I recently went to Rome with Amnesty International to speak about disabled rights at their International Council Meeting. It was an amazing experience in so many ways but getting to travel to a city I have always wanted to visit was certainly one of the highlights. I travelled with my dad and my sister who provided care for me during our trip. I got a few guidebooks about Rome to start planning what I wanted to see in my free time and while I knew accessibility would be an issue, I did get a bad feeling when there was 1 paragraph about accessibility which pretty much said ‘don’t expect to see much if you’re in a wheelchair’.
I posted on MDUK’s Trailblazers’ Facebook group asking about others’ experiences to see if was really as bad as the books said. Thank goodness I did because when I heard from other wheelchair users that they managed to get around fine and to not be put off by the books I felt much better. I am no stranger to disappointment at not being able to go places and do things because of accessibility issues and I would have been devastated if I had travelled all the way to Rome and not been able to see the Vatican and go to a eat at a restaurant with amazing pasta – luckily I got to do both!
Flying when you’re a wheelchair user on a ventilator can be… tricky. I had never flown from Gatwick and never to a country where I didn’t speak the language (yes really!) so I was a bit nervous about how I would manage. To my surprise everything went smoothly on the way there, I got all the right assistance and I arrived in the beautiful (and hot!) Rome!
Amnesty International had arranged transport for me from the airport to the hotel. The car they sent was a type of minibus with two ramps (see picture). My dad and I had our concerns about whether this would work each time we used the ramp as it wasn’t the most stable ramp we’d ever seen and as the wheels on my chair are set different distances apart it made the placement of the ramps difficult. There were points where you could secure the ramps at the top but they were too close together for my wheelchair. Our driver, though very nice, had never used them before so it was a real team effort to figure it out. Every time I used it my dad and I were worried about making it up or down but I did every time (barely).
I stayed at the Marriot Park hotel which is about 20 minutes away from central Rome and I cannot fault the service I received. The staff were so helpful and accommodating to my needs and requirements for my stay. The suite we stayed in had been changed to have 2 bedrooms instead of a sitting room and a bedroom which was perfect for us. We had 2 lovely bathrooms and one of them was big enough I could drive my wheelchair in and turn around! Sadly I have no pictures of this – I must have been too excited! The hotel had even provided a toilet chair for me which I hadn’t thought to ask for. I was told that they had a backup room for me if the first one wasn’t suitable but everything was great so I didn’t need to look at it. I’ve stayed at big chain hotels before but the Marriot Park in Rome really stood out as going that extra mile to make sure I had everything I needed.
The Amnesty International conference was all in the hotel which was fully accessible. During my free afternoon we went to the Vatican which has been on my bucket list since I saw Angels and Demons. The last entry to the museum was at 4 pm and I had booked the cab for 3 pm. We told our driver we wished we had time to see more of Rome so he very kindly offered to take a longer route to the Vatican to show us sites like the Coliseum. This was a great way to see the beautiful city in a short time.
We got to the Vatican museum but by the time we got down the ramp and across the cobbles to the door it was about 4:02 pm. We asked a member of the Italian military who was stationed at the door how to get in and he told us it was closed. Then by some extraordinary stroke of luck an undercover member of security (yes REALLY!) asked us if we were trying to get into the museum and then let us in while telling another family they were too late! I know, I can’t quite believe it myself! We then got our tickets and went into the museum. It was so worth being the only site we got to see during our trip. We then went into the Sistine chapel via a stairlift. I was so impressed that it had been installed and that wheelchair users had the same level of access to this incredibly old and beautiful place as everyone else. So take a leaf out of Vatican City’s book UK! My face may not exactly scream excitement but it was a bit of a shaky lift and I didn’t know my sister was taking a picture.
After the museum, we went to the fully accessible St Peter’s Basilica. Wheelchair users get to jump the queue so we were able to go straight in. A member of security took us in a lift to the main level so we could see everything and it was beautiful. We were lucky that we went in at the end of the day so nothing was too busy making it a really wonderful experience.
The plan was to walk around and find somewhere to have dinner – my sister and I LOVE pasta so we were determined to find an authentic Italian restaurant. I was worried that the cobbles and lack of dropped kerbs would be a problem but honestly it was no different than trying to get around London or Cambridge. We found a restaurant not too far from the Vatican that had the best pasta we had ever had so a whopping success in our book!
If you’re a wheelchair user and are worried about negotiating Rome please don’t be! It is completely doable. It is an old city so there will be some access issues but none that mean you can’t see the tourist attractions and have a great time. I did!