parked cars to get out of the bus’s way 
  • To get into the Duomo in Florence, the entrance is right around the side and at the back there’s a ramp to get inside of the Duomo. There is no elevator to get up to the actual dome part, but you can go inside and visit the church
  • Most of the big churches in Florence have some type of accessible entrance with a ramp on the side. Santa Croce, Santa Maria Novela and Santa Spirito are all accessible.
  • At Santa Croce, the courtyard museum on the side has an accessible entrance too

Venice

  • Venice is a city of over 400 bridges so obviously there are challenges there
  • Aimee has been to Venice and does find it challenging
  • They have a map that marks the accessible route but despite being good with maps (in fact being a total map enthusiast) Aimee found the map confusing. It shows the routes, but then some of them depend on you getting on the Vaporetto at one point and then getting off at a different point to get from one island to the next island. Then the map shows the route within the island that’s accessible
  • Some of the bridges supposedly have these little elevators. There are keys to them but Aimee never did figure out where to get the keys
  • There are companies that do accessible tours of the island. Aimee thinks if she were ever to go back, she would hire a tour company to go around so that she could figure out how it all works. Then she’ll know better how to get around
  • Aimee has read that the best time to go to Venice is when they do the marathon. A week or two before the Venice marathon and for a week or two after. they set up ramps for the runners across all of the bridges. So it makes the city much more accessible with no stairs on the bridges – it’s all ramps. The marathon happens sometime in October or November, so you could look ahead and then plan your trip around taking advantage of that
  • Some of the bridges in Venice are pretty steep, so you may find you want to either get some help getting down them or roll down backwards –  carefully

Specialty tours

  • There are some companies that cater to people specifically that are in wheelchairs. The only specific tour Aimee has done designed for wheelchairs as in Machu Picu, Peru
  • Everywhere else in the world, she’s just gone in and looked through various tours, tried to figure out what they do, where they go and then writes to the tour company or guide and says “I’m in a wheelchair, I can do one step, maybe even two steps with some help. I can pop the chair in the trunk” – she gives them as much information as possible. Then they come back to her to let her know if it is accessible or if they can figure it out/are willing to help
  • When Aimee leaves reviews on TripAdvisor, she always likes to make it clear if the tour is accessible
  • She’s had really good luck and success with just reaching out – for food tours, winery visits to hiring private drivers. It’s always worked for her. Sometimes companies have it on their websites ‘No wheelchairs or strollers’ so she doesn’t even bother approaching them. Other companies are not responsive or they respond right away saying they don’t offer their tours for people in wheelchairs. If they don’t want her business, then Aimee doesn’t want to give them her money
  • People may have seen an opportunity to cater specifically towards people that are in wheelchairs but they seem quite expensive options
  • Aimee has seen tours that caters to people in wheelchairs, but mostly for complete trip planning that can be double or triple what she could pay when planning on her own. They also seem to be more limited in the things that they do or where they go. A lot of them that call themselves accessible, on a cruise for instance basically entail people sitting on a bus or mini-van all day, just being driven around but not really seeing or exploring the sites
  • So if you have a little bit of creativity and a little bit of flexibility you can tackle this stuff on your own

Smaller cities & towns

Siena

  • With a hill top town, like Siena in Tucany. Aimee suggests getting a taxi up to the top once you arrive at its base. Once she was up there, it was then accessible so she could explore. Then when it was time to leave she just started going downwards from the city, rolling down. Some of the streets she was rolling down were very steep and inevitably there were cobblestones, so you have to be careful, but it is doable. There were even a few where Aimee went down but then found she had to go back up, but it was much easier than having started at the bottom at the beginning of the trip and having to push all the way up which may have meant 100s of hill as opposed to a few

San Gimignano

  • San Gimignano is another steep hilltop town in Tuscany. If you have enough upper body strength, then you can do as Aimee did recently and go up and down by herself. If you have somebody with you that can help you push, it’s very doable. Once you are up there most of the shops have no steps or just one step to get in

Orvieto

  • A short train ride from Rome, Orvieto, has the funicular making it accessible to reach and explore

Amalfi Coast

  • On Aimee’s first trip to Italy, the Amalfi Coast was part of a cruise stop. They hired a driver to take them to the Amalfi Coast, stopping in Sorrento which she was able to roll through easily
  • Then they went to Positano. That is going to be more challenging because it is very steep and it’s all these stairs. There was a street where the driver left them and she was able to explore around some shops. So doable for a visit but not ideal for a stay – unless the hotel is right off the main road and you know the hotel is definitely accessible because you’re going to be confided there for much of your time, alongside a few shops and restaurants
  • After Positano, they went to the town of Amalfi, which had some areas and shops which were accessible and doable for a few hour’s visit. Again, she wouldn’t stay there overnight
  • Aimee also stayed in Naples which is very accessible. They took the ferry to Capri which was straightforward and accessible for getting around
  • Once on Capri, she did a boat tour to go around the island, including a boat at the Blue Grotto. The boat was not strictly accessible, but she was able to get out from her chair and into the boat, with help. That might not be possible for all. They left her wheelchair a shop and once they got back, they helped her out of the boat and into her chair that was waiting for her
  • The funicular up to from the island from where the ferry leaves you is accessible too so you can go up into the island and explore

About our guests – Aimee Maldonado

Aimee is from the US and like so many of us, fell in love with Italy on her first trip. A wheelchair user, having returned many times she has learned how to navigate some of the challenges of traveling in Italy and now has a holiday home in Florence so she can return even more often. She has learned that flexibility is key but also that there is often help on offer should you require or want it.

You can find Aimee on these channels:

Places mentioned in the show

  • Albergo del Senato – a lovely, accessible hotel near the Pantheon
  • Osteria dei Pontefici – restaurant in Rome, near the Vatican where whilst the restroom is downstairs they have an elevator to access it
  • Rinascente – department store in Italy with accessible roof terraces
  • Coin – an Italian upmarket department store chain
  • Altare della Patria – Victor Emmanuel II monument in Rome
  • The Baths of Caracalla  – baths that were Rome’s second-largest Roman public baths, or thermae. The baths were likely built between AD 212 and 216/217, during the reigns of emperors Septimius Severus and Caracalla
  • Capitoline Museum – a single museum containing a group of art and archaeological museums in Piazza del Campidoglio, on top of the Capitoline Hill
  • Basilica of Santa Croce – church in Florence that overlooks the square Piazza Santa Croce
  • Siena – ancient Tuscan city south of Florence
  • San Gimignano – picture-perfect Tuscan village

Resources

  • Sala Blu – a coordinated assistance services for persons with disability and reduced mobility from SALA BLU offices at hub stations for a circuit of over 330 stations
  • Camino de Santiago de Compostela – pilgrimage walk in Northern Spain

Resources from Untold Italy

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