Musings on Madrid by Wheelchair 2007

by Mark & Margaret Edwards © 2007

 

Mark & Margaret Edwards, of the United Kingdom. generously shared a host of European reports that detail the access that wheelchair users can expect to encounter. Mark is able-bodied and Margaret, who can walk a little with a cane, uses a traditional folding wheelchair to facilitate traveling.

 

Here they take on Madrid, Spain, where they quickly found that their extensive trip planning paid off. Come along as they visit the Prado, Palacio de Liria, Teatro Real, El Escorial, Palacio de Liria, Museo Thyssen, Museo Thyssen and so much more.

 

There were some initial murmurings that it was going to be pretty difficult to get around Madrid by wheelchair: cobblestones, uneven pavements, no kerb ramps, old and inaccessible buildings….. Basically all the usual challenges in most European cities. Well, we’d managed Florence, Venice, Hamburg, Milan and Amsterdam over the last couple of years with only minor injuries to us and the faithful wheelchair (although it was finally written off earlier this year by an airline after 15 years of service), so we approached Madrid positively and decided to give it a whirl.

 

What hadn’t been made quite so clear is how steep much of Madrid is – in the light of subsequent experience my husband concluded that everywhere in Madrid is uphill, irrespective of the direction – rather like one of those Escher drawings involving people solemnly climbing stairs but never getting anywhere. It did seem like that so if you’re planning to go at the height of summer, be warned.

 

On the other hand though, we had a fantastic time, finding people to be extremely friendly and helpful and we saw just about everything we’d planned to.

 

We’ve put together some general guides over the years:

 

• planning is the key to success: we spend a lot of time with maps and guidebooks highlighting what we wanted to see and how it could be fitted into the time available with exhausting both of us. It’s part of the fun of the holiday, but we don’t let it get too structured unless appointments have to be made and can have alternatives in mind in case the weather turns.

 

• So have a fair appreciation of what you can manage in a day and it’s probably less than you think – it is very tiring sitting in a chair and jolting over uneven surfaces can be very painful as well. After all, it is supposed to be a holiday! If you don’t see everything you want to see, it’s a fine excuse to come back another time.

 

• As time goes by, there are increasing resources on the Internet to help in working out where we can go and identifying the problems which are going to have to be worked round. Reduce the potential for too many unpleasant surprises and I’m going to enjoy the holiday more. I leave the detailed arrangements to my husband because I like pleasant surprises and he’s developed a good feel for what we can see in a day without overdoing it.

 

• If there are any doubts about whether you are able to access a building, get in contact with them direct to see what is possible and make arrangements for a specific date and time if that will help.

 

• Many buildings have only recently been “converted” for wheelchair access. Staff are only too happy to demonstrate new equipment and are rightly proud of it. So remember to thank them – perhaps they might get thirsty helping you – discretely offer the financial means of dealing with this.

 

• On this point, try to have a few phrases in the appropriate language – my husband who’s travelled widely in his time reckons that “please”, “thank you” and “where is the lavatory?” are enough to cover most situations but an honest attempt to use a few suitable phrases will help.

 

• Travel light: over the years, we’ve gradually reduced the amount of stuff we carry around on city visits. We use a large shoulder bag on the plane to carry books, cameras, medicines, documents – all the things to get you to the destination in one piece and pack flat a much smaller version to carry cameras, guide book, map, water bottle, cycling cape ( yes, rather than pay out for a specially tailored cover for me and the chair if it rains, we invested £3 some years ago in a light waterproof cycling cape with a sou’-wester which makes up in compactness and effectiveness for what it lacks in beauty) simply for use out and about.

 

• Get solid tyres fitted to your chair. I converted several years ago when my husband finally got fed up with packing a pump, puncture repair kit and tyre levers. Solid tyres last much longer and in my opinion provide the same ride as pneumatic tyres. Also, do you want to spend your holiday having punctures fixed?

 

• Find out in advance where you can hire a replacement wheelchair, particularly if you are going to be in one location for the holiday. If anything should go wrong, it’s very comforting to have a couple of sources where a replacement can be hired from for a couple of days. For Madrid, we took information on ORTOPEDIA PLAZA S.L. at c/ Toledo nº60 on 00 34 91.3.65.38.36 or at plaza@ortopediaplaza.com  in case it was needed.

 

• A folding/sectional walking stick can make all the difference – I have a selection, which fold up to about 20cms and can just be slipped in the shoulder bag for use.

 

Just for the record, I use a standard manual folding wheelchair, which I can propel myself and I can walk a little. And as you’ll gather from the places which we visited, galleries and museums are high on the list of our interests.

 

In the case of Madrid, our starting point was the Time Out guide which provides a very good introduction to the city and its sights. The only mild issue I would take is that the maps while fully detailed and clear are sectional and it can be difficult to get a feel for how the sections fit together. A one sheet street map – such as that produced by the AA is good for planning. The next suggestion is probably illegal: having bought the map we take photocopies of sections with us for quick reference – they push into a pocket or bag – with the sights highlighted on them. You don’t have to continually unfurl and fold up a large map which will start to suffer fairly quickly or drag along unnecessary bits and pieces if you are simply finding your way to a restaurant for the evening.

 

On disability issues, the place to start is http://www.famma.org/accesibilidad/indice2005.htm

This provides a generous listing of probably every public service building in Madrid which a visitor might want to enter (together with many they probably wouldn’t) and explains the level of access. In addition to hospitals, police stations, social security offices, football grounds etc it covers a number of museums and galleries, cinemas, theatres and transport facilities. The drawback for wider use is that it’s only in Spanish and it doesn’t cover churches or other religious sites. However, it also uses symbols which are followed by brief explanations (copying and inserting the explanations into an on-line translation services will help) and it uses a simple structure – at least you know whether you are in with a chance of getting into and around the building and what the various facilities are, including WCs and cafes. You will pick up that WCs receive a lot of attention here – if you know where they are, you don’t worry.

 

There are also other personal experiences recorded at: http://www.globalaccessnews.com/toledomadridsegovia04.htm

and http://madrid.angloinfo.com/information/22/disabled.asp

 http://www.access-able.com/tales/spain/MADRID.html

 http://www.access-able.com/tales/spain/index.html

 http://www.madrid-tourist-guide.com/en/transport/disabled-access-madrid.html

 

Getting there

 

Not usually a problem from Heathrow – the BA check in was as ever polite and efficient and as usual we arranged to use our own wheelchair to get up to the departure gate. With around two hours to kill, this means we can look at the shops or have a coffee and are not tied to a pusher. Unfortunately, the flight was delayed and had to use a coaching stand which meant climbing steps into the aircraft.

 

We were met at the gate in Madrid with my wheelchair and were guided through immigration to the baggage claim which seemed to involve a number of lifts and a ten minute train journey. I was rather pleased to be sitting down for all this!

 

Coming back

 

Not good. Iberia likes to corral their wheelchair passengers so the airline know where they are. For some obscure reason, this involved a fifteen minute walk up to the advertised gate which showed a completely different flight – not unreasonable as some two hours were to pass before our flight. The pusher employed by Iberia was worried about this and clearly contemplated returning us to base to reconsider the matter. Fortunately, my husband managed to extract from him that he was taking us to a point from whence he personally would collect us at 20.15. That was the last we saw of him and our boarding cards – the absence of the latter precluding us from buying any duty free goods. Best I think to draw a veil over the flight on an overheated plane which left late, where the refreshments were available for cash and where the baggage handlers broke one of the securing clips off a new wheelchair.

 

Getting about

 

The metro is an issue. Around 50% of the 247 stations on the network have lifts. Currently, these tend to be stations at the outer ends of lines or where new extensions have taken place and are not necessarily where the disabled tourist (or indeed any tourist) would want to go. The stations in the centre are not fully served which means that wheelchair movements are really restricted to the above ground area. There is a clear map of the metro showing disabled access stations at http://www.metromadrid.es/acc_resources/pdfs/Plano_Metro_2006.pdf However, there are works going on to install lifts at other stations – the installation at Sol is almost finished but not working as yet. However, once you get to the platform, it is easy to get on the train – specially marked disabled entrances have a metal lip which makes getting the chair on board a lot easier by reducing the gap between the platform and the coach – there are also wheelchair spaces by these doors with a strap to hold the chair in place. Even the non-disabled doors are easy to negotiate. We tried it once and fellow passengers were very helpful – it was the rush hour as well – making space and pointing out where the chair should be parked in the carriage (straps to hold you safely in place).

 

You are, however, dependant on all the lifts working – the lift at Moncloa from the concourse to the surface was out of order on the day when we tried to use it which led to an interesting experience with an escalator and the decision not to risk taking the Metro when there were other means of getting about.

 

Taxis were an easy way of getting around and weren’t too expensive. It can help to have written down the address you’re seeking – my husband’s pronunciation of Spanish impeded by a heavy cold was confusing to many drivers. Some drivers get concerned that a wheelchair can’t be folded up – a quick demonstration will put their minds at rest.

 

However, depending on what sights you go for, you will find that they are mainly concentrated in the city centre and within pushing distance. Hence the need for forward planning to try to group visits together.

 

The pavements can be uneven and dropped kerbs are limited so care is needed. One of the great advantages of the crossings are the bird-like sounds which remind you that the lights are in your favour.

 

Hotel Plaza Mayor
 

This was not chosen for its accessibility but for its location and the write ups it received on the TripAdvisor site. It does have a lift but there are six steps up to it from reception. If you can’t walk at all, then sadly this hotel is not for you. Sadly, because it fully lives up to its TA reputation in full, represents unbelievable value at €90 per night for a double room and is fully deserving of its TA ranking at 4th out of 274 hotels in Madrid. The staff were friendly and helpful, the room was generous with an extremely comfortable bed and a large shower-room and the whole place was extremely clean. Also a very good breakfast with coffee warranted to set you up for the day. We’d go back there any day. It represents incredible value for money.

 

Teatro Real

 

This has an impressive website at http://www.teatro-real.com/  which has an English version and includes a detailed seating plan showing just where the wheelchair spaces are at Principal, Anfiteatro and Tribuna levels in the theatre – there are two on each of these levels, one either side of the auditorium. In addition, some neat software also gives you a virtual view of the stage from your specified seat – important as a very high percentage of seats outside the stalls have views which are restricted to a greater or lesser degree.

 

Buying tickets over the internet involving a wheelchair space isn’t easy – indeed it may not be possible and we couldn’t get to the bottom of the process. So the best (if not the only) approach is to call the box office on + 34 902 24 48 48. They do speak English but referring to a wheelchair as “sillón de ruedas” helps and concentrates them into the right seating areas from the start. Tickets seem to go very quickly, so I’d recommend to phone the box office at 10.00 local time on the day that booking opens for a particular production and the website gives that date. However, it is not clear whether disabled patrons get a discount – our tickets cost €88 each – those next to us were €125 each. Policies do vary across Europe on disabled ticketing – some theatres reasonably believe their tickets are cheap enough already without further reduction and others offer very handsome reductions.

 

On the night, tickets can be collected at a dispenser next to the box office and you’ll need the credit card you used to make the purchase. Getting to this point is straightforward but difficult to explain. Facing the façade of the opera house with your back to the Royal Palace, enter at the right hand side of the building, go across the foyer to the other side where there is a stair lift giving access to an upper level. If you are on your own, you will need to attract the attention of a guard to operate the lift, get them to wait while you swipe your card to collect your tickets and then take you down again. If you’ve a companion, then it’s much easier – there’s no requirement for any PIN numbers, just the presence of the card. I can only comment on what you need to do to get to the second floor (Principal) but I’d guess that it’s the same for the other floors. Having secured the tickets, retrace your path back to the entrance you used to enter the building, go outside, cross the front of the building and turn right up the side of the building where you will find a ramp into another reception area. A lift will take you up to the appropriate floor.

 

It is well worth going to the bar on the second floor – a splendid and ornate room which opens into the restaurant. A glass of Cava retails at €4 which is a good deal certainly by UK opera house standards, and I’d recommend booking interval drinks and asking for a table – it doesn’t seem to be the local practice to do this and we were the only ones with a reserved table. It does help if you’re in a wheelchair to have somewhere to put your glass and it also wins you high quality (and free) nuts and olives to nibble on. It is also worth taking a turn around the whole of the floor – seemingly an endless series of palatial rooms which appeared highly underused (in fact empty) compared to the sort of scrum you encounter in the UK. There are disabled lavatories on this floor but like all the facilities, they are discretely located but are signed. They are there but just take a little finding.

 

Finding the precise seating area is a little complicated and isn’t helped by there only being a five minute warning of curtain up. However, we found the right door to enter by after a little casting about and despite the seats being advertised as limited view, the sightlines were fine – there are large screens at the back of the galleries either side of the proscenium which cover the action in case you can’t see all of the stage. And by the way, it was a very good production of Rossini’s “La pietra del paragone” which included a swimming pool in its imaginative setting and looked just as good when we caught it by chance on TV a couple of nights later.

 

Palacio de Liria

 

One of the homes of the Duchess de Alba, the premier aristocrat of Spain, is a restored 18thC mansion in the classical style rebuilt after damage in the 1930s and contains one of the finest collections of works by Rembrandt, Titian, Rubens and Goya (to name only a few) in private hands anywhere. In addition, the Library contains original documents including a sketch map of Hispaniola by Columbus and letters from Cortez. Not as well known as it ought to be. Open to the public only on Fridays during the summer, there are hourly tours at 10.00, 11.00 and 12.00. Booking (and very well in advance) is imperative. Call 00 34 915 47 53 02 and ask for Jorge Gonzalez – your best chance of contacting him is after 16.00 local time. Spanish is the preferred means of communication – or email at jorge.gonzalez@fundacioncasadealba.com

 or visitas@fundacioncasadealba.com You will need to provide your passport details and take the passport with you as a means of identification on the day.

 

The entrance is the small gate to the right of the main vehicle entrance. It’s best to get there about 15 minutes before the start of the tour. A particularly charming young man welcomed us all – there was a group of a dozen or so Spanish ladies – and he happily undertook to explain anything in English which we wanted to know about the house and couldn’t work out from the Spanish. The building is not disabled accessible and is not claimed to be – I used my wheelchair to get from the street to the front door along a gravel drive and used a stick to get round the building. There is a lift to the first floor which is a work of art in itself. If you can manage to arrange a tour, I can strongly recommend it. It’s worth all the effort.

 

Museo de la Real Academia de Bella Artes

 

A much overlooked gallery. Access is through an archway and thence via one step to a passenger lift or a slightly further distance on to a service lift with again one step. The one floor is all on one level and whilst there are no specific disabled lavatories, the facilities are generously proportioned. Includes the celebrated (and disquieting) Goya “Funeral of the Sardine,” and well worth a visit to get away from the crowds for an hour.

 

El Escorial

 

The Palace is not disabled friendly – we knew that but had to give it a go. The best description is “partially accessible” and that means not very much. They warned us at the ticket office that there were many stairs. There were. It seemed like hundreds of them. My husband wondered how the Grand Inquisitor in “Don Carlo” had managed to get round the place in his state of health. If you are restricted to a wheelchair, the most you are going to see is the Basilica – well worth it in itself – which means that you will have to convince the security staff to let you in through the exit to the Palace (having bought your ticket at the usual place). But unless you can walk you will not see anything else. However, you will be pleased to know that there is a disabled lavatory just beyond the ticket office.

 

But I wouldn’t have missed it for the world - The easiest way to get there is to a take a taxi as this (1) avoids driving in Madrid (not to be recommended) or (2) any reliance on public transport. It is, however, going to be expensive. Quotations of over €200 for the round trip were floated and tours with a guide were over €300. And you still wouldn’t have seen any more of the building than we did. There is a bus service and also there is a train service Line 8A which runs from Atocha, Nuevos Ministerios and Chambertin stations. We went for the latter.

 

Atocha station is worth a visit in itself – the jungle which has been installed in the circulation area is splendid and there are dozens of turtles of various sizes and ambitions (one was climbing a tree) lurking in the ponds. There are building works going on at the moment so entrances may change: we approached from the Calle de Atocha direction and followed round a pathway between the main station building and a brick building to the right. This led to an extremely steep slope and so you might want to try passing on the other side of the brick building and using a less steep ramp which is used by taxis – a longer but less challenging route.

 

We entered the building from the taxi pick up point. Inside the station, ignore the main booking office which is ahead of you but turn right for suburban services. With your back to the jungle, this means passing through into another arrivals area and then turning to your left with shops either side. Tickets are sold in a central kiosk with barriers either side over to your right. Escorial trains currently run from either Platform 1 or 2. These are accessed by lifts at the far end of the platform away from the barrier. It is a long walk, so leave plenty of time.

 

In theory, trains are wheelchair accessible. The single-decker train we used wasn’t and had two steps up internally from the platform to the floor of the coach. The two deck trains have a disabled door but it’s difficult to find and access particularly when the platform is full of commuters changing trains at the height of the rush hour. You’ll need a strong pusher.

 

Trains run to the lower part of El Escorial, and the journey usually takes not much more than an hour from Madrid. Travel details are available on the website http://horarios.renfe.es/hir/ingles.html which gives the train times in either direction and the costs – which are around €3 per head for a return ticket. At Escorial station, there is a lift from the platform down to an underground passage which passes under the railway lines and leads to another lift up to ground level. In this passage was a disabled lavatory which was locked – I guess the keys are available at the ticket office. The second lift wasn’t working when we visited so there was a long flight of stairs to negotiate. Having arrived at El Escorial station, unless you can find a taxi, the choice is taking the bus which runs up to the town square from the station and meets each train or to be pushed the 2km or so up hill to the upper town. By the time we got to the right level, the bus had just left and my husband elected to push me. It is a steep road – in fact it is a very steep road, the pavement surface is rough, there are kerbs to negotiate and it took 45 minutes including his sitting down twice. It is not recommended unless you have no choice. The bus is a much better idea but I am told that it is not wheelchair accessible.

 

Coming back, the trains for Madrid leave from two platforms which are some distance apart. There don’t seem to be any electronic signs on the platforms and my husband went down to the ticket office in the passage under the tracks where a hand written sign in the window gave the platform for the next Madrid train – fortunately it was one which didn’t require any steps or lifts. It’s important to make this check otherwise you can end up making a lot of unnecessary effort.

 

Lunch – we ate at Hotel Miranda & Suizo at Calle Floridablanca 20 which is part of the same chain which operates the restaurant at the Teatro Real. A steep ramp runs up to the Calle Floridablanca from the road which runs alongside the Monastery with three steps at the top. Turn right, and the hotel/restaurant is along on the left hand side. The conservatory restaurant offered a three course lunch including wine, water and bread for €16 a head and was clearly a well-known and appreciated local deal. My husband had a very high opinion of the lunch and was in severe need of refreshment by this time. The lavatories are in the basement, only accessible by steps. They also very kindly called us a taxi for the return trip to the station. Good value for €6.

 

Teleferico de Madrid

 

This is a longish push but eventually there are gardens to look at on the way. This was reputed to be wheelchair accessible, and it’s now rather obscure as to where this information came from – if you can persuade the staff to let you in through the exit, then there are only four steps to negotiate from a steeply sloped pathway. If not, then you are stuck with two lengthy and steep flights of steps. You have to be able to walk a few steps to get into one of the cabins and the staff will mind your chair while you are soaring across the valley. It is a fun way of spending half an hour and the views of the Royal Palace are fine. The wildlife below is fairly restricted to rabbits, magpies and pigeons but you do get some fine views.

 

Ermita de San Antonio de la Florida

 

Worth visiting for the highly unusual and dramatic Goya frescos. From the above, follow the path down around the building under the cables and keep on going down through the park to the road. In the distance at the bottom of the road in front of you, you will see a railway line. Go down towards the railway line (there were some building works by the line) and at the bottom, turn right to a ramped footbridge which crosses the railway. As you cross the bridge, you can see the chapels to your left and it is reasonably flat all the way there. Access to the chapel is at the left of the building at the front where there is one step up into the corridor.

 

Museo Thyssen

 

Fully accessible. There is a pleasant (waiter service) café with an outside area which is accessed by a ramp to the right immediately inside the entrance to the main building – you go past the special exhibition area on your left - and it is worth knowing that lavatories are accessible in the basement (via a glass lift by the shop) and are before you get to the ticket desk. Hence are freely available. What I would take issue with is that the gallery suggest that two hours is enough for a visit. To do it justice would require at least a day because both areas of the museum contain some very interesting work.

 

Museo Reine Sofia

 

Fairly accessible – there are external lifts to each of the upper floors but there are steps between some of the internal areas. However, it is possible to get around with minimal assistance. There is a disabled lavatory on the ground floor. The cafeteria is accessible by wheelchair but it is a bit of a marathon – requiring a guard to escort you to the area of the ground floor most distant from the cafeteria where a service lift takes you down to the basement and a similar trek across the basement to the cafeteria. There is a question as to how much of the displays are worth seeing – it’s a matter of personal taste and we found some fascinating items in addition to “Guernica,” including a bookcase with books and papers carved from wood.

 

El Prado

 

The builders are in at the moment so the only wheelchair access is at the northern end of the building. We cunningly tried to get in at the southern end, were sold a disabled ticket and then caused confusion by having to reverse out and try the northern entrance.

 

Once through the ticket barrier, the lifts to the upper floor are to your right in a corridor and the whole of that upper floor is fully accessible. The lower floor is not so easy – there is a stair lift big enough for a manual wheelchair down to the main gallery followed by a steep ramp. Access to the side galleries – Bosch etc – is by another stair lift up from the central gallery. The cafeteria is in the basement at the southern end of the building and is accessed by another lift towards the far corner of the building. It is marked.

 

Botanic Garden

 

And while you near the Prado, it was very pleasant to while away an hour in the sunshine in these remarkably colourful gardens, a haven of quiet in the centre of the city. Access is through gates at the far end of the Prado and it’s a little rough making your way over the paving stones to the gate. Once inside, however, the paths are smooth and there are ramps between the various areas which are located at the entrance and far end of the gardens.

 

Museo de America

 

Getting there is interesting due to current road works at the Moncloa intersection. We took the metro to that station and the approved way of getting to the museum is to cross the busy dual carriageway, walk up the street opposite with a large public building on your left, walk all the way round the building (avoids steps) and when you get back to the dual carriageway, there is a track heading off parallel to it. Take this track (which looks as if it might have had a railway line along it at some stage and there is a turning on the right after about ten minutes which leads to the road in front of the museum.

 

Close to being fully disabled accessible. The way in is on the ground floor which is where the disabled lavatories are and the lifts to the upper floors. On one of the upper floors, there is a series of sofas arranged in a group for those who are getting fatigued.

 

The cafeteria is a bit of an anomaly appearing to be up several stairs without disabled access. However, after a bit of exploration and deduction, my husband discovered that the way to it was through an obscure door at the back of the temporary exhibition by the shop and with the help of a guard, we managed to get through. You can’t access the upper floor of the cafeteria which looks out over the gardens but at least you can get a drink.

 

Overview

 

We only scratched the surface and there were many other sights we would have liked to have visited – the Royal Palace was closed to visitors on the day we tried. Madrid is challenging to get round, but it is possible with a bit of effort and planning.

 

Don't miss Mark & Margaret Edward's other journeys to these destinations:

 

Venice '06

Milan '06
 

Ravenna '07

 

Bologna '07

 

Amsterdam '07

 

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