Taking a Grand Tour of Accessible Switzerland

by Larry and Debi Adair on May 1, 2008 - 9:43am

QUEST Vol. 15, No. 3

Our adventure started with a travel brochure from Grand European Tours. My wife, Debi, was intrigued by the bus and train tour through the Swiss Alps.

Debi has a neuromuscular disease called spinal cerebellum ataxia, which causes poor balance and muscle weakness. She can take several steps with assistance, and uses a power wheelchair at home and a manual chair while traveling. Watercolor painting is her passion and our travel experiences often provide the inspiration for her painting.

I’d never been to Europe and was apprehensive about wheelchair accessibility, but a tour seemed like a safe way to travel. We decided to go for it! Debi must have analyzed the brochure and itinerary daily as the trip approached.

We contacted both Grand European Tours and our hotels to determine the accessibility of the rooms. Most rooms weren’t designed for wheelchair access, but they were willing to accommodate us with larger rooms. We had our travel grab bar and were confident we could manage.

We knew the bus would present our toughest challenge because it didn’t have a lift. Debi would need determination and assistance getting up the six steps to the first seat.

Accessibility good

Wheelchair accessibility in Switzerland was a pleasant surprise for Debi and Larry Adair. They also found the Swiss to be friendly and more than willing to assist them. Photos by Larry Adair

We departed from Seattle’s Sea-Tac Airport on a pleasant late summer day. There were accessible restrooms in the airports and helpful flight attendants on SAS Scandinavian Airlines. We were impressed by the efficiency of the airport personnel at Copenhagen. They had a nifty shuttle with a lift and were focused on getting us to our connection to Zurich.

Our first day in Switzerland started with a delicious European buffet breakfast, followed by an exploration of the neighborhood around the hotel. We strolled past neat, tidy houses laden with flowers, bought Swiss chocolates at a local market, and discovered a gravel bike path that ran along a slow-moving canal filled with trout.

Back at the hotel, our tour guide, Nigel, took a group of us on a bus tour through downtown Zurich, stopping to explore the bustling area where the Limmat River flows into Lake Zurich. The shops and cafes were very accessible and we got a good sample of the city.

From the start, Debi was determined to make it up the bus steps, knowing it was the key to her adventure. I assisted her as she pulled herself up using the hand rail. Coming down was scarier because her knee would buckle sometimes. Andy, the bus driver always brought the wheel chair from the baggage compartment, and was very helpful.

Nigel went out of his way to make sure attractions were accessible, calling ahead to check it out and making sure we were seated in accessible locations in the restaurants. Throughout the trip, shopkeepers often offered to move things around to help us get around their shops.

Like Disneyland

This portable grab bar, from Mommy’s Helper Inc., grips smooth surfaces. Debi uses it on counters for bathroom support and on night stands to aid getting into bed.

Sunday morning found us traveling by bus to Lake Constance, just inside the German border. We enjoyed strolling through the flower gardens at the park and watching the area come to life as cyclists, boaters and diners gathered to enjoy the warm sun. As we began our ascent into the foothills of the Alps, we noticed a long bike path running along the lake

Next stop: the tiny, scenic country of Lichtenstein, where we ate lunch and enjoyed some shopping and more chocolates. The bus wound its way up the road to the Julier Pass, which offered spectacular photo opportunities.

We arrived in beautiful St. Moritz just before sunset and checked into the newly renovated Hotel Crystal. The hotel doesn’t have accessible rooms, but they were willing to remove the bathroom door to improve access.

In the restaurant, we were served by a very professional Swiss-trained wait staff that really took care of our needs. Because the stairs didn’t have handrails — a must for Debi — a waiter helped us use a service elevator and go through the kitchen to get to our seats. During the delicious meal, our waitress noticed Debi having trouble cutting her meat and offered to cut it for her.

Monday morning we took the bus to Pontresina, then caught a train to Brunig Pass. The steps onto the train were a little challenging, but we made it.

The train ascended a steep grade past waterfalls and cliffs into the Italian Alps, then made a spectacular descent from Brunig Pass into the charming village of Poschiavo. A tasty lunch was served in a small Italian restaurant and we roamed bumpy cobblestone streets to see the village, parts of which date back to the 15th century. Then back to St. Moritz by bus.

It was raining Tuesday morning as we headed to the train station to catch the famous Glacier Express train. This time there was a lift to help Debi get on the train and we settled in for the seven-hour trip to Zermatt. We thought we were on a Disneyland ride as we traveled through tunnels and over dramatic trestles, past stunning scenery, charming villages and several ancient castles. The upper mountains were obscured by clouds, but there still were plenty of waterfalls, cliffs and canyons to observe.

The weather cleared as we arrived in Zermatt and we caught a glimpse of The Matterhorn just before sunset. Wandering through the pedestrian-only village, we discovered a delightful bakery, where we bought delicious pastries and more chocolates. We checked into the beautiful Hotel Christiana and immediately felt like we had traveled in time back to the elegant era of the early 1900s.

Wednesday was a perfect day and we saw Switzerland at its best. The fog cleared as we finished breakfast, and we were stunned by the magnificence of The Matterhorn, which had a fresh dusting of snow. We had to take four trams to reach the steep cliffs at the top of the 12,700-foot Klein Matterhorn. The trams in Zermatt were very accessible. The lift attendants had folding ramps for the smaller gondola cars and we were able to wheel in directly to the large tram.

At the top, a tunnel led us onto a sunny snowfield, where we were treated to a stunning panoramic view of the Alps. We took photos and watched as skiers schussed down the nearby glacier. There was too much snow to reach the restaurant with the wheelchair, so we took the tram down to a lower restaurant, where we basked in the sun and enjoyed lunch. Accessibility was good in Zermatt, and we enjoyed checking out the numerous shops.

Thursday found us driving through the Rhone valley to the Castle of Chillon on Lake Geneva, then on along the lake to Montreux, home of the famous jazz festival, where we strolled the waterfront, enjoying the Mediterranean feel of the area.

Next came a visit to the small Dore Des Cimes winery, where we were treated to a wine tasting and learned about the little-known, high-quality Swiss wine industry.

Bikers, bathrooms, bells and beer

The next day, Debi and I were feeling a little under the weather (almost everyone on the bus had a bug at one time or another), so we didn’t go on the tour to Berne, but later we undertook some exploring on our own. Picking up a free rail pass at the hotel, we headed for the train station, where we found a couple of mountain bikers to help lift the wheelchair onto a train to the town of Gyron. Although there were some steps to navigate, we were able to take a cable car up the mountain to a charming restaurant, where we had ice cream for lunch.

Feeling better the next day, we toured Geneva, then headed by bus up the French Alps to Chamonix, where we watched hang gliders soar off the peaks near Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in Europe.

While there, I had an interesting time trying to communicate, via hand motions, with the French-speaking attendant to get the key to the accessible restroom. I felt as if I were playing a game of charades, but we got the key.

Throughout the trip we had some problems locating accessible bathrooms, but often found them in restaurants or public areas. Some were quite fancy. I assisted Debi in the ones that that weren’t accessible.

The next morning we took the historic Panorama Express train toward Lucerne. An elevator at the train station wasn’t working, so we had to take the wheelchair up the escalator to the train platform. The train car was very elegant, with mahogany panels and overstuffed chairs. We stopped in Interlocken for lunch, then visited a woodcarving shop in Brienz and the famous Lions Monument in Lucerne. That evening, we enjoyed a boisterous dinner in a German-style beer hall.

Our last day started with a relaxing boat cruise on Lake Lucerne, followed by a trip to the top of Mt. Stanserhorn, where we walked along an accessible gravel path through the high country, complete with music from cowbells in the valley below. A nice four-course meal awaited us back in Lucerne and then we had to pack our bags for the trip home.

We were pleasantly surprised with the accessibility in Switzerland. Although we faced challenges each day, we took them on and looked on them as part of the adventure. Many people offered their help, and it doesn’t bother Debi to ask for help, since she has been doing it for quite awhile now.

The anticipation of the trip, the adventure itself and our memories have really enriched our lives. We hope our story will inspire others to follow their dreams!

Larry and Debi Adair, of Camano Island, Wash., have two college-age sons. Larry, a manager of a sporting goods store, is developing a Web site featuring accessible paths and attractions he and Debi have discovered in the Northwest United States. Their e-mail is dadairart@hotmail.com.

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