When my son suggested a New Year trip to Paris, I didn’t leap in the air; I did a pirouette on my walking frame.
The excitement was tempered with a little apprehension. Normally I can cope with everyday life without a wheelchair – usually by avoiding trips beyond the bottom of my garden – but Paris would require a different mode of transport unless I wanted to spend three days admiring the hotel room wallpaper.
I’d heard some stories that the French capital wasn’t exactly a model of good access for disabled people. In fact I was getting the impression that riding a giraffe to the North Pole might make for a more practical holiday. But Paris is Paris and the people telling me those stories were probably just jealous anyway.
We flew from Manchester Airport in the UK. We booked our flights with British Airways and chose a hotel from the list on their website; a three star bed and breakfast with disabled access.
At the airport, BA checked the size and weight of my wheelchair and enquired about any special needs I might have. I was pushed through the metal detector to ensure Osama Bin Laden wasn’t employing any 60 year old disabled Scottish women.
Everyone was very courteous and I was allowed to sit in my chair throughout. Our flight was called and a BA attendant came to say that, as there was no tunnel access to the plane, I would need to climb the stairs to the cabin. Failing that, other arrangements were available to get me on board. I was worried that the alternative might involve being launched from a large catapult but I knew I could just about manage the steps by holding on to the handrails.
At Charles de Gaulle Airport, despite advance warning, we waited on the plane for some time before a mobile platform arrived to take us off. This bit was scary. The driver of the platform kindly but firmly insisted that I grip his hands and not the platform rails while he walked backwards. Whilst holding hands with a charming French man might not seem like a bad thing, we were a long way up and I prayed that my first experience of France wouldn’t involve landing head first into its soil.
After a long trawl through the airport and re-assembling all the bits of the wheelchair, we went to get a taxi into the city. The first two drivers shook their heads at my wheelchair. The third drove a people carrier and allowed us to travel.
Getting in was difficult. With my back to the open door and one foot on the running board I managed to pull myself up onto the seat. The alternative was to be bundled into the car like a sack of coal. I chose the path of most dignity
Arriving in the city, the driver manoeuvred in and out of the traffic, jostling for position. I vowed not to try crossing these roads in a wheelchair.
We reached our hotel in Rue Saint–Honore; a stone’s throw from Le Louvre.
The glass door opened outwards onto a high step and. I held onto the open door with one hand, clung to my husband with the other, and, climbing onto the step, worked my way round the door to get inside. It was a technique that would become second nature over the next few days.
In hindsight, I should have double-checked the hotel booking. The hotel receptionist looked dismayed when he saw my wheelchair. He said that he had not been informed of my disabled state and there was some bad news: the small lift was out of order, the basement was flooded, which meant no hot water; and my husband and I had been given a room on the first floor.
The receptionist offered to arrange another hotel but, by this time, we were tired and hungry and I decided to try the stairs. The UK has a long, proud history of mountaineering and the next fifteen minutes was another glorious chapter as eventually I made it to the room. Later, we laughed at the absurd situation as we drank a reviving cup of coffee.
The following day, we were moved to a room on the ground floor. Both the bathroom floor and open shower were tiled. There were no handrails so my husband had to place chairs in strategic places for me to grasp. But the lift was now working and there was hot water available.
We could not fault the friendly receptionist who did his best. Besides, the breakfast was plentiful and the rooms basic but clean and adequate. And we were in Paris.
Feeling the magic
Next day the magic of Paris took over and I looked forward to visiting Le Louvre.
The old buildings were lovely. Crossing the roads was also easier than I had thought.
Each corner has a sloping kerb and a crossing place marked by black and white lines. Traffic has right of way unless the pedestrian crossing has a red/green man sign.
There was a queue at the Pyramid entrance although it was just past nine o’clock.
We were beckoned forward and led inside. An open lift, manned by an attendant, is used for pushchairs and the disabled.
Upstairs in the museum, some of the rooms are on slightly different levels, accessed if needed by a platform, which rises above the few steps and is manned by an attendant. After a leisurely look round we waited in a small queue at the cafeteria. My wheelchair barely managed to squeeze past the sitting diners and a larger wheelchair would have had difficulty. Soon, the museum became crowded and more awkward to navigate. We were literally overflowing with culture and so decided to leave.
The lift was confusing with passengers pressing the buttons as they entered and we seemed to be going constantly upwards. At the second time of exiting on the wrong floor, our son decided to take the stairs and meet us below. We were rescued by a kindly American group who saw our plight and left us alone in the lift to continue to the right floor.
By this time our son, believing we had probably died and been put in a display cabinet, had gone outside to wait. We searched for him amongst the crowd before deciding to go outside ourselves. We were relieved to eventually find him wandering around outside the Pyramid trying to convince tourists that the DeVinci Code was actually fiction.
In the afternoon we strolled down the Champs Elysses. Our aim was to reach the Arc de Triomphe. Unfortunately, the crowds thickened as we reached the commercial end of the boulevard. Finding it difficult to find a way through we gave up and turned back; However, I managed to catch a glimpse of the famous landmark in the distance, despite Renault’s best effort to cover it up with a car advert.
That evening, we ate a special New Year’s Eve dinner at a Lyonnaise bistro where the atmosphere was intimate and the food delicious. Some of the roads were closed to traffic when we later followed the crowd towards La Place de Concorde. Thousands of people had congregated down the Champs Elysses for the celebration.
In the square, the monuments were illuminated, as was the big wheel. The Eiffel Tower lit up the night sky with a myriad of twinkling lights. I did not feel hemmed in as people kindly skirted round my wheelchair, leaving me plenty of room.
A burst of fireworks from the big wheel heralded the start of the New Year. The display lasted for some time, then the vast crowd made its way slowly out of the square.
Above our heads, residents of the surrounding apartments stood outside on the balconies calling down “Bonne Année” to the revellers below. This made a nice change from the UK where a New Year stroll through a city centre is largely a matter of avoiding aggressive drunks and the recycled meals they tend to leave on the pavement.
It was a night I’ll always remember.
January the First
On New Years Day, we crossed the Pont Neuf and went through cobbled streets to Notre Dame (a bit bumpy in the wheelchair – I nearly lost several fillings). The area is steeped in history. The old buildings crowded in as we neared the cathedral, passing the flower market; closed for the day.
Apart from a shallow step up to the massive oak door, access to the cathedral was easy.
The building is magnificent. Looking up, it is easy to imagine how Victor Hugo was inspired to write The Hunchback of Notre Dame. A story about how another person with a disability had a little trouble in Paris.
Our son had included the Pompidou Centre in our itinerary. There is a disabled entrance at the side of the building but we chose to try the steep concrete slope at the front. The edifice looks incongruous, set amidst lovely old Parisian buildings. The impression is of massive pipes and primary colours. The ultra modern architecture is continued inside.
We decided to start at the top and work our way down. Having bought tickets for an exhibition we took the lift to the top floor. The door opened; a wonderful panorama of rooftops lay before us, just a few feet away. Unfortunately, nothing but the balcony wall stood between the open air and us.
I had seen no notice warning about possible vertigo; it would have been helpful. One of our party had an immediate panic attack and could not move. What followed was like a scene from a Harold Lloyd movie. We tried to close the lift door but by accident or design it remained open. The only recourse was to go out onto the balcony and summon the lift next door. With eyes tightly shut the sufferer bravely edged outside.
Fortunately, the second lift opened immediately and we piled in. The door opened again and we realised that the wrong button had been pressed. We were on the floor below, facing the same outlook but this time the veranda had a glass screen. Eventually, we were fortified by a cup of coffee in the cafeteria.
We had further adventures that day. My husband and son had walked miles on my behalf, enabling me to see places that I had only read about. Now I had lovely memories to take home. On our last night in Paris we ate at an Italian restaurant next to the hotel. I still had to do the old swing on the door routine but by now I was used to it. In fact I was almost enjoying it.
The return journey was slightly hairy. Going through customs at Charles de Gaulle Airport I was made to feel uncomfortable. We were put into a holding bay while the other passengers on our flight were processed.
Unsmiling customs officers searched us. I was made to stand and walk unsteadily through the metal detector while holding onto one of the officers hands. Nobody asked beforehand if I was able to do this, but maybe they fancied themselves as faith healers.
Everything was done in an efficient but brisk manner. However, the young man, who pushed my wheelchair out to the plane, grinned cheerfully.
It was a nice end to my journey. I will always have lovely memories of Paris and the courtesy and helpfulness of the people we met. Okay it can be quite tricky in a wheelchair but if you can put up with a little bit of difficulty then it really is somewhere you need to visit before you die.
This article is republished with the authorization of Paris Eiffel Tower News - a great Paris guide for a Paris vacation. Copyright (c) 2004-2005 Paris Eiffel Tower News - All rights reserved.