Wednesday, October 09, 2013

European Vacation 3: Paris and beyond!

(continued from Europe 1: Amsterdam and Europe 2: Belgium

... After some struggles with train bookings and accessibility prep (see Belgium), we were on our way to gay Paris! 

The fast train is... FAST. In one hour we were jetted into the center of Paris via the TGH - who bumped us up to first class, and provided taxi service for us. The taxi driver was awesome, explaining monuments along the way to the Hotel Derby near the Eiffel Tower.

As with hotels in the previous three cities, we booked months in advance, and knowing there would be some barriers, such as the one step up to the front door and the narrow bathroom door, we booked the hotel for its compromises and its location, and in this case, its price. Our walk in rates for all hotels were nearly double what we'd paid for online, so do your research and book in advance!

We were only in Paris two nights, and that was a bit of a whirlwind - we'd hoped to trade in our vacation ownership for the entire stay in Paris, and unfortunately there wasn't much with access in the city, so we locked in the Marriott resort out near Disney (45 mi. east) when the trade came in, and added on two nights in Paris at the Derby.

While there we racked up 26 miles in two days on foot touring the Eiffel Tower, the Arc du Triomphe, the Louvre, the Notre Dame, the Palace Invalides, and a boat tour... 13 miles each day, in the pouring rain. Well equipped with rain gear we made do, and while neither the entire Arc nor the top of the Eiffel weren't accessible, getting up close and personal to both were worth it, as was the line at Notre Dame, the aimless backtracking at the Louvre (elevators are not ideally placed), and the boat tour. Our one recommendation on the boat tour: KNOW the two accessible stops - Eiffel and Orsay - because there are a plethora of stairs at the other six. Miraculously we lucked out on that one. Highlight of the day: Getting up close and personal to the Mona Lisa - wheelchairs roll right up to it!

In addition to the sites, we took in the food again here; quaint little restaurants that wowed: Royal Grenelle, Majaraja, and the best pan au chocolates, baguettes, and cappuccinos of our lives.

After Paris, we rented a car and toured the nearby countryside - and racked up some of our favorite memories of the trip while stationed at the gorgeous Marriott Ile de France Resort.

From here we headed down toward Loire and toured accessible Chateaus: Chambord, Chaumont and Amboise and checked out the towns of Vouvray, Tours and Blois, dining on the way home in Orleans. Four words: Thank God for Garmin. Easily the best $75 we spent all month.

One day we visited the nearby big cat reserve (awesome if you love big cats - very accessible park and up close and personal shots!) and made dinner at a countryside fresh veggie and meats stand. YUM, BRIE and homebrew!

We also toured the Champagne Region and had a full accessible tour of Mercier in Reims and a partially accessible tour in at Mumm in Reims - and lots of champange to accompany.

Last excursion - we drove out to Versaille and toured that - the trams were helpful here (they always helped Craig transfer on board) but overall this was perhaps wrong to do last, we were tired, short on time, and overall disinterested in the huge estate and gardens after the chateaus we'd seen in Loire. But it was free. Personal preference.

Very last, the Charles de Galle airport was... challenging. For an international airport, the accessibility is unimpressive. We waited for an hour to get an escort from the check in desk to bring us to the gate, due to some issue with elevators and ascending moving sidewalks that seemed do-able though they wouldn't let Craig near them. They did park us at the Red Carpet club for a half hour for the hassle, and escorted us through security smoothly, which was nice.

Overall, despite the language barrier at time, we were pleasantly surprised at France's access - not as universal as Amsterdam, but not as bad as we'd anticipated. And the entire three weeks? Truly a life enriching experience we'll treasure for the rest of our lives!

And last, France in Photographs: 

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

European Vacation 2: Belgium

... continued from European Vacation 1: Amsterdam...

After a wonderful few gorgeous 80* sunny days in Amsterdam, we packed up and headed south to Belgium, through beautiful countryside past windmills and zipping along for a few hours on the European highway in a poshy awesome private taxi. It worked out to be only slightly more than the train, and much easier for Craig and dad (keep reading for more about the train and potential access issues there!).

We arrived in Bruges on a Sunday, in the middle of market, and the street we needed to get to was blocked off with a bouncy house and food booths - quite hysterical, the circling and GPSing and persistence of our driver! - but finally we arrived at the adorably quaint, historic Hotel Navarra! As with the Hotel Krasnapolsky in Amsterdam, we booked Hotel Navarra many months in advance for its single accessible room and perfect location in the city. We were adjacent to the beautiful, also historic, Market Square. The room wasn't US-ADA coded like Krasnapolsky was, but it was manageable, and worth the small barriers to have the location and the historic beauty of this hotel. (Main barrier was the separate small stall for the toilet, but the shower had a hand-held and the sink was roll-under. And the pool, unfortunately, was down a flight of 500-year old stairs, but as I found, wasn't really worth it anyway, brrr!)

Historic, we found, in Europe, is nothing compared to what we can fathom for "historic."  It grabs your soul, this type of history, truly.  But for Craig, it grabs his wheels!  And by that I refer to the cobblestone... everywhere and ever present, the cobbles in Europe are a challenge, but not an insurmountable one! We are lucky for his knobby mountain wheels, stomach-muscles-balance, and ability to look a challenge in the face and laugh!  So very overlook-able when it comes to this gorgeous truly medieval city!

In Bruges, we had two days and packed it in, despite the rain!  The food just keeps getting better~ Pieter Pourbus and t/Zwaantje, waffles, chocolate and the ChocoStory museum, fat fat fries, and what would Belgium be without the BEER! Craig tried at least 20 beers in the 5 days we were in this great country, and every one of them were tasterific!

We did not make it up the umpteen stairs to the Bell Tower, and honestly, it wasn't missed - walking around the city was enough, and the view from the ground was just as spectacular! You could see this amazing tower from just about anywhere we walked to! The romantic canals, the Burg Square lunch, the Church of our Lady~ all wonderful, LOVED Bruges!

On to Brussels - and our lessons with the European train! We took two trains: From Bruges to Brussels, and then from Brussels to Paris. And both times, they wanted a day or two warning that we were coming (in Bruges they got no warning and wanted one day's, in Brussels they got one day and wanted two). Both times we had a bit of a language barrier as well but made it work (note to self, really commit to brushing up on the French!). And but both times we managed to sweet talk our way on - waiting an extra 30-45 minutes longer, all for a ramp that was walking distance from the train - but the issue is making sure the train has the right build and logistics for the ramp.  A plus: for the fast train to Paris, we were bumped up to first class because, oh darn, that's the only accessible car. Double-plus: it was 1/3 the price!

And Brussels: wow, the food! Restaurant Alexandre was unquestionably the best meal of my life. Mussels at Taverne Passage weren't too shabby either!  Food is better when enjoyed together, so it was also a blessing to be dining with family in this far away place! Each cup of coffee, each chocolate waffle, every fat french fry - what a tasty treat, made even better with more to ooh-and-ahh!

In Brussels we were just off Grande Place at the Hotel Ibis. A quaint little mod hotel with a small but accessible room. It had a tub that Craig just sat in to shower, but overall a big big bathroom to move around in, almost as big as the hotel room itself!

It was hard to pull ourselves too far away from Grande Place, and we did walk pretty far to museums and gardens, and were challenged by the hills - a new challenge is a good one, we got some exercise, but a little too much for dad. Tiring way to end their vacation, they were excited to head home and rest!

And then Mr. Craig and I moved on to France!  More to come~

In the meantime, highlights in photographs from Belgium! 

Monday, October 07, 2013

European Vacation 1 - Amsterdam

We were blessed to be able to spend nearly a month abroad in the European Union and want to share some highlights!! IF ONLY we could do this every year!

First and foremost, and as usual, we put a considerable amount of time into our preparation prior to departure, and recommend everyone traveling with a wheelchair do the same. Most of the summer was spent reading, researching, and reaching out to hotels and activity providers via email to make sure our vacation was as accessible as possible!  Finding hotels wasn't easy, and required persistence, and it helps to know exactly where you want to be and when. For the first 12 days of this 19 day excursion, we had my parents with us, so I had a buddy in planning - always a plus, thanks Mom! And to boot, Craig had a partner in access needs - my father is a "slow walker" due to MS. So as a foursome, we made a great travel team!  Can't wait to do it again!

Our itinerary was set last year, in late 2012, when United Airlines freed up its mileage plus block for September 3 to Amsterdam. From there we knew we were going to visit Belgium - where exactly and for how long was yet to be decided - and that we would end our vacation on September 19th and fly home from Paris.  SO all we had to do was fill in the blanks!

First stop: AMSTERDAM! Exciting....
In Amsterdam, it behooves one to stay near Dam Square, so that daily excursions could embark in any direction, on wheels or on tram, and not have far to go - or return.  So that's what we did. We found the Hotel Krasnapolsky to have one accessible room (which many hotels seem to have adapted - one and only one, so early booking is a must!). Despite some issues with air conditioning (who thought that would be an issue in September!), the room was awesome: roll-in shower, lots of room, comfortable bed, tiny but working elevator to the 2nd floor. In many other regards as well, this hotel was truly awesome. From the Winter Garden breakfast dining are complete with ramped entry to the free wi-fi and centralized location, Krasnapolsky is a great choice. On the high end of price, but well worth the bucks.

Our highlights in Amsterdam were many - too many to explain in at length, so we'll be brief:
  • Dine with the pleasant locals at a pub in Dam Square, an Indian Restaurant off Spui (shpoh) Street, or a red light district coffee shop and you'll find that the people are easily the nicest on the continent. Chat them up, they'll open up their world to you. Dining highlights: Cafe Ouest, Kantji and Tijger, Cafe van Kerkwijk, and De Bolhoed. 
  • Sit at any intersection in a busy part of the city and watch the bikes go by. It's truly wondrous!
  • Ask for disability discounts at museums, most of them have them. We loved the Hortus Botanic Gardens and Rijksmuseum, and skipped Anne Frank (most inaccessible). The Royal Palace was passable (rooms started looking the same after a while, but the architecture is amazing). 
  • Take a canal tour with City Canal Cruises - great lift down into the boat from the dock!
  • Worry not about the taxis! All are eager to please, and if needed, ask for a van. 
  • Worry even less about the trams! What a great way to get around, wheelchair seating is in the second half of the tram, make sure you find one with a wheelchair symbol (every, or every other one, every 10-20 minutes). 
All in all, this was Craig's favorite stop on our Euro-whirl-wind-tour. His reasons: the people- always his favorite is a friendly city!, the bikes - truly an entertaining passtime, and the Krasnapolsky! Nice work travel team!

Stay tuned for Belgium and France! 

Our highlights in photographs, as expected!