Friday, August 29, 2014

Paris - Aug 2014


I sent out couchsurfing requests for Paris, and I did manage to get a few offers to host. However, those people lived quite far away from the city centre. I knew that the metro was not wheelchair accessible, so staying at any one of these places meant at least an hour bus ride each way into central Paris. I opted to rent an apartment through Airbnb, which I had used for the first time last year in Berlin.

The apartment was in a great location – an area called the Latin Quarter, but there were many accessibility issues to deal with. The owner told me beforehand the place was step-free with a ramp inside – good. I headed straight there after arriving at the airport. There was a ramp to get to the front doors which was fine, but the ramp in the lobby was extremely steep. I’m pretty sure the angle was more than 45° with no railing! I’m a strong guy, and I couldn’t even get up this ramp on my own. It wasn’t even a wheelchair ramp. It was something the maintenance or delivery guys used to get a dolly up and down the steps. Worst part was that it wasn’t even a full ramp. It was two narrow ramps side by side. One for each wheel. I wished I had taken a picture of it. Very luckily, this building was connected to several other buildings as part of a complex, and I was able to enter through the next building and get level-access to the elevators. Whew! Disaster averted! The elevator was tiny. I had to enter backwards and my wheelchair, which is already narrower than most, just barely fit in. Then I had to tuck my feet in to get the door to close. And then came the actual apartment itself. One word: small. I knew Parisian apartments were small, but this was beyond my expectation. I think it was about 200 square feet. I was able to maneuver around, except the bathroom door was too narrow. I rarely have this problem in North America, but for some reason in Europe, the bathroom doorways are always narrower than the rest of the doors. I have no idea why they build apartments this way. I would think it would be easier and cheaper to make all the doors the same size. So, I had to place furniture like end tables and chairs inside the bathroom, and shimmy from chair to chair. And to top off the whole bathroom fiasco, the shower was a stand-up and about 2 feet off the floor! It was extremely difficult to get in. Check out my Paris video for a fast view of the apartment.

My biggest advice to you is no matter where you are staying, whether it’s a hotel, hostel, Airbnb apartment, trailer, boat, or tent, ALWAYS ask them to measure the width of the bathroom door.

pain au chocolat everyday!
After explaining the problems to the owner, she agreed to refund me 2 of the 4 nights I was there, which was a nice gesture. Other than the access issues, I loved the neighbourhood. There was a bus stop right in front of the building to take me to all the central places. There was a bakery where I got pain au chocolat every day. On one day there was a small farmers’ market to buy fresh produce and meat. There were many nice cafés and restaurants. Wondering around this neighbourhood everyday just felt very Parisian.  

I had heard from many wheelchair users that Paris was not a very accessible city. However, I actually found Paris to be very accessible. The city is flat. There are curb cuts everywhere. There is some cobblestone, but it’s manageable. There are cafés and shops with steps, but I found many that did not.

From Charles de Gaulle airport, take the RER B (it’s the only train line) to central Paris. It’s completely accessible. Cost is 10€ one way with no disabled discount. Board at the front of the train where the platform is raised. Have an airport employee assist you if you prefer.

The Metro is not accessible at all. Only one line (14) claims to be accessible, but I had great difficulty trying to use it. I couldn’t find elevators to get to the street. At Chatelet station, I got on a horizontal escalator thinking it was the only way to get out, and then it gradually turned into a steep uphill escalator that lead to 3 stairwells. Bust! It was dangerous and could have ended badly! I strongly recommend taking the bus instead. The bus system in Paris is actually very good. I don’ know why more people don’t take it. In most cities, I prefer taking the bus anyway because you don’t need to worry about hunting around for elevators, finding the right train line, and then finding the right platform. Alternatively, you can board a bus on street-level in one of only two directions and away you go! It would only take you maybe an extra 10min plus you get to see more. And if you travel late at night after the Metro closes, like I do a lot, you have to take the night buses anyway.   


The Eiffel Tower is, of course, the top attraction to see in Paris. I went there
on my first day and unfortunately, it was raining off and on. The 1st and 2nd floor are accessible and there’s a special line for you to enter so you don’t need to wait in the long, regular line. Wheelchair users will not be able to get to the very top. I actually didn’t go up at all because of the weather and also because it occurred to me that if you want an aerial view of Paris, you kind of want the Eiffel Tower to be in it!

typical lift in the Louvre
The Louvre is a gorgeous museum and completely wheelchair accessible. You can skip the line and go straight down the piston-like lift to the concourse level. Best of all, it’s free for the disabled and an attendant! You will need to take elevators to the various levels, but for the most part, it is fairly flat. Be prepared to spend the entire day here!

The Arc de Triomphe is not accessible, but you should still go see it. The centre is only accessible via stairs and tunnel that go underneath the traffic circle. However, it’s still nice to wonder around the outside and along the famous Champs-Élysées.

I would highly recommend checking out the iconic Moulin Rouge and the Boulevard du Clichy – Paris’ so-called red light district. Tickets to the Moulin Rouge are expensive and will cost at least 250€,  but it’s worth seeing from the outside. The Boulevard du Clichy is a sketchy street lined with strip joints and sex shops. It’s entertaining to see during the day, but I would caution coming here at night.

Gare du Nord and the surrounding neighborhood is very interesting to see for the architecture. If you are looking for a wheelchair accessible hostel, I would highly recommend St. Christopher’s Inn. Apparently, it’s brand new. I was there one night for a couchsurfing meetup and was shocked to see how accessible it was. Normally, hostels seriously lack in wheelchair access. The entrance was level. There were wheelchair toilets in the bar, a small lift up to the private room where the meetup was held, and also more wheelchair toilets in that area.

Did I?

I was also warned that Parisians were not friendly people in general. I did not find this at all. Maybe it’s because I’m in a wheelchair, but who knows. My game plan was to learn basic phrases in French like “hello, goodbye, thank you, please, that’s good, toilet, elevator, help” etc (all in French of course). I think if you try to speak French, they will know you are not a native French-speaker and will be more open to interacting with you. I found this strategy worked very well and discovered I could speak a lot more French than I thought!   

Overall, I found Paris to be very accessible with many services for the disabled and I would highly recommend any wheelchair user to visit the city of light.

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