Wheelchair Accessible Lisbon,  & Madeira, Portugal
by Diarmuid Corry © 2000

In September 2000, Diarmuid Corry of Dublin, Ireland,  visited Madeira and Lisbon with his able-bodied wife. He is a T4 paraplegic and uses a narrow, compact manual wheelchair  (68cm/27.2” wide).

Lisbon

Getting There and Airport Service:

Lisbon airport is fully wheelchair accessible but be warned – the last accessible toilets are in the shopping area after boarding pass check and before security checks. There are no accessible toilets at the gates themselves. The officials in Lisbon were well trained, very friendly and all transfers and loading on and off the plane were done well. We flew with British Airways, and I’m not sure if the staff were BA or Lisbon airport staff. 

Getting Around:

Lisbon has many very very steep streets. Some of the pavements are staircases! This makes getting around a little difficult, as you cannot be guaranteed to be able to wheel to any particular place. The pavements are made from granite and basalt mosaic cobbles, which provide a rough and difficult passage for the wheelchair. We were told that there were “a few” accessible busses but I did not see any. We were also told that the Metro was not accessible but several stations did have elevators. We did not explore further. Getting information from the tourist office proved impossible. So we stuck to taxis, which are plentiful – almost all are large Mercedes. A feasible strategy is to taxi to a location of interest, then wander around there.

There are tours offered, but we could not find an accessible bus or coach operator. Therefore, we hired a taxi for a half-day tour of the city. The taxi driver could speak English and took us through the usual tourist sights. At 20000$00 we felt that it was a bit pricey and ultimately bad value.

It is possible to hire a car with hand controls in Lisbon. Contact Adaptcar (tel: +351 21 812 3526, Fax  +351 21 812 3516) who have a small range (two I believe!) of cars at competitive prices. I would recommend this only if you intend to drive out of Lisbon! You need to be certifiably mad to attempt to drive in Lisbon itself. This is a small operation and they do not have a facility for accepting credit cards so be prepared to organise an alternative form of payment.

In terms of wandering, I could only talk about the places we went and saw. The Alfama is, I’m afraid, a no go area. Steep and narrow streets preclude the wheelchair wanderer. A pity, because it is an area full of atmosphere. If you know where you want to go you can taxi straight there and straight home.

The Baixa area is near the sea. It is almost totally flat and well worth wandering around. Apart from an apparently infinite number of shoe and bag shops, there are lots of restaurants and plenty to do and see. We were staying on Avenida da Liberdade so the Baixa was a convenient area for us.

The Bairro Alta is up a very steep incline from the Baixa. Get a taxi to it. But once there it is sort of a plateau so it is possible to wander around if you don’t mind a few steep hills.

As usual, down by the sea is flat and pleasant, the area around Belém is nice to wander around as well.

We did not “do” too many of the tourist sites. Belém is, not surprisingly, inaccessible. The Marine Museum is fully accessible and has an adapted toilet. The Opera house appeared to be inaccessible.

Hotel

Sofitel Lisboa, Avenida Da Liberdade 127 (tel : (+351)21/3228300). Expensive but classy hotel. Good location. Very friendly staff. Adapted room had a large bathroom with the appropriate grabrails. There was a standard bath instead of a shower which could prove difficult for some. Superb breakfast!

Restaurants etc.

Mastiga na Tola, Travessa da Cara, 20/22 Bairro Alto, 1200.089 Lisboa (Tel: 21 347 71 95). Lovely family atmosphere, local clientele. Very good food at a very reasonable price. Single step from street. No toilet access. Strongly recommended.

Solar do Vinho do Porto, Rua S. Pedro Alcantara. Port tasting. Two steps from street with good separation (1.5m or so). Than two steps down into first tasting level where you can stay. Staff will assist. No toilet access. Large range of ports to taste but expensive.

Restaurant o Forno Velho, Rua do Salitre 42, Lisboa. Slightly sterile restaurant, mostly tourist clientele. Good food, reasonable prices. One door is ramped from street, short steep hill from Rua de Liberdade to restaurant. No access to toilets.

Clube de Fado, Rua S. Joao do Praca, 94-1100 Lisboa (tel: 88 88 26 94). Tourist oriented joint which serves dinner and has fado performers. Large step access from street, level thereafter. Toilets upstairs although staff carried me up to use them. Ordinary toilet is barely big enough for a compact manual wheelchair, no access to cubicle. The fado is very good if you like folk music, very strong and emotional performances. The food is very mediocre and not worth the exorbitant prices (a compulsory couvert of 1800$00 with main courses circa 3000$00 each. By the time we had wine etc. the price had risen to over 11000$00 per person). A disappointing experience. You can arrive late (11:00) and skip dinner just drink but I think there is a cover charge. The people at the hotel said this was the best fado in town and maybe that’s true but the over all impression was that we were ripped off.

Near Lisbon – Sintra and Cabo da Roca

Sintra is a popular tourist destination about 30km from Lisbon. It has a raft of interesting historic buildings. Car is the best way to get there (although you can get a taxi tour from Lisbon for about 36000$00). The roads around Sintra are torturously narrow, winding and steep. The area around the Palacio Nacional de Sintra is flat and easy to wander around but the streets leading away very quickly become too steep fro unassisted wheeling. The Palacio itself is not accessible. Beware of taking coffee or wine in the bars around the Praca da Republica – we were charged a phenomenal 480$00 for a cup of coffee (compared to 90$00 in Lisbon city centre).

A popular spot is the Disneyland-like castle of Palacio Nacional da Pena. You can drive right up to the gates. There is a bus that brings visitors up to the castle. This has a ramp at the back up to a little platform where the wheelchair can park. The bus ride is spectacular in itself. From the point where the bus deposits you there is a very steep hill up to the Palacio itself. The hill is too steep for unassisted wheeling. There is no access into the Palacio itself but you can wander around the outside and take in the fantastic views. Well worth the trip. During our visit the restaurant and ticket area was being refurbished. An accessible toilet had been installed but was not yet operational. There seemed to be no access to the restaurant unless there was an elevator somewhere that I could not see.

The Cabo da Roca, 18km from Sintra, is the Western-most point in Europe. It’s a nice spot and it is possible to get out and wheel around.

Other places visited:

Adega regional de Colares, Alameda Coronel Linhares de Lima, 32, Banzao, Sintra, 2705-351 Colares (Tel: 929 12 10). Wine tasting and storage. Worth a visit. Level access.

Jose Franco’s craft village, Sobreiro. An unusual and slightly surreal place – basically it’s a miniature working village. Worth a visit if you are in the area. An attempt has been made to ramp the entire place so every part is accessible. The ramps are very steep in places so an AB assistant may be required.

Hotel

Aldeia da Roca, Rua Escola Nova, 6, Azóia, 2705-001 Colares (tel: +351 1 928 00 01). Hotel claims w/c access but this is not true. Accommodation is in form of motel style ground floor rooms with separate access. There is a small step from the ground level in. The good-sized bathroom has a grab rail by toilet but a standard basin shower that is inaccessible. There is ramped access to the swimming pool but a footbath blocks the way. It is accessible if you have someone to help you through the step down and step up of the footbath. Standard of accommodation is 3 star but it is a little old and not very impressive for the high prices (16500$00/night in September). The bedroom was too small to navigate comfortably in a chair and the room was damp. A good breakfast and exceptionally friendly staff help to allay the disappointment a little. The restaurant is accessible via a ramp from the front. Our meal was unremarkable, the food was good and the prices were about average.

Restaurants

Păo de Trigo, Estrada do cabo da Roca, Azóia, Colares, 2710 Sintra (Tel: 929 08 50). Superb restaurant. Very reasonable prices. Small step from street. Ramped access to dining area. No accessible toilets. Realy good food at reasonable prices. Strongly recommended.

Madeira

This island is a challenge for a wheelchair user. The facilities are limited, awareness of access issues is close to nil and the geography makes travel difficult. But, despite all this, its beauty is awe-inspiring and there is much to see and do. Be prepared for discomfort and adventure, be prepared to abandon the chair occasionally, and travel with an AB friend.

Getting There and Airport Service

Not the easiest place in the world to get to. From Dublin, Ireland we had to take three flights: Heathrow, Lisbon, Funchal. The last leg was with TAP (Air Portugal). Lisbon airport is fully wheelchair accessible but be warned – the last accessible toilets are in the shopping area after boarding pass check and before security checks. There are no accessible toilets at the gates themselves. The airport in Madeira at Funchal is new (some parts were only opened in September 2000) and fully accessible. It does not appear to have air-bridges so be prepared to be carried down steps in the aisle-chair. The officials in Lisbon and Madeira were well-trained, very friendly and all transfers and loading on and off the plane were done well. There is no special transport to/from the aircraft, you share a bus with all the other passengers. The officials will lift you in and out of the bus in your own chair.

Getting Around

It is not possible to hire a vehicle with hand controls in Madeira. We hired a standard vehicle, which my wife drove. This had it’s advantages. Madeira is stunningly beautiful but the roads are treacherous. The driver sees nothing but white-knuckle corners while the passengers get to drink in the most spectacular scenery I have come across in Europe (with the possible exception of Norway). Car hire is reasonable enough – a class B car costs about 8000$00/day all in.

The buses are not accessible, but there are plenty of taxis. There are no adapted taxis – most taxis are large Mercedes that require a transfer to get into them. Taxing around the city is cheap enough. Also, you can hire a taxi for a 6-7 hour trip around parts of the island. This will cost between 14000$00 and 18000$00 depending on firm and time of year/week. Beware that no one trip takes in the whole Island. You will need at least two. There are cheaper firms that use busses and off-road vehicles but they are not at all geared up to handle disabled passengers. We did not try them.

Now, Madeira is not wheelchair friendly by any stretch of the imagination. The island is basically a volcanic rock spiking out of the Atlantic Ocean. The main city (Funchal) and villages cling to the sides of the mountains and there are many vertigo inducing streets and alleyways. Car is the only way to get around; you will not be able to wheel any significant distance without meeting a very steep hill.

The main city, Funchal, is compact with a population of about 200,000 people. The street network is dictated by the mountains. Long streets follow the contours of the land and are negotiable by an unassisted wheeler, although be prepared for demanding hills. These are linked by narrow steep streets which are challenging to push yourself up unassisted – some are too steep to descend safely! The pavements are made from granite and basalt mosaic cobbles, which provide a rough and difficult passage for the wheelchair. Very few kerbs are dished, and most shops and restaurants have stepped entrances. If you can, get large pneumatic front wheels – the thin rubber coating on my small hard wheels literally disintegrated after a few days. I suspect that a motorised wheelchair would have great difficulty exploring the streets. Down near the marina there is a network of streets that are almost flat. There is a lovely long walk by the seashore that is completely wheelchair friendly.

We did not find a restaurant with accessible toilets, but we did not try very many – eating in the hotel mostly. The Blandy’s Wine Lodge is accessible from Rua San Francisco although the hill was too steep for me to manage without assistance. They have a wheelchair toilet and the tasting rooms are accessible. The tour is not although you can get in to see the slide show. Worth a visit. There is a small shopping centre on the southern side of Avenida Arriaga  which has an accessible toilet. We didn’t explore the old town where all the nice restaurants are rumoured to be….save that for another visit.

If Madeira, and Funchal, sound challenging for the wheeler that is because they are. But don’t let that stop you visiting. I certainly intend to go back.

Below I list the hotels and restaurants we used:

Accommodation

Quinta das Vinhas, Lombo dos Serrőes, Estreito do Calheta (tel: +351 291 820 040). Lovely intimate accommodation in a recently restored old house in a vineyard. Access to the house itself is impossible. The options are a soft very steep bank to a garden and two crude narrow steps, or 5 large crude stone steps. Vineyard staff will assist whichever route you choose. I choose to be carried down the five steps when accessing the house, and to get out of the chair and drag myself across the small garden and up the hill to leave the house. Not for the faint-hearted! The house itself is on two levels. The lower level is inaccessible and so, therefore, is the pool. The upper level is comfortable and contains bedrooms, the living room and the sitting room. Only the largest en-suite bathroom is big enough to take a wheelchair. The bath is a standard bath. Despite the difficulties of access the house was worth the visit. The atmosphere is relaxing and intimate, food is good and gives a sense of home-cooking. A nice touch was a cake for my birthday which occurred while I was staying there. The staff are very courteous and helpful and the lady who runs the place is extremely friendly and completely fluent in English. I would strongly recommend this place to anyone who can mange to go up and down a few steps. It is, to be honest, a bit too challenging if you have no walking ability at all unless you are prepared to get out of the chair and work! A final point – you will need a car to get to the house. The access lane through the vineyard and the roads are too steep and rough to consider wheeling there.

Crowne Plaza Resort Madeira, Estrada Monumental, 175-177, 9000-100 Funchal, Madeira (Tel: +351-291-717702). This is a five star modern resort, opened in February 2000. It has 2 adapted bedrooms which are of the highest standard that I have ever stayed in. The bathrooms are large and have the required grabrails, roll-in shower etc. The room we had was large and comfortable with a balcony and sea view. All aspects of the hotel are accessible with the exception of the squash courts. All swimming pools (4 of them), restaurants and so on have ramped or elevator access. The staff are exceptionally friendly and helpful. The place is simply heavenly. It is an extremely comfortable resort and, given the difficulties of Madeira and Funchal for the wheelchair user, you would be tempted not to leave the hotel at all. This would be a pity as the outside has much to offer, but if you had to stay in just one spot then you could not do much better than the Crowne Plaza. The prices reflect the surroundings, though, the rack rate in September is 39000$00/night!

Restaurants

Fernandes, north side of square in Porto do Moniz. Good value, good food, friendly service. Single step to outside seating area. Single step to interior. The toilet is large with a wide door and a single bowl and sink. No grab rails but plenty of room to manoeuvre.

Jardim do Mar, the restaurant in the hotel on the seaward side of the square. Steep access ramp. Level access to interior of restaurant and balcony. Small toilet with narrow door (c. 70cm/28”). Good value, good food.

I could find very little information on wheelchair access before I went so this is an effort to share my own experiences. If you have a question, e-mail me at dcorry@indigo.ie and I will try to answer it.

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