Recently I went on holiday to Paris with my brother and my carers. It was a week of fun and adventures, which didn’t always go as smoothly as we would have liked. Quite literally in some cases, as there were a lot of cobbled streets.
Paris is generally not great for wheelchair access. There are lots of cobbled streets and public transport is largely inaccessible to wheelchair users. In terms of attitudes to disability France is about 50 years behind the UK, according to Edouard Braine, a former French Consul. BUT it seems to be getting better.
In 2005 an equality law was passed in France which stated that by 2015 all public buildings must be accessible for the disabled. Well, 2015 has arrived and it appears that the law has had a positive effect in some places at least. There were a few exceptions, but most of the places I visited were pretty much accessible, at least to a point.
We stayed in the Park and Suites Grande Bibliotheque which was on the Avenue de France in the 13th arrondissement. Paris is divided into 20 separate arrondissements (government districts) which curl out like a snail shell from the centre of the city.
The hotel was rated as being four stars but none of us could work out why. It should have been two or three stars at best. The hotel said that the room would be able to accommodate four people, which is true, as long as two of them share the same bed! For some reason my carer didn’t want to share a bed with my brother so he slept on a mattress on the floor. The room developed a leak in the ceiling on day two but no one came to fix it for the whole week, despite it being reported immediately.
We had a small apartment which consisted of one-bedroom (with two beds in it) and a lounge area with a sofa that pulls out into a bed. There was also a small kitchen area with a cooker and microwave, and a bathroom. As far as wheelchair access was concerned the room was okay as it had a lot of space, but the ground was not level in the bathroom. The beds were also too low, about 30 cm off the ground, which meant my carers had to bend over too much which wasn’t good for their backs.
The hotel was in a pretty good area as it had a supermarket nearby, an accessible Metro station and a number of restaurants. Chinatown was also quite nearby which I was happy about! I love Chinese food!
I went to the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, the Sacre Coeur, the Palace of Versailles, l’église de la Madeleine, Notre Dame Cathedral, and had a boat cruise on the River Seine. All of the above were accessible, apart from cobblestones which there are a lot of, especially around the Sacre Coeur and Notre Dame and. So that I don’t bore you too much by waffling on about all the places I went to I will focus on my favourites: the Eiffel Tower and the Palace of Versailles.
The Eiffel Tower
The Eiffel tower itself is magnificent. It is much bigger up close than it looks in photos. There were hundreds of people swarming around the area, and lots of people trying to sell (rip-off) the tourists with Eiffel Tower figurines. The Gendarme (armed police) wandered around, as they did at all the major tourist attractions in Paris.
There is a lift which goes up to the first and second floors of the tower, with long queues to get to it. Luckily, we were able to bypass most of the queues, which is one perk of being in a wheelchair! We went up to the second floor and the views were fantastic. It was a warm and sunny day so it was ideal. From up here you could see pretty much the whole of Paris and the people down below looked like ants. For some reason wheelchair users are not allowed to go up to the top floor. They used to be able to, but unfortunately not any more. But even if we could it probably wouldn’t have been worth it, as people had to pay about €20 to go up there and queue for about an hour.
On the same day that we visited the Eiffel Tower we went on a boat cruise on the river Seine which was wheelchair accessible. The Eiffel Tower is right next to the river and the cruise started and ended pretty much next to it which was handy.
The cruise was good and was a good way to see the landmarks of Paris. A lot of the major landmarks such as the Louvre, the Musee d’Orsay, Notre Dame Cathedral, Hotel des invalides and Sainte Chapelle are by the river. I got a pretty decent view in the boat but we had to sit inside and couldn’t go up on the roof which would have been a better view.
Palace of Versailles
The Palace of Versailles is located about 20 km west of Paris so we had to take the train to get there. First we had to go on the accessible Metro line 14 to Gare Saint Lazare which took about half an hour. From Gare Saint Lazare we took a train which went straight to Versailles which was another half an hour. From the station in Versailles we had to walk about 1 km through the town to get to the Palace, which took about 10 minutes. All in all not a bad journey.
The Palace is spectacular and huge. It is the largest Royal Palace in Europe and covers an area of 7 ha and contains over 700 rooms. In today’s money it cost about $2 billion to build. Surrounding the Palace are gardens which are equally as lavish. The gardens are even bigger and cover an area of 800 hectares.
Apparently if you wanted to do a full tour of the palace it will take you about eight hours! That is not including the gardens!
We went through some of the rooms on the first floor of the palace which included the Kings bedroom, the Queen’s bedroom, and the Hall of Mirrors where the Treaty of Versailles was signed which formally ended World War I.
Unfortunately there were thousands of people going through the rooms at the same time so everyone was fighting for a bit of space to get a decent view. For someone in a wheelchair it’s especially hard to see when there is a big group of people stood in front of you. Luckily the ceilings were just as impressive as anything else in the room with huge paintings on them.
We made sure we left enough time, at least a couple of hours, to explore the gardens. Because they are so big visitors can hire golf buggies to drive around, and I was impressed to find they had a wheelchair accessible one. This one had a ramp at the back and my chair could be clamped down which was great. Even better was the fact that I got 40% off because I was disabled – another perk! Normally it would cost €32 for an hour but I got it for €20 which is not bad. It was good fun driving around the gardens in the buggy apart from when there was a bump as if I wasn’t strapped in my head would have probably hit the roof!
All in all Versailles is a great place and well worthy of a visit if you are ever in Paris.
Other Interesting Places
We went to the Louvre but we didn’t get there till about three in the afternoon so we only had a couple of hours before closing time. We wandered around some of the Egyptian collection but even then we didn’t get to see it all. It would be good to come back someday and spend a day going around the museum. There is so much to see, including the Mona Lisa, that you need at least a day to see it all.
The Sacre Coeur is a big church/cathedral on top of a hill from which you can get spectacular views of the city. The area around the Sacre Coeur is full of cobbles so I felt like I’d been stuck in a tumble dryer by the end of the day. I wasn’t expecting the Sacre Coeur to be accessible but there was an entrance to the rear and they had a lift which was good. In this area there were quite a few street artists who would sketch you. I had one done but the guy scammed me out of some money. He said it was €30 and we gave it to him, and I didn’t think to argue! It was worth five euros at most. Oh well, next time I will know never to buy anything from people on the street.
On the last evening we went to a Chinese restaurant as Chinese food is my favourite. The restaurant we chose was a buffet style place but it had an interesting twist. We had to cook the food ourselves! Each table had a hotplate in the middle of it and all the food on the counters was raw. So we would go up and get what we want and then chuck it on the hotplate. It was really cool; I’d never seen anything like that before! It’s a clever way to avoid having to pay for a chef, but I guess you have to hope that the customers don’t give themselves food poisoning! Thankfully, we didn’t poison ourselves. Also I got to try frog’s legs here, which I’ve never had before. It’s ironic that the only place where I saw frog’s legs on the menu in the whole week – considering it’s a traditional French food – was in a CHINESE restaurant! I quite liked them. I know it’s a cliché but, they tasted just like chicken!
In general the wheelchair access in Paris was okay.it wasn’t bad but it could have been better. The most difficult things seem to be getting around using public transport.
The public transport in Paris consists of buses and the Metro, or taxis. I didn’t use the buses but they appeared to be wheelchair accessible with a ramp that comes out the middle of them, kind of like ones that I have used in England. We used the Metro to get around mostly but we found that not all of the lines are accessible. For example, to get to the Eiffel Tower we had to go on a Metro line where the train carriages were double-decker and had a big step to get onto them. As you can imagine it was not easy to get onto these carriages, but my carers and my brother managed to lift my chair on. There is only one Metro line that is completely accessible and that was Line 14. It’s like the jubilee line on the London Underground as it was the newest line and there were no steps at all. We could literally just drive straight onto the train. Luckily, one of the stations on this line was on the same street as our hotel which was handy.
A lot of the Metro stations don’t have lifts. Even some of the accessible Metro stations on line 14 were not without problems. When I tried to get to the Louvre it should have been a straightforward journey to a station which was about 400 m away. However, we got to the station and the lift wasn’t working. So we had to go to the next station on the line and walk to the Louvre which took an extra 20 minutes. The lifts and ticket machines seem to be really unreliable.
Using taxis can be really expensive as well. I got a taxi to go to the Sacre Coeur because that was the easiest way to get there. This ended up costing me €50 each way to go from my hotel, but it was worth it for saving the aggravation.
Paris is an old city and a lot of the buildings are difficult to modify for wheelchair access because they are listed. However, saying this there were some access features that I wasn’t expecting. For example, in Notre Dame Cathedral there were some steps that had to be climbed to get to different parts of the cathedral. There was a sign which indicated wheelchair access but it was not clear what this entailed, as there was no ramp at all just steps. But a guy came over pressed a button and the steps flattened themselves out to form a lift. Very impressive. In some places, as I mentioned earlier, there are also a lot of cobbles which doesn’t mix well with wheelchairs. Curse the man who invented cobblestones!
Overall, I had a really great time and I would like to go back as there was still quite a lot which I didn’t get to see. I wouldn’t use the same hotel though. A hotel in the centre of Paris which was closer to a lot of the sites would be better as we could walk and not use the Metro.
I have to give a special mention to a book which I used called “Access in Paris” by Gordon Couch. It has lots of information ranging from how to get into the major sites to where the toilets are. The most recent book they have done though is from 2006 and things may have changed since then, probably for the better. I found the book really useful especially for using the Metro as it tells you what stations are accessible. The book is free but it’s worth making a donation as the information within it is valuable to wheelchair users.
Here is their website: http://www.accessinparis.org/