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Paris on wheels

Despite the cobbled streets, Paris has a lot to offer visitors who use wheelchairs, says Penelope Fleming-Fido

Paris in the height of summer is a beautiful place to visit, with the river Seine basking in the shadow of the glorious Eiffel Tower. A magnificent place indeed, one would say – but what is it like for people in wheelchairs?

On my trip to Paris, I was based to the east of the city in a small hotel by the side of the ring-road. The only way to the centre of the city was by RER (the urban rail network operating in and around Paris), because the taxi prices would have been extortionate. However, here I experienced my first problem…

Lifts? What lifts?

Anyone would think I had been asking for the moon. The RER assistants were very kind and helped lift my wheelchair up the stairs to the platform, but there were no elevators, although other stations did have them. The one thing I could count on was the help and politeness of the staff. I found out later – as perhaps I should have done before I started – that a guide to accessible stations was available from the Paris transport authority, RATP.

But as for the Metro…OK, maybe I was mad even to try it. The looks of the French travellers told me I was – who on earth, they seemed to be saying, would try and take a wheelchair on the Metro? Probably I would have the same experience in London – I haven't tried that yet. At any rate, I can confirm that it is conceivably possible to use the Metro, even if you are in a wheelchair – but make sure that you go with someone very fit and strong!

Finally, we emerged onto the sunny streets of Paris, where ancient buildings jostle for position with the modish shops of the city centre. Our first visit was to the Louvre, and though the building itself was closed because it was a Tuesday (other visitors be warned!), the famous glass pyramids and fountains outside were well worth a visit – and easily accessible.

Later, we wandered through the Jardin des Tuileries, which lounges lazily in front of the Louvre, a beautiful area filled with fountains and very easy on the wheelchair. We went up to the Place de la Concorde, where the Obélisque stands on the edge of the world famous Champs Élysées (familiar as the ending of the Tour de France cycle race). At the far end of this, the Arc de Triomphe can be seen and admired, though the Champs Élysées itself is too much of a main road to make going right up to the arch a worthwhile trip.

The Jardin des Tuileries area not withstanding, there are very few official pedestrianised areas – though a lot of the backstreets rarely see a car. However, it is best to keep on the pavements.

There are a few problems associated with trying to use the pavements in Paris, however. Paris is renowned for its street cafés, and while it is probably easy for a non-disabled person to squeeze themselves past the tables and chairs, sadly my wheelchair has never quite got the idea of squashing itself up to get through a small gap.

Of course, this makes a convenient reason to stop at every café, sample the coffee and watch the world go by…

The second problem is crossing roads. There are many traffic lights with little green men calling you across, but rarely are there slopes in the pavements to make it easy to get the wheelchair down into the road and back up the other side. Often, scarily, the lights would change before we had navigated getting back onto the pavement.

There are also a number of cobbled streets around the city, which, while they look pretty, can be rather bumpy for wheelchair-users. The solid tyres that are regularly being used on wheelchairs now may save on punctures, but they do not soften the jolts from bumpy pavements in the same way that air-filled tyres do. Having two of each type of tyre, I was only half jolted!

The most famous places in Paris vary in their ability to cater for wheelchair-users. While the Centre Pompidou (built comparatively recently) is easily accessible and very easy to get around, you can only go a short distance inside Notre Dame cathedral before there are stairs that need to be navigated. Obviously, climbing the Eiffel Tower is out – though you can get the lift some of the way up – but boats along the Seine make a pleasant afternoon's trip.

And if, after all this travelling, you become tired but are still feeling rich, taxis in Paris are obliged by law to carry disabled passengers and to help them into the vehicle if necessary.

Forget what is commonly said of the Parisians – the people couldn’t have been more polite and helpful, despite my rather dubious French. OK, perhaps the transport was difficult – I think if I go again, I’ll make sure it is to a hotel based rather nearer the centre of the city. But from my perspective, wheelchair or not, Paris has all the style, all the history and all the modernity, all the shops and all the cafés, the museums and the churches to suit anyone.

FACT FILE

Eurostar (www.eurostar.com) has a wheelchair area on its trains. One way costs about £60 for a wheelchair-user and companion from London to Paris. The price for two adults and no wheelchair-users for the same journey is £309. If you are registered blind or partially-sighted, Eurostar offers a discounted rate of £29.50 one way for a companion. Tel: 08705 186 186 or 0044 1233 617 575. Eurostar allows guide dogs on the trains, and also provides staff to give assistance to people getting on or off trains, but you must arrive about 45 minutes before departure and inform them in advance

The RATP website (http://www.ratp.info/touristes) gives information on which parts of the Paris transport system are accessible for wheelchair-users. For travel on the Metro, RER, buses or trains, RATP will provide someone to accompany non-wheelchair disabled passengers between 8am and 8pm, though this needs to be booked a day in advance and costs about 25 euros an hour. It is also possible to get a braille metro map from the Association Valentin Huay (http://www.avh.asso.fr)

There are buzzers to assist visually-impaired tourists at most designated crossing points on the roads; though textured surfaces are not standard

For information on wheelchair-accessible hotels in Paris, visit http://www.accessinparis.org/accommodation.php for accommodation from five star quality to cheap and cheerful (but still accessible), and prices per night from under €80 for a double room with breakfast up to €500

Admission to national museums is free for those with documentary proof that they are disabled Taxis are obliged by law to carry you and to help you into the vehicle if you are disabled.

They are also obliged to take guide dogs.

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