We’ll Always Have (Beautiful, Bumpy, Partially Accessible) Paris

The charm of Paris by night.
Article Highlights:
  • Barbara Twardowski, who has Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease (CMT), details her accessibility adventures in Paris.
  • Although her trip to Paris with her husband proved to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, she cautions readers that maneuvering through the City of Light can be challenging.
  • The article includes a Q&A with accessible travel professional and wheelchair user John Sage, of Sage Traveling, who provides tips for a successful trip abroad.
by Barbara and Jim Twardowski, R.N. on January 7, 2013 - 9:21am

Quest Vol. 20, No. 1

My husband is a romantic and I an a realist. The first time we planned a trip abroad, he suggested that I add Paris to the itinerary. I swiftly nixed his request. The thought of orchestrating wheelchair-accessible trips to two countries seemed daunting.

But, ignoring the detour to France was my one regret after visiting England. The next time we traveled abroad, I researched our options and discovered that combining London and Paris in one trip is easier than you might expect.

Get to Paris through England

Barbara Twardowski found accessing the super-speedy London-to-Paris train was easy with this portable wheelchair lift. All photos were taken by the authors.

The biggest hurdle for many wheelchair users is the long trans-Atlantic flight. It’s best to fly into London’s Heathrow Airport — especially if you don’t speak French. Let the airline know you need disability assistance; airport staff will help push your wheelchair and even carry your bags.

Spend your first few days abroad in London to recuperate from jet lag and adjust to the time difference. (Paris is another hour ahead.) Navigating with a wheelchair in England’s capital city is effortless, and there are tons of accessible attractions (see Visiting London: Accessibility Across the Pond, Quest, Fall 2011).

Getting to Paris from London is surprisingly affordable and accessible. Traveling at speeds up to 186 miles per hour, the Eurostar train whisks passengers to the Gare du Nord train station in Paris in just two hours and 15 minutes. Ticket prices for a wheelchair user and one companion are reduced. Our roundtrip tickets for two adults cost $232.

Passengers need to arrive at London’s St Pancras International Railroad 45 minutes before departure time. Take an elevator down to the train platform, where a huge portable ramp is rolled to the door of the train. Doorways are narrow — my 25-inch-wide wheelchair was a tight fit. No transferring is required; passengers remain in their wheelchairs. The stewards serve meals and replenish drinks; a small accessible restroom is located at the back of the cabin.

Accessible public transportation in Paris

Paris offers wheelchair-accessible taxis that charge the same price as conventional taxi service. Unfortunately, a taxi can’t be reserved for your arrival at the train station or the airport. Upon our arrival, we used a cell phone we had previously bought in London to call the taxi company and a vehicle arrived within 30 minutes. The four-mile ride to our hotel cost $35 — the meter starts running when they receive the call.

Other than at the train station and airport, accessible taxis can be prearranged to pick you up. The accessible taxi service is Horizon, offered by the company Taxis G7.

The only difficulty with using taxis — besides the cost — is having to be on a rigid timetable, which is why we chose to walk as much as possible.

According to the Paris Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Paris Metro system (subway) is not very accessible, so we did not attempt to use it. Currently, 60 public bus lines are defined as “accessible.” Parisians consider a line to be accessible when “70 percent of the stops are accessible and no more than two consecutive stops are inappropriate.”

With the help of our hotel concierge, we plotted a bus route to the Louvre, but just as we were walking out the door, he realized that particular bus did not run on Sundays. The buses have ramps — but they’re not always operational. Deciphering which bus to board can be confusing. If you can, plot your routes while you’re home and have the assistance of French-speaking friends.

Wheelchair walking in Paris

The cobblestone streets of Paris are less than perfect for wheelchair users. Extra effort is required to take in the beautiful sights.
Eiffel Tower
Venus de Milo at the Louvre
The world-famous Musée du Louvre is a challenge with three wings and four levels, but there is an accessibility map available.

Many Paris streets are cobblestone, making the ride bumpy for someone in a wheelchair. The curbs have cutouts, but the edge often has a drop ranging from an inch to half a foot. Frequently, Jim had to turn my manual wheelchair around and walk backward out into the traffic. In addition, many of the major tourist attractions are too far apart to walk from one to another.

But if you love architecture, just walking the streets is an attraction.

The magnificent 164-foot-tall Arc de Triomphe is a symbol of the French nation commissioned by Napoleon, with the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier buried below. A viewing area is located at the top, but is inaccessible for wheelchair users.

The most visited monument in the world, the Eiffel Tower, is partially accessible to wheelchair users. An elevator carries visitors to the first and second levels. People with disabilities are given a reduced-rate ticket and receive priority access.

Shoppers flock to the Avenue des Champs-Élysées. More than a mile long, the upscale retailers included Cartier, Louis Vuitton and even dealerships with futuristic concept cars. The haute-couture Galeries Lafayette near the Paris Opera House is filled with designer wares. Small elevators are available for wheelchair users.

In 1769, the Duke of Chartres created one of the most floral public parks in Paris — Parc Monceau. Strolling through the park, we enjoyed seeing a wedding ceremony, children riding ponies and a pond half encircled by broken Corinthian columns. The walkways are gravel, and hundreds of visitors picnic on the grassy slopes. Benches are scattered throughout the grounds.

The Musée du Louvre is a maze of galleries and elevators. The former palace is enormous, with art displayed in three wings, each with four floors.

Navigating the Louvre is difficult because many accessible entrances are unmarked. Ask for an accessible map at the Information desk. Elevators are quite small, and the wait for an empty one can be long. In addition, several were closed during our visit. Repeatedly, we had to search for an employee to direct us to an exhibit.

Admission to the Louvre is free for people with disabilities and their guest or helper. However, the museum staff asks for a “disability card,” and the website states proof of entitlement is required. American tourists might want to bring a letter from their physician documenting they have a disability. Wheelchair users can bypass the long entrance line by entering the Louvre near the glass pyramid and signaling to an employee that they wish to enter.

Walking beside the River Seine and watching the boats bob along the water, we made our way to the Musée d’Orsay. Located in a former railway station built in 1898 for the World’s Fair, it was converted into a museum in the mid-1980s. Inside is the largest collection of impressionist and postimpressionist paintings in the world. The museum’s collection and building are enchanting. We sipped hot chocolate in the restaurant, a stunning space with painted ceilings framed with gold molding and illuminated with crystal chandeliers. The museum is accessible and quite manageable in a wheelchair.

One of our favorite ways to experience Paris was dining at an outdoor brasserie. Oftentimes, it was the only accessible seating available. Be aware that most restaurants do not serve meals between the hours of 2:30 and 7:30 p.m.

Accessible Parisian accommodations

Finding an accessible hotel in Paris can be difficult. The city’s official tourism website includes a short list of accessible hotels. If you need something specific, such as a roll-in shower, it is best to call the hotel directly.

Holiday Inn Paris Opéra Grands Boulevards is a 10-minute ride from the railway station. Our wheelchair-accessible room included a double bed, television, in-room safe, coffee maker and roll-in shower. Internet and breakfast at the hotel are available for an additional cost. Although small by American standards, the room was nicely decorated, clean and comfortable.

The Renaissance Paris Arc de Triomphe Hotel is a modern property said to be a favorite of teen idol Justin Bieber. Our view looked out on the interior garden. The sleek and modern room with a king-sized bed had an enormous bathroom with a roll-in shower. One advantage to selecting a high-end hotel is the concierge can help arrange accessible transportation and more.

One trip, two destinations — one heart

For many people, traveling abroad is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Carefully research your destination options or hire an accessible travel expert. You might be surprised at how easy it is to double your fun by visiting more than one landmark city. My husband was right — Paris is the place for a romantic rendezvous. Exploring the city at a leisurely pace, we imitated the Parisians by sipping wine in the afternoons and greeting every shopkeeper and waiter with a hearty “bonjour.” Traveling abroad is special — especially when you travel with the one you love.

The Twardowskis are a husband-and-wife writing team from Mandeville, La., who are frequent contributors to Quest. Barbara has Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease. Contact them at thewritetwardowski@gmail.com.

Coordinating an accessible trip requires hours of researching, phone calling and planning. There is always a nagging fear that something may go wrong. A smart alternative is to hire a travel agent who specializes in accessibility.

John Sage is the president and founder of Sage Traveling. A wheelchair user himself, Sage has traveled to Europe 11 times, exploring 60 cities including Paris and London. Here, he offers some helpful tips for traveling abroad.

Q: How far in advance should I plan a trip abroad?

A: In most cases, prices and options are better the earlier you book a trip. Most hotels usually only have one or two accessible rooms. For people traveling in the warm months (April to October), we recommend calling us six months in advance if you want a hotel room for a week. If you only need a hotel for a couple of nights, you can probably wait until three months before arrival. Although, there really is no benefit to waiting.

We can plan a trip with less than a month's notice, but the client will probably have to stay in an expensive hotel or in an undesirable neighborhood.

Q: Overall, what makes Paris a difficult destination for a wheelchair user?  

A: Nearly all of the buildings in the tourist areas of town are at least 150 years old. So, the attractions are in old buildings and even some of the brand-new hotels are in old buildings. Sometimes it's impossible to install an elevator large enough for a wheelchair, and often there are steps at the entrance.

Q: In terms of accessibility, how does Paris compare to London?  

A: London is much more accessible than Paris. First, London is a flatter city than Paris. Second, London was bombed heavily in World War II and few cobblestones exist. Paris is not nearly as cobbled as Rome, but it does have areas that give wheelchair users a bumpy ride. Finally, all of London's black cabs have wheelchair ramps, while few Paris taxis have ramps.

Q: What are some of the most popular attractions or one-day excursions that your clients request?  

A: The most popular attractions are the ones everyone has heard of: the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame Cathedral, the Champs-Élysées and seeing the Mona Lisa at the Louvre. With only one day in Paris, we recommend a driving tour so that a guide can point out and explain the sights that you don't actually have time to enter. 

Q: What are some of the services your company arranges for travelers who are visiting Paris?  

A: The three most popular services we provide are accessible tours, accessible transportation and accessible hotel accommodations. All of these have been evaluated firsthand for accessibility. When packaged together and combined with our customized, 100-plus page "Paris Accessibility Guide," visiting Paris with a disability is a breeze! We also provide medical equipment rental, accessible vehicle rental and accessible transportation to other cities.

Q: What other trips outside of Paris are popular?

A: Versailles and Giverny are daytrips and overnight stays in Normandy are popular.

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