Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Rome - Sep 2015

Rome will definitely be a challenging city to visit for any wheelchair user. I knew this before coming here, but I was willing to face those challenges head-on because one of my bucket-list items was to see the Coliseum. Yes, I did see the Coliseum, but not without some blood, sweat, and tears.


I booked my first Airbnb room close to Termini station to make it easier for me to get to. That turned out to be meaningless (see below). The host said there were no stairs and an elevator and that he had a friend in a wheelchair visit him recently so everything would be fine. When I arrived there were two small steps, no big deal because I can handle that. But the big problem came when I wasn’t able to fit into the elevator! This was the first time this had ever happened to me. I came close to not fitting into the elevator in other cities, but this time the door was very narrow. The host had to place a kitchen chair in the elevator for me to transfer onto and then she carried my chair up the stairs. On the contrary, once I got into the apartment, everything was fine. The place was very spacious and the bathroom was large enough to get into without any issues. But not being able to get in and out of the building was not going to work and so I immediately needed to find a new room which was quite disappointing and a waste of precious vacation time.  

Two days later, by sheer luck, I was able to find a real wheelchair accessible room only a 10min walk from Vatican city. This was more a like a hotel room. There was just a bed, desk, and bathroom and the best part was that it was specifically designed for wheelchair users. There was a roll in shower with grab bars. The only odd thing was the two steps to get into the room. I would have preferred a room in a flat with other people I could talk to, but at this point, I was just happy to have a suitable room and bathroom I could use comfortably. I would recommend staying in the area of Vatican City if you can since the sidewalks are smoother with more curb cuts.


The infrastructure in Rome is terrible. Italy is not exactly a poor country so I don’t know why that is the case. Visiting Rome will seriously test your perseverance, but with lots of planning and having proper expectations, you can make your visit more enjoyable and less challenging.

Sidewalks in Rome are absolutely atrocious. I booked my first Airbnb room close to Termini. It was supposed to be a 15min walk, but ended up taking almost 2 hours!
Rome sidewalks can be:
  • Narrow and uneven
  • broken or missing
  • End randomly
  • Cobblestoned – large and small
  • Loose or missing cobblestone
  • Without curb cuts, or only have curb cuts on one side
There was a time when I crossed the street on one side with a curb cut, and when I got to the other side there were two steps to get up!

Roads are no better. Drivers are nuts in Rome! There are no lanes. People just drive wherever they like on the roads. And if you’re a pedestrian waiting to cross, you will be cut off by motorcyclists and cars turning right every single time! There is no right-of-way for pedestrians. Be warned!

Leonardo Express
I took the Leonardo Express from Fiumicino airport to Termini station in central Rome. I was able to go online and book special assistance to get from the gate to my luggage and onto the train.  This can be hit or miss. The employee didn’t know where he was going and ended up taking me on a wild goose chase through the airport.
Anyway, the Leonardo Express was surprisingly very accessible. I booked assistance because I was afraid the train would have steps and thus would need help getting on. However, the train was flush with the platform and I was able to get on an off on my own. There are designated spots for wheelchairs and an accessible toilet. The ride takes 30min and costs 14€ each way with no discount for the disabled.

Wheelchair toilet in Vatican
Public Transit
The most disappointing thing about Rome for disabled people is that most forms of public transit are not accessible. The metro and trams are not accessible at all and I knew this going in. However, I thought most of the buses would be good. This is not the case. Some bus lines are accessible, but many are not. For the lines that are accessible, not every bus is accessible! And the most frustrating thing is that there’s no way to find out. The transit web site doesn’t tell you. The only thing you can really do is just go to the bus stop and hope for the best.

When you do find an accessible bus, you enter from the rear door and the driver has to manually flip out the ramp. I’m not sure if there’s a charge for disabled people, but I never paid. There was no way I was paying for that kind of service.

Bad sidewalks combined with bad public transit, meant I had to take taxis sometimes. The taxis in Rome are fine. There are many of them and I saw many van taxis. However, they are not cheap and can really add up if that’s your main form of transportation.


If you can negotiate the shitty sidewalks and public transit to actually get to the attractions, disabled people will be well taken care of. I only visited two attractions due to the limited transportation options, so I opted to visit them multiple times.

I did manage to find an accessible bus to take me to the Coliseum which is surprisingly very wheelchair accessible. The area is surrounded by cobblestone, but it can be done slowly on your own or with some help. Once there you can skip the ridiculous line and go straight to the counter for a free disabled ticket. There is even an elevator to take you to the 2nd level where it is smooth all the way around! You can go wherever you like! The terrain is rougher on the 1st level, but you can still explore all the areas without encountering any stairs. After that, I would recommend checking out the Roman Forum. There will be ramps in some places and very high curbs in others.

Vatican Museums
The Vatican Museums are absolutely beautiful and you can easily spend the whole day there. Admission is free for the disabled and once inside it’s mostly flat and there are accessible toilets. The counter agent asked me for documentation to prove that I was disabled and I just pointed to my wheelchair. Since I didn’t have any specific documents he asked for my passport and printed out a ticket with my full name on it. The galleries are gorgeous and you could literally spend all day here. To get into the Sistine Chapel, you will need to take an old school lift that goes along the railing, and then down a narrow hallway.  Once there though, you will be in awe at how beautiful it is. I feel sorry for the guy who has to yell out all day long “no photos please”.

To get into St. Peter’s Basilica, you will need to exit
Ramp into St. Peter's Basilica
the museums and go outside and around. There’s another huge line, but just skip it and go straight to the front. There’s no admission fee for anyone. Take the elevator up and then the ramp to get inside. I thought Sagrada Famalia was an amazing church, but this one blows it out of the water! The Catholics definitely have some coin. The architecture, the lights, the sounds, the sculptures and artwork are all breathtaking.
St. Peter's Square
After that, be sure to spend time in St. Peter’s Square. Seeing this in person was a surreal experience.  That balcony where the Pope comes out to address the people, is an image I had only seen on TV. And now I was actually here. I spent a lot of time just hanging out and strolling around in this area.

Be sure to try the ice cream from
Lemongrass Gelato
I didn’t do any nightlife in Rome and that is because I couldn’t get to them on public transit. Even if I took a taxi, I may not have been to cross the street on my own. So I chose to skip the nightlife altogether in Rome. I did find some other unique delights. I ate ice cream every day and it was some of the best ice cream I’ve ever had! This may be a cliché, but I did eat some very good pizza and pasta!

Overall, I am sad to say that Rome is the first city I have visited where I am confident I would not return. I am still happy that I came here and got to see some of the most famous and recognized places on the planet, but the nightmare challenges I faced trying to get around could not entice me to return.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Vienna - Aug 2015

I’m still not certain where I got the idea to visit Vienna, but I’m sure glad I did. I thought Barcelona was the most wheelchair accessible city in Europe, but I’ll now have to pass that award to the city of Vienna, Austria.

Vienna is very modern for a European city. There are new buildings everywhere and even the old ones are beautifully restored. Nothing looks run down or old and about fall apart. Everything is extremely clean. There isn’t a piece of trash anywhere to be seen! The Viennese are very clean people. Vienna is always ranked highly for their standard of living, I now I can see why.


I managed to find a couchsurfing host on this trip for my first 2 nights. His name is Hartwig and he lives in a huge, modern apartment along the Danube river. He was a cool guy. We joked about how he was the white, Austrian guy who was a Buddhist and I was the Asian guy who had a thing for German girls!

After that I booked a room with a young couple through Airbnb. They lived in an area called Millennium City. Their apartment is literally in a shopping mall. The whole area was very modern and didn’t feel like Europe at all, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Staying with them was my best Airbnb experience so far. Before I even arrived, they meticulously answered all of my questions about steps, elevators, and the bathroom doorway. They have two bathrooms and the guest bathroom had a stand-up shower, whereas theirs had a bathtub and they switched bathrooms just so I would be more comfortable. On my first night, they invited me to have dinner with them. The next morning, the wife left me apple cake and coffee for breakfast. They gave me plenty of tips on what to do and how to get around the city. I never felt like a renter, but rather always like a houseguest.

Karin and I in the Burggarten
I sent Karin a couchsurfing request, but unfortunately she wasn’t able to host me. However, she did offer to show me around the city and it turned out to be one of the best days of my entire trip. Karin uses a power chair so I knew she would be a good guide. We met up on the shopping street Mariahilfer Strasse where she took me to her favourite restaurant for wiener schnitzel. 
Couchsurfing meetup in WUK
We wandered around the Ring and the 1st district, checking out various buildings and parks like the Burggarten. This is where I bumped into a friend – from Vancouver! And found swing dancers! We then joined a couchsurfing meetup in WUK and partied with other travelers until late. Karin is super friendly and very outgoing. Meeting here was definitely a highlight of my trip.


As I mentioned above, Vienna, is the most wheelchair accessible city in Europe I have visited. Here is a fantastic resource for people with disabilities visiting Vienna. Accessible Vienna 

The sidewalks in Vienna are simply the best out of any city I’ve been to. They are flat and very wide (even by North American standards) and there are very few cobblestones! The city is mostly flat and there are curb cuts everywhere.

I took the City Airport Train non-stop from Vienna International Airport to the city centre. The train station is very easy to find as soon as you leave the arrivals area. There is a discount of about half price (5€ each way) for the disabled and the trip only takes 16 minutes. There is a bit of gap between the platform and train, but I think if you ask they’ll put down a ramp for you. Once on board, there is a special section for wheelchairs which I noticed people like to store their luggage in, but the train staff will tell them to move.

Public Transit
My go-to form of transit was the metro, which is quite rare because the metro is not usually accessible – even in North American cities. In Vienna, not only is the entire metro completely wheelchair accessible, it’s very easy to use. The elevators are located in logical and easy to find areas. There was no ‘running around’ the stations trying to find the elevator or taking the wrong ones. In some stations there was one elevator to get out and that was it! And they all worked! I didn’t come across a broken elevator even once. Fares run on the honour system. I’ve treated every city like the transit is free for the disabled. In other words, I didn’t pay.

I didn’t end up taking any buses, but every one I saw was accessible.

The trams were the only part of Vienna that was not entirely accessible. The newer trams are good, but there are still quite a bit of older trams that you can’t get on. Don’t worry, between the metro and buses, you can get anywhere you need to go easily.


One of the main things I wanted to do was see an opera, because that’s what Vienna is famous for. However, I learned that all of the opera houses are closed in July and August. And I left on August 30. Fail!

Top of Shobrunn Palace
The next top tourist attraction in Vienna is probably Shobrunn Palace which is very easy to get to as it is located right beside a metro station. The palace is completely wheelchair accessible and there is a reduced price for the disabled. I paid for a guided tour and joined the wrong one that was in Italian. Eventually, I did find my English group! To get upstairs, you will be escorted up special elevators, but once up there it’s all flat. Behind Shobrunn Palace is a beautiful garden which is actually free to enter. I highly recommend going up the pathway to the top to see some amazing views of the city. There are no stairs, but it’s definitely very steep. Check out my VLOG to see more of this.

Mozart Haus is located right in the city centre, but it is tricky to find. It’s best to use your GPS or have someone take you there. The entire museum is accessible by elevator, but the only problem is that you can’t access that elevator on your own. Only the staff can take you from floor to floor. I happened to be there during a quiet time and several times I was ‘trapped’ on a floor because I couldn’t find any staff to operate the elevator for me.  Aside from that, it was pretty cool to learn about the history of Mozart and the time he lived in Vienna. It turns out he was quite the baller!

Note: For all attractions that have an audio tour, I strongly recommend bringing your own ear phones to plug in. This will free up your hands instead of having to hold the device to your ear.

Naschmarkt is a waste of time and I don’t recommend going here. There are some cool foods to try and some unique clothes, but overall there’s lots of junk – especially in the flea market section which to me looked like just random piles of laundry.

The Museums Quarter is a cool place to hang out. I didn’t actually go to any of the museums here, but one night I did enjoy a free classical music concert. 

Wiener schnitzel!
I don’t talk about food much, but I’m going say a few things here. Austrians are big on meat. Their national food is wiener schnitzel and I ate plenty of it. Some restaurants are certainly better than others. Apparently, the best wiener schnitzel is at Figlmüller, which is right in the centre of the city. However, I tried to go twice and both times there was a very long line and the place is not very accessible. There are steps within the restaurant and the tables are tight.
Radatz is a very good deli found in the shopping malls.  I couldn’t read the German menu so I pointed to what I wanted which was a big piece of meat on a bone – like a pork hock. Now I thought it would come with salad or potatoes or something, but the server just put it on a plate and gave it to me. So I just ate it like that and it was delicious!
I friend told me I had to get Sacher Cake and the famous place to get it is from the Hotel Sacher. I tried it and thought it was good, but I don’t think it’s necessarily something to write home about (as I’m doing right now haha).

The nightlife in Vienna was surprisingly very good. One night I attended a couchsurfing meeting in WUK which is an open-air courtyard. The next night we were in the Museums Quarter. This place is like a huge beer garden, except there are no bars selling alcohol. People just come here to hang out and bring their own alcohol. (If you need more, there are plenty of people walking around with backpacks selling booze) Everyone is friendly and just having a good time. Something like this would never work in Canada. The laws are too strict and most definitely a fight would break out eventually.

The first nightclub I went to was Volksgarten because another couchsurfer suggested it. This place was massive. There’s a large lounge area and dancefloor inside, and then an equally large bar and dancefloor outside. There was a timed water fountain right in the middle of the dance floor which I found very odd since you could be dancing away and then all of sudden the fountain turns on and you get wet. The whole place is flat and wheelchair accessible. There’s even a single-room toilet on the main level. Cover is 15€ and it’s open to 6am!

The next day which happened to be my last full day in Vienna, I was wondering around downtown and I came across a parade of nightclubs! There were all these huge semi-trucks with people drinking and dancing on the trucks and on the street around the trucks. Electronic music was blasting from each truck and they were lined up one after the other. I later found out it’s called the Vienna Summerbreak Festival. There was an official afterparty at Praterdome Nightclub and that’s where I partied that night. The music here was better, but the venue itself was kind of strange as there were many corridors and oddly-shaped rooms. I don’t think the building was originally designed to be a nightclub. One unique thing about this place is that it sells pizza and other foods right in the club.

What I loved most about Vienna is that you can simply wander around and find something amazing going on. Some of the best things I found were purely by accident like the international food festival, jugglers in the park, outdoor movie festival, free classical music concert, parade of nightclubs, and swing dancing in the park! 

Famous Maria Theresa statue

Monday, September 1, 2014

Barcelona - Sep 2014

Barcelona is the most wheelchair accessible city I have visited so far in Europe, and thus is my favourite city in Europe. I chose this city specifically to party and hang out on the beach and I did just that.


I wasn’t able to find a couchsurfing host in Barcelona. I did receive an offer from one guy, but his elevator was too small. I asked him to measure it and I determined it was standing room only! … for one person! Why bother even having an elevator if it’s only good for one person? I have encountered the problem of small elevators in every European city I’ve visited.

My Airbnb host and her roommate
I booked a room through Airbnb that was located about a 20min walk from the beach. The owner of the apartment was named Oria and she had two other roommates. It was a very spacious three bedroom apartment. I slept in Oria’s rather empty room while she slept on the living room couch or somewhere else altogether. My only issue was that the bathroom doorway was too narrow and the only way I could get in was by taking the door completely off the hinges for the duration of my stay. Oria hung up a curtain for privacy. Staying here was a lot like staying in a hostel. People were constantly coming and going – mostly friends of the roommates, but also other Airbnb renters. Everyone was very welcoming and nice. They even cooked a few meals for me and invited me to hang out with them. It was pretty much like staying with friends. The exchange of money was more like a token of appreciation and to help cover the cost of having me there. 

I stayed with Oria for 4 days and then moved to an entire apartment to myself which I gave a tour of in the VLOG. It was a bit further out from the waterfront and located on a busy street, but the apartment itself looked completely renovated and furnished entirely with IKEA! Honestly, my reasons for renting a place all to myself was so I could bring a party home which almost happened, but not quite. More on that later. I stayed here for three days and then moved back to Oria’s for the remainder of my time in Barcelona. I admit it was more fun having people around and being closer to the beach and La Ramblas.

As I mentioned above, Barcelona is a paradise for wheelchair-users.

Ramps down to the beach
I don’t know if it’s like this all over Spain, but Barcelona has very different sidewalks. They don’t have curb cuts per se, but very wide ramps from the sidewalk to the street. I think these were made for the motorcycles which are parked on the sidewalks, rather than wheelchairs, but they are extremely useful. While Barcelona is a flat city, most sidewalks are paved with some sort of stone. This requires more energy to push and can possibly slow you down.

Barcelona–El Prat Airport has the easiest transportation to the city centre of any airport I have visited… in the world! And I mean that! As soon as you leave the terminal, you will find the Aerobus stop. Every single bus is wheelchair accessible! It’s not one of those tall busses that have 5 steep steps to get in. It’s a low floor bus with pull-out ramp at the rear door – very similar to a city bus. You don’t have to book anything in advance. There’s a bus every 5 or 10min (24/7) and takes you right to Playa Catalunya in 35min. Cost is 6€ one way and there’s no disabled discounted. I wished every city had this.

Public Transit
I didn’t use public transit very often so I can’t give too much advice here. Everywhere I went was within walking distance. I didn’t even need to use the metro. I did use a tram a few times when I was staying in an apartment by myself. It’s completely accessible and very easy to use for wheelchair users. However, the lines are not useful for getting to tourist attractions.

Smooth path down to the water
Barcelona beach is the most wheelchair friendly beach I have visited… in the world! I seem to be saying that a lot. It beats out Vancouver and anything I’ve seen here in North America.

There are two levels to the beach. The top level is street-level and completely flat. To get to the lower level, there are long, wide ramps everywhere. At beach level, the boardwalk is wide and flat. This design alone is enough to make me happy because it allows me to walk along the beach without difficulty. However, there are wooded pathways that go from the stoned boardwalk right over the sand and down to the water. And there’s not just one pathway, they’re located about every 50 metres or so. Oh yeah, and there are restaurants and wheelchair toilets at every station.  
Dedicated beach area for the disabled

And to top it all off, there is even a designated beach area specifically for the disabled! Here they have wooden floors over the sand (with a covered area, and open area), beach wheelchairs, private wheelchair toilets, and dedicated lifeguards! Sounds like a resort for the disabled.

There is an uncovered and covered area

I rolled up and down this beach many times, every day. It was my favourite thing to do in Barcelona.


Stained glass windows
Sagrada Familia is a Catholic church designed by the famous Spanish architect Antoni Gaudi. This place is beautiful and unlike any church I have ever visited. Admission is free for the disabled and an attendant. Go to the front of the ticket office (don’t wait in line. If anyone asks, just say you were told go to the front) and obtain your free ticket. The towers are not accessible because there are stairs to the elevator – talk about a poor design! After getting your ticket, you will need to go around the block and enter through the group/school entrance. You may have to wait and get your bags checked by security before going inside.

Very steep ramps
Warning: Even though Sagrada Familia is wheelchair accessible, there are some very steep pathways. I am quite strong and can usually push myself up any hill, but even I had to ask for help here.

A mountain of fruit!
La Boqueria is a large public market right on the main drag of La Rambla, which goes from Playa Catalunya to the Christopher Columbus monument. You will find the most amazing food and drinks here and it’s not very expensive either. My favourites were the fresh fruit juices that were only 1€ each.

Warning:  This is a very busy area and apparently a hot spot for pickpockets. Fortunately, I didn’t run into any troubles, but I know people who have been victims of pickpockets in Barcelona.  Do a simple search on how to protect yourself.

The Arc de Triomf is cool to see and fully wheelchair accessible, unlike the one in Paris. Rambla del Mar provides a relaxing walk near the sea and yachts.


This was my main reason for coming to Barcelona – to party! And boy, I was not disappointed.

There is an area on the beach with a concentration of about 5 or 6 nightclubs. Some of these are restaurants during the day. Wander around this area any time of the day and you will find promoters handing out passes for free cover before 1:30am. You heard me right. It was no problem for me to get into a club before 1:30am, so this essentially meant free cover. Normally it was 15€. In most of North America, nightclubs close at 2 or 3am, but not in Barcelona where the party is just getting started by this time. I came to this area EVERY SINGLE NIGHT because they were open EVERY NIGHT and they were busy EVERY NIGHT. Not just Friday and Saturday, although they were the busiest on those nights. 

Opium Nightclub
My favourite spots were Opium, Pacha, and Shoku and you will find mostly tourists here.  All were open until 6am. Drinks are pricey at around 12€ each. The music is pretty main stream with the DJs spinning top 40, lounge, and hip hop. The bouncers let everyone in. It’s not like Berlin where they can turn you away for no apparent reason. Wheelchair access was surprisingly very good. All have some steps, but I found ramps built in. Opium and Pacha have one of those old school lifts to get down to the dance floor. It’s one of those lifts that follow a railing and requires a key and takes forever! It was quite a production whenever I used these. It was actually just faster to have the bouncers carry me. There were even single room wheelchair toilets. I usually only encounter these in hotels or nice restaurants, rarely have I seen one in a nightclub.

Pacha Nightclub
One night I met two girls – one was Brazilian and the other Argentinian. We were having fun dancing and drinking together. They literally had to beat other guys off with a stick so I thought ‘great’, she prefers hanging out with me. When the club closed, we left together. They were still in party mode, so I suggested going back to my place because I had a 3 bedroom apartment all to myself. As we were hailing a taxi, that’s when she dropped a bombshell on me – she said she was a ‘working girl’. My enthusiasm dropped to the floor at that point. Here I was, feeling like a king because I was leaving a club with two hot girls and going back to my rented apartment. Little did I know that they were actually hookers. She did say she was hanging out with me because she enjoyed my company and told me she couldn’t care less that I was in a wheelchair.  However, I couldn’t help but feel like the only reason they were hanging out with me was because they only thought of me as a potential customer. I was also slightly annoyed because I could have spent time with other girls who were not hookers. So, I politely declined their offer and put them in a taxi and I… went home… alone. It’s definitely a story for the books.

Making friends wherever I go

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.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Berlin - Sep 2013

Brandenburg Gate

For the first time in my couchsurfing adventures, I was not able to find a host in Berlin. I sent out many requests and one girl even sent me an invite, but her apartment had stairs. So I ended up renting an entire apartment from a guy through Airbnb. His place was one of the very few that had an elevator and no stairs anywhere. It was also close to a metro station and not too far from the centre of Berlin. It was a 1 bedroom apartment with living room, kitchen and washroom I had no trouble with. The owner travels a lot for work and rents out his place when he’s not home. After a few days, I thought about moving to another place so I could experience a different part of the city. But once I started getting settled and used to the public transportation, I decided it would be much easier to just stay there. I ended up staying for just over a week and he was there for 2 nights and slept in the living room. The apartment had everything I could ask for and only cost me 30€ a night.


Overall, I was very impressed with the accessibility of Berlin and I would rank it right up there with London. The city is fairly flat. There were cobblestones in random places, but it’s nothing I couldn’t manage.

Airport staff uses the
'stair-climber thingy' to
get me on the plane
I flew Easyjet which had a direct flight from Amsterdam to Berlin for supercheap. The planes are nothing fancy, but they treated me very well. I got special assistance getting on and off the plane and no one was ‘annoyed’ for having to help a disabled person as what sometimes happens when flying. Their planes don’t connect to the terminal. So you take a special bus that literally drives 2 minutes on the tarmac to your plane and then they use one of those mechanical stair-climbing chairs to get you onboard.

Toilet with overhead
bar at Frankfurt Airport
Finding accessible washrooms can be a challenge. I used my tried and tested routine of finding a coffee shop or hotel. And like in Amsterdam, I did have to resort to some back alley urination.

Wheelchair seating on S-bahn train
All the buses and trams are completely wheelchair accessible. Most of the metro stations have elevators. Some don’t so you’ll have to plan an alternate route. You can plan a “barrier-free” route using the BVG site. It saved my ass many times!
My only issue was getting used to the German names and learning the difference between S-bahn and U-bahn. But the best part of all is that the transit system is free for the disabled!

ICE train
My flight back to Vancouver was from Frankfurt so I had a figure out a way to get there. Flights were very expensive so I decided to take a fast train called ICE. As with most inter-city trains, these have 3 very high steps to get in so you have to request special assistance. An employee will operate a manual lift to get you on. Once inside you’re fine. There’s a designated space for wheelchairs and an accessible toilet.
Here’s the problem: once I got to Frankfurt station, there was no one there to help me off. Somewhere, there’s a breakdown in communication. At the risk of getting stuck on the train to the next stop, some kind people actually carried me off. I had a take a 2nd train to get to Frankfurt airport and an employee helped me get on, but I encountered the same problem again at the airport. No one was around to help off and I had to get carried again. For me in my manual chair, I can be carried. It’s annoying and you have to swallow your pride, but whatever. But if I had a powerchair I’d be completely screwed and that’s what angers me. If you’re going to have a special needs accommodation system in place, you have to make sure it works.


Alexanderplatz fountain
Berlin doesn’t really have a downtown, but there is a central area. My favourite starting point was Alexanderplatz which is only a single 10min train ride from where I was staying. There’s lots of people and a shopping mall, and from there you can pretty much get to anywhere in the city.

Berlin Wall Memorial
I did manage to visit one museum – the German History Museum. I found it fascinating to learn about 2000 years of German history. There’s a discounted rate for the disabled and everything is accessible. Postdamerplatz is another area that’s very modern compared to the rest of Berlin. There’s a shopping mall and huge theatre. I visited the Berlin Wall Memorial which is free and was intrigued by its history. I also saw Checkpoint
Charlie and Brandenburg Gate. All flat and easy to get around. Tierpark and the Victory Column are gorgeous.

On my last day, I met this cool German girl in Alexanderplatz. She showed me around Hackescher Markt where there is really cool graffiti art and we watched live music in the park on museum island.

Hackescher Markt


Berlin nightlife is unlike anything I have ever experienced anywhere. The culture here is very free and liberal, especially when it comes to alcohol. I saw people drinking on the metro, outdoors on the streets, sidewalks. And the bars pretty much stay open until people go home which could be all night. Another thing I’ll mention is that Germans are all about techno music – and it’s usually minimal techno. Just look it up on youtube and you’ll know what I mean.

Violetta, my partner in crime
at Club der Visionaere
On my 2nd night, I joined some couchsurfers at Club der Visionaere. This former boathouse is very cool because it’s an open-air venue located on a river and it’s pretty much open all night. You would never find anything like this in Canada or probably North America. I met this fun Russian girl there and we partied the night away. We left at 5am and there were still people there!

The next night, I couldn’t find anyone to go out with me so I went solo to Berghain which I heard was one of the most famous clubs in Germany and the world. It’s located in an old power station. I’ve heard Berlin nightclubs are notorious for being selective on who they let in. In other words, you can wait in line for hours, get to the front, and the bouncer can simply turn you away with no explanation. I got to Berghain at about 1am on a Saturday night (or Sunday morning I should say) and there were at least 200 people waiting in line. There was no way I was going to wait hours for a chance to get in so I pulled out the disability card. I went to the front of the line and I asked the bouncer if there were any stairs inside. He said we have an elevator to take you up so it’s no problem. I said it’s just me, can I go in? And he let me right in. No wait! I saw others getting turned away and the people at the front had this look on their face like ‘who the fuck is this guy?’. So I pay my 15€ cover and then this huge guy leads me through a series of dark corridors, and heavy, locked doors and finally up the elevator. I thought to myself either he’s going to kill me and no one will find my body, or I’m going to the coolest nightclub ever. There are actually 2 different clubs. The main one is Berghain which at 1:30am had hardly any people. There was a lot of smoke, laser lights, and scattered bodies moving (not dancing) to booming techno music. Honestly, they looked like zombies. I was so freaked out that I was ready to turn around and walk right out, but then I remembered how lucky I was to even be there in the first place so I stayed. Now the one thing I hate about these nightclubs is that they allow smoking and if it weren’t for that, I could have stayed for much longer. The whole place looks like something out of a Saw movie. There are many dark rooms that you can explore. Apparently, people have sex, but I didn’t see any of that. After a while I went to the other club in the building which is called Panorama Bar. The music was slightly more upbeat, but it was still techno. I left at around 5am and there were still at least 200 people in line. As I was leaving, I asked the bouncer what time they closed and he said very casually Monday morning. Holy crap! He told me I could even come back tomorrow with my hand stamp. Then I asked when they opened and he said Thursday night. So apparently you can party from Thursday night to Monday morning straight! Berghain was definitely an experience, but I’m not sure if I would ever go back there.

Late nights with couchsurfers
at Suicide Circus
I joined some couchsurfers one night and went to Suicide Circus. It reminded me a lot of a tree house. Seriously. I don’t think it’s an actual building. I think someone went to Home Depot, bought a bunch of lumber, and built a nightclub. Haha. They play techno. I was here on a Wednesday night and stayed until 5am. There’s Berlin nightlife.

On my 2nd last night, I needed to take a break from the techno so I did some research and found a couple places that played charts (or top 40 as we call it) , hip hop, and house. Me and another guy I met a couchsurfing meetup tried to get into 40 seconds in Postdamerplatz. When we got to the front, I asked if there were stairs inside. He turns to my friend and says “we have no space for him” and motioned for us to leave. Meanwhile, a group of 10, better-dressed people right behind us all went straight inside. To this day, I still don’t know if I was discriminated against because of the wheelchair or they just didn’t want us in there. In any case, it was one of the rudest experiences I’ve ever had. I knew of another place called E4 close by and the bouncer practically begged us to come in. This place played great non-techno music and we found some fun girls to party with. The only bad part was that they closed at 4am.

On my very last night I had to leave the city at 4am which sucked because that meant I couldn’t party late. There was one more famous club I wanted to see called Weekend in Alexanderplatz. We got to the front and the bouncer asked who was playing tonight and I didn’t know so he turned us away. Damn! That’s a total of 3 clubs I got turned away from. We found another club just around the corner called Sky Club and we got in no problem. Unfortunately, it was only 11:30pm and we were the only ones in the whole place.  At 1am there were still only a few people there, but I had to leave so I could get back to my apartment, pack, and catch my train to Frankfurt. So my last night of clubbing was uneventful, but overall my nightlife experience in Berlin was very unique.

Berlin is an amazing city. It’s very wheelchair accessible. I loved its liberal and artistic culture. I wasn’t planning on staying here so long. I actually wanted to see Munich for a few days, but I enjoyed Berlin so much I just decided to stay.