PARIS PASSERELLES - 2005
Wheelchair Accessible Travel in Paris - 2005
By Howard L. Chabner and
Michele E. DeSha
© Howard L. Chabner and Michele E. DeSha 2005
This supplement to our article "Paris Passerelles - Wheelchair Accessible Travel In Paris - 2003" is based on our trip to Paris in 2005. It is most useful if read along with "Paris Passerelles," which contains far more comprehensive information and is available on the websites where this supplement is published.
One welcome improvement was the major decrease in smoking in restaurants and cafes. Many restaurants have non-smoking sections or prohibit smoking altogether. We almost never encountered bothersome smoking, and only did when sitting near the bar in a restaurant that also has a bar. One hears conflicting explanations about voluntary efforts, increased taxes on cigarettes, new restrictions on smoking and better enforcement of old restrictions, but whatever the reason, the change is evident everywhere.
We have tried to be as accurate as possible, but of course accuracy is not guaranteed. The reader should confirm all information directly, especially access details. As in all research, primary sources are much better than secondary ones. Also, things change. It is essential to re-confirm information shortly before acting on it.
Charles de Gaulle Airport
Much as we are reluctant to begin on a cautionary note, we believe it's critical to mention two potential difficulties at Charles de Gaulle Airport and suggest how to avoid or mitigate them.
First, when departing Paris in the past, we've had to fight hard for Howard to be allowed to remain in his wheelchair until the boarding gate. Airline and airport personnel had tried to require him to transfer to an extremely uncomfortable, unpadded, narrow airport wheelchair at the check-in area in the front of the terminal, pass through the security checkpoint in it, remain in it at the boarding gate, and then transfer to an aisle chair to board the plane. This was due to security concerns, general disorganization, ignorance of the needs of wheelchair passengers and a shortage of personnel. Also, in the case of Terminal 1, the metal gates near the front of the terminal were too narrow for a standard wheelchair.
Before our 2005 trip, Howard corresponded with the chairman of the airport authority, who explained that he was working with local disability groups to change the airport procedures in order to enable wheelchair users to remain in their own wheelchairs until the boarding gate, and to improve access generally. This trip, we found that the metal gates had indeed been widened and, although we had to explain firmly to airline personnel Howard's need to remain in his wheelchair until the boarding gate, ultimately they called the assistance providers, who understood and agreed. Per the chairman, an airline that authorizes its passenger to remain in his or her own wheelchair will be required to get the assistance provider involved at the beginning of the process, at the check-in desk, and the assistance provider will accompany the passenger to the boarding gate. The bottom line is that if you want to remain in your own wheelchair, it's important to mention that to the airline agent at check-in, and to ask him to call the assistance provider. Allow extra time. Be insistent if necessary.
Second, Terminal 1 has extremely steep moving walkways that are treacherous for people in wheelchairs. This poorly designed circular terminal building is crowded, jarring and chaotic. Built in the 60's or 70's, it may have seemed sleek and futuristic on paper, but spend five minutes there and one can't help thinking "What were they thinking?" There appear to be no general public elevators. We've asked to use an elevator, but personnel either claim there are none or that they are out of service or under renovation. So Howard has used the steep moving walkways, with major assistance from Michele and the assistance providers. Terminal 1 is undergoing renovation in 2005; perhaps the situation will improve. But if you have a choice of airlines, we strongly recommend considering an airline that doesn't use Terminal 1. United Airlines uses Terminal 1; American Airlines uses a better terminal.
www.AeroportsdeParis.fr. The website now has an English language section and information for people with reduced mobility.
To find out more information or provide feedback, write to Pierre Graff, Chairman and President, Aeroports de Paris, 291, boulevard Raspail,
75675 Paris Cedex 14, France. Fax 011-33-1-43-35-74-27.
There is also an ombudsman at the same street address. Monsieur le Médiator Aéroports de Paris. Email email@example.com.
Accessible Vehicles; Taxis
Vans/Minivans For a list of accessible van/minivan providers, see the "Transports Specialises & Taxis" section of the Paris accessible transportation website www.infomobi.com. Reservations are essential.
We had an excellent experience with airport transportation from AIHROP. The vehicle was spacious and well maintained, the driver punctual and courteous, and the price reasonable. Phone: (0)1-41-29-01-29. Fax: (0)1-41-29-01-27. www.aihrop.com, Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Although accessible taxis are now available in Paris (see below), for the foreseeable future the specialized accessible transportation providers are likely to be less expensive and more dependable than taxis for airport transportation.
Taxis A limited number of accessible lowered floor minivan taxis with side ramps are now operating in Paris. Reservations are essential. We took one taxi ride. Our taxi was brand new and spotlessly clean. Howard is 57 inches (1.45 meters) tall in his wheelchair and was just barely able to fit by bending his head at the door and keeping it a bit bent throughout the short ride. Anyone taller or unable to bend his head would not fit, nor would a long ride be comfortable for someone who could get in but had to keep his head bent. Note that if Howard stood he'd be six feet tall (1.83 meters) and his folding power wheelchair sits a bit high, so the height limitations wouldn't be a factor for most people. The Paris taxi ramps retract under the floor instead of folding inside the car; hence the interior height is a couple of inches shorter than the lowered floor Chrysler or Ford minivan with a folding ramp familiar to many people.
The rates are standard taxi rates, but, as in a standard taxi, the meter starts wherever the driver happens to be when he gets the call. This is also the case even with a reservation. Because there are so few accessible taxis, the place of origin is likely to be far from where you are, so the taxi may arrive with a high fare already on the meter. Also, the driver arrived early and, unknown to us, started the meter when he arrived. Hopefully these problems will decrease as more accessible taxis are placed in service.
Taxis G7 Phone (0)1-47-39-00-91 (Horizon access program) or (0)1-47-39-47-39 (general number). www.taxisg7.fr. Ask for a taxi "avec une rampe d'acces."
Bus access continues to be excellent on the accessible lines. However, not all lines are yet accessible; check the RATP website for current information. (RATP is the Paris public transportation authority.) We never waited more than 10 minutes for a bus. Every driver we encountered was courteous, skilled and well trained in dealing with wheelchair passengers, always deploying the ramp safely at our desired stop. Our fellow passengers were polite, helpful and patient. The ramps worked and the buses were spotlessly clean, with large windows and minimal advertising. See "Paris Passerelles" for a more detailed description of bus access.
RATP wheelchair access information (includes buses, trains, metro and RER): www.infomobi.com
To ask RATP questions: email@example.com
RATP English language information center: (0)8-92-68-41-14
RATP general website: www.ratp.fr (includes an English language section)
III. MUSEUMS, MONUMENTS AND CHURCHES
Invalides Army Museum; Napoleon's Tomb/Dome Church www.invalides.org. The fascinating, extensive and somewhat overwhelming army museum is accessible. A long path of rough stones leads to the entrance. The main museum has a large elevator serving all floors. One of the top floors has an accessible collection of large, extraordinarily detailed historical models of French fortresses and fortified islands. The Hotel des Invalides complex includes several other related museums with varying degrees of access.
Napoleon's tomb, located in the Dome Church, is inaccessible because the church entrance is on a porch up a high flight of stairs.
Jacquemart-Andre Museum www.musee-jacquemart-andre.com. This late 19th century mansion was built by husband and wife Edouard André and Nélie Jacquemart to showcase their collection of decorative arts and French, Italian Renaissance and Dutch paintings. The collection is broad yet of very high quality, one can view it in a single visit without being saturated, and the museum offers a fascinating glimpse of late 19th century Parisian haute bourgeois social and domestic life. The English language audio guide is informative and well organized. We especially enjoyed the delicious, moderately priced lunch at the museum café in the elegant ground floor dining room with sumptuous ceiling paintings by Tiepolo and Belgian tapestries.
The entrance is up a short flight of stairs. To get there, one goes to the rear of the building and up a curved, moderately steep gravel pathway. Uneven and with loose gravel, the path is difficult and manual wheelchair users will require assistance. The ground floor is accessible via a stair lift of low weight capacity, so Michele removed Howard's batteries and re-attached them inside the building. (Howard's travel wheelchair weighs only around 100 pounds (45 kilos); many electric wheelchairs are heavier.) A manual wheelchair is available for people whose wheelchairs are too heavy for the stair lift. The upper floor, housing the Italian Renaissance collection, is inaccessible because there is no elevator. The bathroom also is inaccessible. A visit is well worthwhile despite these obstacles, especially for those who've been to Paris before and have already visited the better-known museums. The accessible ground floor has a wonderful collection of 18th century French paintings, Dutch and Flemish masters and French furniture.
Montmartre The funicular to the top of Montmartre is modern and easily accessible. The funicular door is level with the waiting platform and the horizonal gap between them is small. The streets leading to the base of the funicular are steep and were challenging even in a power wheelchair. Sacre Coeur Basilica is not accessible, but the panoramic, unique perspective of Paris from the top of the hill is well worth the effort to get there. From this perspective, things appear closer than they are. The streets radiating from the top of the hill are even steeper than those below, and some are paved in rough stone.
Montparnasse Cemetery Unlike the other, more famous cemeteries in Paris, this one is completely flat, has wide aisles and is easy to visit in a wheelchair. Our visit was a moving history lesson. There are monuments and headstones of many WWI and WWII casualties, as well as those of prominent Parisians such as Captain Alfred Dreyfus, Pierre Larousse (editor/publisher of the French dictionary that bears his name) and many writers and artists. One headstone features a small, expressive Brancusi stone sculpture of a kiss.
Picasso Museum www.musee-picasso.fr Both upper gallery floors are easily accessible via a huge, attendant-operated elevator. The basement gallery is accessible via a series of steep ramps that are easy to navigate in a power wheelchair but would require assistance in a manual wheelchair. There is a small accessible bathroom. Museum personnel were extremely helpful.
Saint Severin Church Although its architecture and art aren't noteworthy, this small, dark church in the 5th Arrondissement has classical music concerts. Access is easy from the rear entrance on rue du Petit Pont. A wooden ramp bridges the small step down.
Hotel de Sully Now a museum, this 17th century mansion just outside the southwest corner of the Place des Vosges is inaccessible. The museum entrance is on rue Saint Antoine outside the Place des Vosges, and one of the pavilions on the Place is the mansion's orangerie. You can catch a nice glimpse of the fine garden, and get a sense of the layout of a mansion complex on the Place, by looking inside the orangerie entrance, which opens to the arcade around the Place. The garden is down several stairs, so be careful.
Chateau Vaux-le-Vicomte www.vaux-le-vicomte.com. Email firstname.lastname@example.org. The magnificent Vaux-le-Vicomte, built by Nicholas Fouquet, finance minister to Louis XIV, is an epitome of 17th century French architecture, interior design and landscape. The buildings were designed by Louis Le Vau in a French interpretation of classically inspired Italian architecture, the interior decoration is by the painter Charles Le Brun and the gardens by Andre Le Notre. Vaux's grandeur and luxury engendered envy and suspicion in the young, insecure monarch and, ironically, led to Fouquet's downfall, and his imprisonment and the property's confiscation by Louis XIV. In building Versailles some years later, Louis hired the same trio, who applied many of the ideas they'd developed at Vaux. Unlike Versailles, which was designed to overwhelm with its scale and power, Vaux is elegant, stately and balanced. The interplay among the main chateau, outbuildings and gardens is harmonious and soothing.
Vaux is located in the countryside 55 kilometers from Paris; the nearest town is Melun. The RER station in Melun isn't accessible, nor are the taxis. So, we hired an accessible van from Paris. (According to the Vaux website, there is a new shuttle bus from Melun to Vaux. It doesn't appear to be accessible, but we recommend checking to be sure.)
The paths at the main entrance to the property and the courtyard near the restaurant and carriage museum are made of large, rough, uneven stones. Howard was able to navigate them although the ride was quite bumpy. Manual wheelchair users would require assistance and should be prepared for a rough ride.
First we toured the gardens. Symmetrical, elegant, formal and reserved, and featuring trompe l'oeil perspective effects, they are one of Le Notre's masterpieces, an enduring model of French formal gardens and considered by many Vaux's best element. All levels of the garden are accessible to varying degrees, but there are many gravel paths, some quite steep. Fortunately, the areas closest to the chateau are flat; the steepest places are well into the garden. Even with Howard's power wheelchair, Michele's assistance was required on the steeper paths and on the grass areas toward the rear of the garden. A manual wheelchair user would be able to navigate the flat paths relatively well and would require assistance on the others. Golf carts are available for rent, so slow walkers can easily enjoy the gardens.
There is a high stairway up to the porch at the chateau entrance. The current website says there are 30 stairs; the number wasn't specified when we planned our trip. Although in an email before our trip the staff offered to carry Howard up to the entrance in his wheelchair, there were few staff members when we were there and far more stairs than we'd expected. Howard remained outside the chateau, therefore, and listened to the excellent audio guide, which is available in English. Michele really enjoyed the chateau and wished we had allowed more time to see it.
The carriage museum, located in an adjacent carriage house, is accessible, although the path leading to it is bumpy and uneven. The self-service restaurant is accessible, and there is a large accessible bathroom nearby.
We enjoyed our visit immensely despite the access limitations. We were there in the middle of the week at a quiet time and had the beautiful gardens almost to ourselves on a warm, sunny day. Getting to Vaux was well worth the effort.
Victor Hugo Museum www.paris.org/Musees/Hugo/ The museum is in the Place des Vosges, in the southeast corner, the corner closest to rue Saint Antoine. The entrance is level with the sidewalk arcade. A medium size modern elevator serves the upstairs exhibit floors, which have a gorgeous view of the Place des Vosges. The rows of perfectly straight, perfectly groomed trees may be even grander viewed from this level than from the ground. Although the exhibit explanations are in French only, the period furniture and Victor Hugo artifacts are interesting even if one can't read French. There is a small but serviceable accessible bathroom on the ground floor.
Bathroom access in Paris remains problematic. Wheelchair accessible public bathrooms remain extremely scarce except at the major museums. Whether accessible or not, bathrooms generally are small and poorly designed. See "Paris Passerelles" for more details and for locations of some accessible bathrooms. Because museum bathrooms are accessible and museum entrance is free for disabled people at publicly owned museums and many privately owned ones, it's a good idea to use the bathroom at museums when you are nearby even if you don't want to view the collection. We did, however, find the following accessible bathrooms that aren't mentioned in "Paris Passerelles."
Hospital in the Hotel Dieu de la Cite This public hospital near the front of Notre Dame has a large accessible bathroom on the ground floor lobby level. There are no stairs at the entrance. Turn left as you enter the building, and go 50-100 feet. The bathroom is heavily used. Gaining admission sometimes requires persistence with the hospital receptionist, and hours are limited. While at the hospital one can visit the relaxing courtyard garden.
Jardin des Tuileries There is a small attendant-operated accessible bathroom at the west end of the Jardin des Tuileries immediately before the Place de la Concorde. The bathroom is open only when the Jardin is open.
Victor Hugo Museum There is a small but serviceable accessible bathroom on the ground floor. The employees were gracious and cooperative about letting Howard use the bathroom on a day when we weren't visiting the museum.
V. WALKING TOURS
Context Paris www.ContextParis.com. www.ContextRome.com. Among the highlights of our trip were two walking tours with Context Paris. Context operates in-depth, interactive small group (six people maximum) walking tours (Context prefers the term "itineraries") of approximately three hours led by English-speaking docents who live in Paris and typically have advanced degrees in art, architecture, history or urban planning. The docents aren't conventional tour guides, but specialists sharing their expertise and passion for their subjects. Context also operates in Rome and Florence. Context offers a large variety of itineraries with varying degrees of wheelchair access.
The manager was knowledgeable and patient, going out of her way to ensure that the itineraries we chose were accessible, and the docents made small changes to maximize access. We took the "Haussmann Seminar" and "Montparnasse and the Avant Garde." Fun and fascinating, they added a new dimension to our knowledge and appreciation of Paris. The docents' knowledge and insights were deep and broad, their passion for their subjects energizing and the pacing perfect. They were well prepared, bringing useful written materials to supplement their talks, and were historically imaginative in evoking the times. Context staff viewed wheelchair access as a challenge and a learning opportunity, not a burden. We enthusiastically recommend Context!