Switzerland, Paris & Versailles 2003
by Hilton Purvis & Loretta Jakubiec © 2003
All photos courtesy of
Hilton Purvis & Loretta Jakubiec © 2003

My wife and I have returned from a two-week tour through Switzerland and France (Paris) and thought you might be interested in some feedback. I am permanently confined to a wheelchair through spinal muscular atrophy. For the purposes of travel evaluations, please bear in mind that I am lightweight, my folding manual wheelchair was narrow (55cm / 22” overall), and that we enjoy “walking” as much as possible. We generally “hit the streets” at around 09h30, and return to our accommodation after 22h00. The “access” discussed here was obviously from a wheelchair point-of-view. 

  Conversions : 1 US Dollar = 0.9 Euro ()

1 US Dollar = 1.5 Swiss Franc (CHF)

1 mile = 1.6 kilometres (km)

1 yard = approx. 1 metre (m)

Loretta dropped her briefcase in the hallway after one particularly stressful August day in the office and said, “I need a break!”. Her tone had an air of finality to it, so I asked, “What have you done in the past that you would like to try again?” Her reply was, “I went to the Jungfrau in 1982 and it was misted in, and I was in Paris for one day in 1980 and it was freezing!”   So, armed with those pointers I fired up the trusty Internet and e-mail, and within a week had a two-week holiday wrapped up.

Switzerland

We landed in Zurich on a cloudy mid-September afternoon, picked up our hire car, found our hotel despite the best efforts of the one-way street signs, dropped our luggage, and hit the streets. After thirty minutes, it started drizzling and our walk changed into an early supper, but fortunately that was also the last we saw of any rain for the next nine days! 

Zurich was small, and relatively flat, making wheelchair travel easier. It was also a city with a high proportion of cyclists, so virtually every curb has been bevelled or level with the road. Perfect! The older portion of the city North of the Limmat River was cobbled, a problem for solo wheelchair travellers, but if you have able-bodied push power it was do-able.

We started by taking a two-hour cruise around the Zurichsee (CHF 6 each). Our walking took us to the Fraumunster cathedral with its stained glass windows by Chagal, the imposing Grossmunster, and down Barnhofstrasse, famous for its 1.5km of non-stop designer label and brand stores. All a bit opulent for us working class folk, but it was fun to dream. In the Bahnhofstrasse we even found a circular glass wheelchair public telephone booth, complete with accessible e-mail keyboard. Amazing!  The Barnhof railway station has a huge ground floor hall flanked by various travel-related offices, but go underground and there was an even bigger shopping mall.

 

Hilton enjoying sunny Lucerne.

 

Lauterbrunnen

Lucerne, in the shadow of Mt. Pilatus, was our lunchtime stopover en-route South to the Alps. It was home to the 14th- century wooden Chapel Bridge, badly damaged by fire ten years ago, but now restored. There was a wheelchair lift at either end of the bridge.

For the Jungfrau Region, we adopted the principle of giving it three full days in the hope that at least one of them would be good for mountaintop exploration. The weather gods looked kindly upon us and granted us three days of glorious sunshine and no wind. With the mountaintops as our primary destinations, we chose to stay in the little village of Lauterbrunnen. Nestled between the mountains, it has the classic Swiss chocolate box scenery of green meadows, cows with their bells, pitched-roofed wooden Swiss chalets, steep cliffs, and snow capped peaks towering above. Brilliant stuff.

Our first mountain peak was the Jungfraujoch (alt. 3454m), reached by cog railway, taking approximately an hour and a half from Lauterbrunnen Railway Station. We noticed wheelchair hoists at the railway station, but the porters took one look at my small wheelchair and lifted me on and off in a second. The rail line was built in 1910, making this construction quite remarkable, particularly the last 40 minutes of the journey inside a tunnel carved into the solid rock of the mountain top. The route passes through Wengen (a car-free mountainside village) and one changes trains at Kleine Scheidegg where the Eiger towers some 2300m above you. Once at Jungfraujoch, there were a number of things to do, ranging from plain gaping at the magnificent view across the ice shelf and down the glacial valley, to walking on the ice-cap, husky dog sleigh rides, and walks inside the glacier’s “Ice Palace” and its sculptures. From the open-air viewing deck, one can see across into Germany, France, and Italy, truly a view from the top of the world. We spent over four hours on Jungfraujoch and weren’t bored for a minute.

Jungfraujoch

The following day, keeping with the fine weather, we decided to tackle the Schilthorn (alt. 2970m). It uses a network of four separate cable cars to reach the summit, no railway this time. Each and every cable station, from the bottom to the top, was perfectly accessible, and I could have done the trip in my powerchair! The Schilthorn mountaintop station was smaller than Jungfraujoch, so activities were limited to walking out onto the mountain (able-bods only), the open air viewing deck, the revolving restaurant (“I could have sworn there was a mountain behind you a moment ago”) and a movie/slide show of the region. On the viewing deck, you were at eye level with the Eiger, Monche and Jungfraujoch peaks, an awesome sight. On route back down to the valley floor, take some time out to get off at the hamlet of Murren (also car-free). It offers a very scenic, and accessible, walk though the town along the cliff edge. We grabbed a cup of coffee at one of the cafés and soaked up the view in glorious afternoon sunshine. Some folks were more daring and paraglided down from the Schilthorn. Now that must be quite a ride!

While in the Lauterbrunnen valley, Loretta visited the Trummelbach Falls (not wheelchair accessible), a series of interlinked falls inside the mountain. Plenty of water, even at the end of the hottest summer in living memory, and a thunderous noise as it was channelled through the narrow gorges.

On our third day in the Jungfrau, we took the hire car over the Susten Pass (2224m), then the Gotthard Pass (2108m), through Bellinzona and on to Lucarno, on the shores of Lake Maggiore. It has a Switzerland-on-the-Mediterranean feel about it, scenic, affluent, and with a beautiful shorefront promenade. On the return journey, we took the 17km-long Gotthard Tunnel, completed for road traffic in 1980, but running trains for one hundred years before. The Susten Pass provided some fantastic Alpine scenery.

The Bern Bridge

Our last Swiss destination was the capital Bern, and more specifically its medieval “Old Town”. Although the streets were cobbled ,the sidewalks were smooth and easily negotiated. On our first afternoon in Bern’s Old Town, while walking down just one of its streets, we encountered three power chairs, and five manual chairs, all being used by “genuinely” disabled people. We spent a day walking around the Old town, through the arched sidewalks, the famous bear pit, and the sidewalk café of Gfeller’s. It was strange to see the top designer watch stores displaying 10000 watches in street windows, at night, with no apparent concern for security.

With that we had to bid farewell to Switzerland and its glorious weather, and catch the SBB to Geneva, and then the TGV on to France.

Total days in Switzerland                 :   8

Total distance driven in hire car       :   800km  (500 miles)

Total distance walked in wheelchair             :   25km  (16 miles)

Some comments on Switzerland . . . 

France: Paris & Versailles

France (Paris)

The TGV deposited us at Gare De Lyon in Paris on a very hot Sunday afternoon, and rather than try and navigate the accessibility of the Metro we opted to catch a taxi to the hotel (10). After depositing our luggage we hit the streets and headed just two roads down to the river Seine.

Paris was a huge, sprawling, city of over 10 million people. Most of the buildings being no more than four or five storey’s high, so sprawl it does!  With this in mind, and a questionable public transport system (access wise), we had decided to stay as close as possible to the main tourist attractions. Our apartment in the Les Halles arrondissement (district) put us just 10 minutes walk from Notre Dame, and 5 minutes from the Pompidou Centre, and 15 minutes from the Louvre Museum. We were central.

Paris Skyline

The setting sun shining on the stone face of Notre Dame was striking on that first evening and the warm weather had brought everyone out to the banks of the Seine. A large group of farmers from the La Garonne Region of France were promoting their produce along the bank, and rather than seek out a restaurant for supper we bought some freshly cooked beef on baguette’s, cheese, and red wine from the farmers. Finding a space on the river bank we ate our supper and drank our wine with the city lights twinkling all around us. What a way to start the trip!

It’s worth mentioning that on Sunday’s, from May to October, the roads running immediately next to the Seine are closed to traffic. Parisians, their skateboards, roller blades, prams, and no doubt wheelchairs take over for the day, enjoying the freedom provided to them.

The wonderful welcome that Paris had provided for us on the first evening boosted our energy levels and the next morning we tackled the Voie Triomphale (Triumphal Way) “on foot”. This route takes in the Louvre, Tuileries, Place de la Concorde, Champs Elysees, Arc de Triomphe, and La Defense. We covered 18km in the wheelchair!

The Place de la Concorde, where the revolutionary’s guillotined 1300 people between 1793 and 1795 and now home to the Luxor obelisk, was advertised as an example of Paris’s famous traffic circles where one can watch “organised chaos”. We found it to be quite orderly, but were amazed at the traffic gymnastics on show around the Arc de Triomphe. It was an extraordinary sight, as six major roads feed traffic onto an eight lane circle with not a single traffic light, traffic policeman, and only stop lines on the road. Cars, buses, trucks and motorbikes enter, criss-cross, and leave the circle from every angle, all at varying speeds.

The Champs Elysees links the Place de la Concorde with the Arc De Triomphe via a broad avenue. Its first half was a tree lined public park, and its second half was the more well known stores and endless café’s. Sidewalk café’s throughout Paris have little doubt where their clientele’s interest lies, all the chairs face out towards the street. Some were even fixed in that position.

La Defense, the end of the Triumphal Way, stood in stark contrast to the older architecture of Paris. It was a very modern, stylish development of high-rise buildings, office blocks, shopping malls, theatres, and statues clustered around a central plaza. It’s Grande Arche, a white marble 112m high hollow cube structure, lines up in perfect symmetry with its more classical sister, the Arc de Triomphe 6km away down the Champs Elysees. For some unknown reason the Grande Arche provides a lift to its top floor, but then presents one with a 35 step staircase to the viewing platform?!  Sadly La Defense was not standing the test of time as well as the rest of the city, with broken paving and grubby surfaces.

The following day we decided to walk a loop that took in the Pompidou Centre, Place de Vognes, Musee d'Orsay and Notre Dame. The George Pompidou Centre (sometimes referred to as the “Inside Out Building” because the support structure, air conditioning, stairways and elevators were located on the outside) was part modern art museum, part exhibition hall, part restaurant. It’s 6th floor offers some of the best views of Paris you can find. Heading further East one passes through the Marais District, known for its old, narrow streets and original buildings. Every now and then one comes across a large double wooden door opening onto the pavement. A peek inside gives one some insight into the homes of Paris’s elite. Your hard earned money doesn’t buy you much in this town, with €3-million just sufficient for a very small apartment (without parking) in some areas. We saw one apartment, smaller than our livingroom, on sale for €650 000!

Place de Vognes was recognised as a example of a classical symmetrical garden courtyard, a perfect square. It makes a good spot to stop and eat a packed lunch under the trees. The Musee d’Orsay was Paris’s 19th century railway station, restored into a very modern and chic museum of impressionist and post-impressionist art. It caters for the period 1848 – 1914, with the Louvre taking care of everything before that, and the Pompidou Centre everything after. Simple. Well worth a visit. The gothic masterpice of Notre Dame (completed in 1345) was generally accessable on the ground level but for a few small steps. With its constant stream of visitors there were always a couple of willing hands if needed. The vaulted ceiling towers above one and the stained glass windows were amazing.

 

Hilton on the Eiffel Tower Viewing Deck  

Picnic at the Louvre

Our third day was given to the Jardin de Luxembourg, Eiffel Tower, and Les Invalides. Crossing the river going South were the formally laid out Jardin de Luxembourg (public gardens) with its large pond on which children sail hired model yachts. Down the various avenues one can find people playing boccia, tennis, or kids riding donkeys. Believe it or not the Eiffel Tower (300m high) was a temporary structure, intended to be dismantled after the 1889 Exposition, and on completion, the tallest structure in the world. When it was left in place there was a public outcry as it was seen to deface the Paris skyline, yet today it was the very symbol of Paris. Wheelchairs can catch the elevator to the second viewing level, but not to the top, for good 360 degree views of the city. Les Invalides functions as a hospital, Napoleon’s tomb, and a military museum. It’s beautiful golden dome can be seen from across the city. Napoleon’s tomb, a grand but somewhat kitsch construction, was not accessible, but we roped an unsuspecting tourist into helping us carry the wheelchair up the 15 shallow stairs into the main hall. The tomb itself is one level down and out of reach (and sight) for wheelchairs.

The next day was dedicated to the Louvre Museum. For an art lover it was one of the world’s greatest gallery’s, requiring many days of visiting (they do issue a 3-day pass), but we could only allocate six or seven hours. It was home to the Mona Lisa, and the Venus De Milo, amongst others. We couldn’t help but feel that both these pieces were wasted in their present museums locations, and certainly the Venus De Milo would be far better shown off in one of the magnificent modern courtyards within the Louvre. The one thing the French do well was design museums and art galleries. They provide plenty, and we mean plenty, of areas for one to sit down, relax, and absorb the work on view. The Louvre was fully accessible by the sexiest wheelchair lift we have ever seen, a round hydraulic design that operates through the middle of the Pyramid’s spiral staircase!  A tip ; even though the Louvre may close at 6pm many of the outside courtyards and squares were open until later. On a pleasant evening buy a takeaway supper and go and sit in one of the Pyramid courtyard’s alcoves, looking across to the Eiffel Tower. It’s a popular venue for Parisians to gather in the evening and watch the sun go down and the lights go up over the city. 

Palace of Versailles entrance plaza

As a break from the hustle bustle of Paris we devoted a day to the Palace of Versailles (interestingly referred to as a “chateau”) with its rambling formal gardens. It was best reached by train, which was for the most part out-of-bounds to wheelchairs, but we were directed to catch the RER (super-metro) at Chatelet to Bibliotheque, and from there change trains for the 45 minute ride to Versailles. 

Be warned, the entrance plaza of Versailles was very large, pure cobbles, and can only be covered with assistance. Once inside the palace things get considerably better, and the gardens were “walkable”. 

 

Versailles Garden Walk

 

Hall of Mirrors

King's Bed

Queen's Bed

The gilded opulence and decadence of the architecture and furnishings was something to be seen, a degree of decoration never to be seen again. Built by Louis XIV and completed in 1715 it was most well known for the Hall of Mirrors, where the Treaty of Versailles was signed at the end of the First World War. 

Out in the gardens one can visit the Grand- and Petit Trianon’s (smaller palaces) and the huge Grande Canal, a sort of 16th century super fishpond on which boats can sail!  There was an accessible toilet, elevators inside the building, and the staff were very helpful.

Versailles Grand Trianon

Others sights to see? . . . Place Vendome with Napoleon’s statue and the Ritz Hotel, the Opera-Garnier, the imposing Grecian-styled Madelaine parish church with its 52 Corinthian columns, the gourmet food stores of Fauchon and Hediard selling a small bowl of glace’d fruit for 300 and a small pyramid of biscuits for 120 !!

An amazing seven days in one of the world’s premier capital cities. We only touched on the well known sights. Like London, it was a city one can return to again and again.

Total days in Paris                              :   7

Total distance walked in wheelchair   :   55km  (35 Miles)

Some comments on Paris . . . 

Accommodation

Haus zur Stauffacherin
Kanzleistrasse 19, 8064 Zürich
Tel : +41 01 241 69 79
Fax : +41 01 241 67 29
e-mail : stauffacherin@bluewin.ch
Room rate : CHF 170.00 per night (incl. breakfast), plus CHF 16.00 for parking.

This was primarily a lodging for women only, but they were prepared to accept couples under special circumstances. Very good wheelchair accommodation. A parking bay, ramp and power operated door to the elevator. Roll-in shower (no grab rails), adjustable beds, spacious, and immaculate! A breakfast room on the same level (with one chair thoughtfully removed!), all topped off with a friendly and helpful staff.

Hans und Marianne Josi  Crystal - Sport und Hotel,
CH-3822 Lauterbrunnen
Tel : +41 33 856 90 90
Fax : +41 33 856 90 99 
Website : www.crystal-lauterbrunnen.ch 
e-mail : info@crystal-lauterbrunnen.ch  
Room rate : CHF 120.00 per night (incl. breakfast).

Good accommodation, fully accessible except for some bathroom limitations that might affect some wheelchair users (depending on chair size, strength, etc). Parking out front, an  automatic entrance door, to elevator. Bath/shower, a motorised adjustable bed, and very spacious and spotless room. Accessible breakfast room on same level (again, with one chair thoughtfully removed!), and a very friendly and helpful staff.

Business Hotel Waldhorn
Waldhöheweg 2, Ch-3013 Bern
Tel :  +41 31 332 23 43
Fax : +41 31 332 18 69
Website : www.waldhorn.ch
e-mail : hotel@waldhorn.ch
Room rate : CHF 146.00 per night (incl. breakfast).

Good business hotel type of accommodation, 1980’s style but spotless, and accessable with assistance. Parking out front, automatic entrance doors to elevator. Large bathroom with bath (and handshower), grab rails at toilet only. Free Internet/e-mail access. Breakfast room in basement accessible by elevator, and helpful staff once again.

Citadines Les Halles
4 rue Des Innocents, 75001 Paris
Tel : 01 40 39 26 50
Fax : 01 45 08 40 65
Website : www.citadines.com
e-mail : leshalles@citadines.com 
Room rate : 142.00 per night (studio).

Superb location, apartment style hotel with small kitchenette. Well used, but very clean. Accessible but with reservations (rollout bed very low). Large bathroom, bath/handshower (taps tricky to reach), grab rails. Free Internet/eMail access. Probably best value-for-money disabled accommodation in Paris. Less expensive accommodation can be found on the outer ring of the city, but that would require daily commuting, which could be problematic. 

Planes, Trains, Buses, Ferries, Taxis, Cars

British Airways must get a tremendous pat on the back for providing four hassle free flights. In London, Zurich and Charles De Gaulle airports we were escorted through the buildings and given assistance with luggage.

After the lesson learned in New Zealand when we hired a car from a smaller company, only to have it break down on us, and then incur costs to get it replaced, we chose Holiday Auto (operated by Hertz) in Switzerland. We paid less than 300 for 7 days, unlimited mileage, for a manual shift Ford Focus. The driving distances in Switzerland were short, but the roads were busy and very narrow with no run-off so travel times can be longer than expected.  Petrol costs for the 800km driven amounted to CHF 76.

The Bern railway station, the departure point to Geneva and then on to France, was accessable and while the train was not roll-on there were plenty of willing hands to help. The TGV system in Geneva was another matter entirely. The first “signs” of potential problems could be sensed when we found no customs officials in place at all. In fact there appeared to be very little staff at the station in general, but lots of confused looking commuters!  We asked the station official about which coach to use for wheelchair access and were bluntly told that it was not his job, ask the conductor. We boarded the train (with great difficulty) in the coach matching our ticket, but queried it with the conductor since there was obviously no access to a toilet. He told us he would sort things out once we were under way?  At the next stop, when another passenger and her children laid claim to our seats the local conductor wanted to throw us off, and even began removing my wheelchair!  Fortunately a French speaking fellow passenger intervened and told him to stop harassing us. The journey went ahead fine from then on, but we cannot recommend the TGV.  

Within Paris one has the Metro and RER systems of underground rail. Neither were fully accessable, so they can only be used if both your departure and arrive stations were accessable, and you have no change-overs. They have modern elevators installed in some stations for wheelchair users, but they break down, thereby rendering the station instantly inaccessible. On our Versailles day trip the elevator at Bibliotique worked for the outbound journey, but was broken on our return. In a bizarre twist the elevator was also broken at Chatelet and we had to deal with Metro staff sending us off in different directions to elevators which we never found. In the end two military policemen carried me out of the underground!  It took us 55 minutes from Versailles to Chatelet, and 60 minutes to get the next 5m up to ground level!  Aahhh!, if only architects would learn that fancy technology was quite useless when it was unreliable. How much better would things be for us wheelies if they simply used good old fashioned ramps?!

Paris has a fleet of lowered floor buses that operate on the main city routes. The bus numbers were marked with the international wheelchair symbol on all of the stops where they operate. We used them on two occasions, but were unable to determine how one was supposed to pay for the ride since the wheelchair access door was halfway down the bus, and the ticket machine was at the front. On both trips the driver did not stop long enough to allow for payment. A tip ; make sure you’ve got good wheelchair brakes when riding the buses!

Taxi’s were readily available. The taxi ride from our hotel to Bern railway station was CHF 15. We used a taxi again on arrival in Paris to get from Gare De Lyon to the city centre (€8), and from our hotel to Charles De Gaulle airport on departure (45). Many of them were spacious vehicles such as the Renault Scenic, or Citroen Picasso which helped with the luggage, wheelchair, etc.

Food   

For us, an integral part of travelling was the “fooding” experience!  On this trip however we found eating out to be very expensive (on our depreciated currency).

In Switzerland a pizza or plate of pasta will set you back CHF 16 – 19. Add meat, poultry or fish to the equation and the price goes up by another CHF 4 – 6. Our cheapest Swiss supper was CHF 18 each, and our most expensive CHF 26 each, the average being CHF 21 each (this was for one plate of food, no starters, no desserts). Expect to pay anything around CHF 4 for a cup of coffee or CHF 7 for a very small glass of wine. In Bern we discovered the Markthalle (food hall) which was home to a collection of European, Oriental and Eastern restaurants and bars. The food was excellent and the prices manageable.

In France the traditional plat du jour (plate of the day) was €6 - 8 or more depending on the arrondisement. A cup of coffee was approximately €3.50, a glass of house vin rouge (red wine) about the same. Our cheapest Paris supper was €7 each, and our most expensive €12 each, the average being €10 each (one plate of food, no starters, no desserts). The “restaurants” were pricey (€30+ per head), the brasserie’s, café’s and bistrots considerably cheaper. The bistrot’s and café’s were crowded and noisy, with patrons sitting shoulder to shoulder, but they have a vibe. The more crowded they were the better they were, that’s why they’re crowded!

The French “MonoPrix” food chain proved to be an excellent option to buy baguette’s, cold meats, cheese, pate’s and wine. We then made up our own sandwiches and carried them in the wheelchair’s backpack. A packet of cold meat, pate, bread and fruit which provided the two of us with packed lunches for three days cost €15. When a street fresh produce market crosses your path try and take advantage of the opportunity to buy. 

In Closing

A most enjoyable holiday. It showed us that historical Europe can be wheelchair accessible. The trip was hastily organised, and finding accessible accommodation proved to be difficult at first, but ultimately successful if one was determined and kept searching. The Swiss tourist authorities were able to provide some pointers towards accessible accommodation, the French were not able to offer much. 

Australia and New Zealand retain our highest rating for wheelchair accessable destinations, but Switzerland and Paris were up there with the best of them. Based on past tour review feedback some folks find our comments a bit forthright, but we say it the way we see it. We have repeatedly proved that traveling in a wheelchair was neither daunting, nor limiting, and hope our experiences will be of benefit to anyone who may be planning a tour. Please do not hesitate to contact us should you require any additional information.

Hilton Purvis  &  Loretta Jakubiec
e-mail  :  hiltonp@telkomsa.net
Tel & Fax  :  +27 21 789 1114

P O Box 371, Noordhoek, 7979, South Africa

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