Northern Spain Idyll 2006

by Susan B. © 2006

Susan B. and her husband share their travel tips and experiences while visiting some of the key landmarks of  Northern Spain.

Dinastia Vivanca Wine Museum,  Briones, Spain. Located in northern Spain, south west of Pamplona, right off highway N232 at km.442 This is the largest wine museum in the world and was opened by King Juan Carlos in 2004. The fee is 6 Euros each and you must make a reservation before you visit. However, this is great as it insures that the museum is not crowded. If you are a wine aficionado, this museum tells everything you ever wanted to know about the history and production of wine, barrel and cork making, etc. Tours are self guided, so you can go at your own pace. They offer “phones” in different languages – you press the button matching the display and listen – no annoying ear-phones. The whole gorgeous facility is COMPLETELY handicapped accessible and ramps connect the various floors. There are also elevators. At the end of the tour you get a wine tasting. You can also eat lunch in their restaurant or get more wine and tapas or coffee at their snack bar. We took our wine and snacks to the outside terrace and enjoyed them while overlooking the surrounding vineyards and the Pyrenees Mountains in the background. For reservations, call 34 941 322 323, or have your hotel call for you. I believe you can also reserve via email. They will give you a reservation number that you must present when you enter. Their website: http://www.dinastiavivanco.com/

We also visited one of Spain’s many monasteries. Not all of them are handicapped accessible but Monasterio de Piedra in northern Spain, south west of Zaragoza is. (phone 34 – 976849011, Nuevalos, Zaragoza 50210 Spain). The grounds around the 12th century monastery, now a National Park, include gardens, waterfalls and grottos. There is a wheelchair accessible path around the grounds that accesses some of the waterfalls. If you book a room you must choose the ground floor or the 3rd floor. The elevator only goes to the 3rd floor where the restaurant is located. At first glance, it looks like the hotel entrance can only be reached by stone stairs without railings. However, from the parking lot, there is a ramp that goes to a door on the 3rd floor. From there you take the elevator down to the ground floor and the reception desk. A tour of the monastery ruins is mostly on the ground level. The monastery is expensive, 121.Euros per room including breakfast buffet – but we felt the experience was well worth the cost.  The official name is Parque Natural Monasterio de Piedra, you can email for reservations at parque@monasteriopiedra.com

I had to e-mail in Spanish, but at the hotel the people at the reception desk speak very good English. http://www.monasteriopiedra.com/

El Escorial, the castle/monastery built by Phillip II of Spain in the 1500’s is not HC accessible. The official name is San Lorenzo de El Escorial and it is about a hour’s drive north of Madrid. The entrance and beginning of the tour is flat – then the tour route they suggest directs you to stairs. Because it was said to be HC accessible on their website, I asked (in my very limited Spanish) for a refund. Now I found out about Spanish beaurocracy first hand. At first the people in the office gave me the usual “this is a very old building” run-around, but finally they found a person who spoke English. This very nice man said he would ask his boss about getting my money back, but I did ask him if there was any part of the facility that I could view on the ground level – it turned out that if you enter the suggested tour from the end point, most of it is on the ground level. This official took me to the security guard and explained the situation and I was able to enter at end of the tour. However, the entrance to the Cathedral has a very old wooden door with a threshold one must step over – I was able to get over it with help of my husband, but someone in a wheelchair could not get through.  El Escorial could probably easily arrange an alternate route for handicapped visitors, but apparently they have not thought this through. I only bothered to complain because we were already there. Unless changes are made, don’t bother to visit here.

The Royal Palace in Madrid was a different story. First we visited the cathedral next door which is magnificent and all on ground level. The Palace is accessible but you must ask to use the elevator. I leaned the phrase “Donde esta acceso para minosvalidos?” (Where is the handicapped access?) One of the guards then called another person who led us to a private elevator to see the second floor of the palace. When we were finished with the tour, we were told to contact another guard to be taken via elevator back to the ground floor. They have accessible bathrooms and the coffee shop can be reached by elevator. The Royal Armory Museum is another story. They have a ramp, but even though I saw the same guard here, she told me to enter up 3 steps. I am not in a wheelchair, but perhaps someone who was, would be let in via the ramp. They did however tell me that I could ask to use the elevator  to see the lower level of the armory museum – again, one must tell a guard who has a key. I suspect they do not want all the visitors using the elevators.

Quite a few of the restaurants and Tapas bars in Madrid are on one level – you just have to go by and look. But many bathroom facilities are in the cellar. We stayed at the Hotel Regina in Madrid, which is completely accessible.

This leads to my unpleasant experience in the Madrid Barajas Airport. We flew with Iberia, and on our arrival in Madrid, we had great service. We were met by a woman in Terminal T4S where we arrived. She pushed the wheelchair through the huge new airport and then took us to a small shuttle bus and drove us to Terminal 4 where we claimed our luggage. She refused a tip.

The return trip was a different story. We arrived more than three hours before our flight left for the US and checked in. I was told to go to the customer service counter to get my wheelchair. There were only two people at the counter and there was a long line of people trying to make changes in their flights. After waiting about 20 minutes, a person behind the counter told me to wait. 15 minutes later a person with a wheelchair arrived, but we were told to wait again, now with two other people in wheelchairs and their companions. Finally we were all pushed in our wheelchairs a good distance to another part of the Terminal 4. A number of other travelers in wheelchairs or walking aids were also waiting here. The man who pushed my chair said he would be back “in a minute.” I was concerned because he had both my husband’s and my boarding passes. He told one of the companions to translate for me and that he would be back “soon.” We all sat in a waiting area for at least 30  minutes – there was no nearby flight information and we were afraid to leave the spot to seek out a drink, food or a bathroom because we did not know when the person would return. We were reluctant because when my husband went to get a luggage cart after clearing security, I had to tell my wheelchair pusher several times to wait for my husband – he was going to keep on going. At the waiting spot, a kind Spanish man who understood English heard us talking and went to check an information board for us – he returned and said our gate was “U” – indeed in the other terminal, and now we only had an hour left until our flight left. Finally 3 different wheelchair aids appeared and called out the last names of myself and two other ladies. The three of us and our companions were wheeled to a lower level and into a wheelchair accessible mini bus. We then drove to Terminal T4. After unloading us, we were again put in another staging area and told to wait. A few minutes later, a third set of different wheelchair aids came and finally pushed us to our gate for boarding. I spoke with one of the other ladies who was also unhappy with this arrangement – she had not had a bathroom break since arriving at the airport. So instead of being taken directly to our boarding gate, so that we could relax, have a drink or visit the restroom, we were unceremoniously “dumped” in three different staging areas with no information. For three hours, we had nothing to drink. The flight attendant on the airplane was surprised we were not even offered a drink. An experience like this is enough to discourage disabled people from traveling. I have not yet written my complaints to Iberia, but intend to do so this week.

On the whole, except for the airport, I had a very positive experience in Spain. People were very helpful and patient when they saw that I had a mobility problem.

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