Wheelchair Travel to Venice, Italy
by Mark & Margaret Edwards © 2006
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.
While this city of water does not fully embrace wheelchair travelers, they remained undeterred in their quest to navigate its many bridges and buildings. They did their research, then focused on accessing such historical; venues such as St. Marks, the Doges Palace, the Academia and many other attractions.
We did Venice with a wheelchair - my husband lost 10lbs in a week and we did manage to tear one of the front wheels off it - but he got it back into place. So it’s not impossible, just a bit challenging.
Planning is the key to the visit. Venice isn’t as big as you might expect and can be crossed on foot in just over an hour. However, with a wheelchair to manage, if you want to get about with the minimum of effort, time spent in poring over the many maps which are available is essential. One of the most helpful sites to start with is http://www.comune.venezia.it/handicap/guida/sgiorgio_isola.asp
This leads into maps of accessible areas, suggested itineraries and details of the sights. The latter section is in Italian only. Detailed maps are available at (http://english.comune.venezia.it/mappe/disabili/piantina_eng.asp
.I’d like to say they were fully accurate but the “disabled” route across Piazza S Marco in reality goes down three unmarked steps which can be a bit of a surprise (there is an alternative route we discovered via Bacino Orseolo). So be prepared for the unexpected.
You have a choice – either to work your way about on land or to use the vaporetti - the latter will be less tiring, but you will miss out on a lot of local detail. Remember, there are only three bridges across the Grand Canal, and both those at the Rialto and Accademia look like the north face of the Eiger as you approach them and are as about as welcome. In addition, there are a very limited number of bridges which are fitted with lifts – the majority are in the S Marco area, one in the eastern District with one on Murano and two on Burano. The lifts are operated by keys which are available from APT offices. The best one to approach is the S Marco office which is on the right hand side under the archway approaching the Piazza from Szda S Moise or telephone +39 041 5415887. Not all these lifts are likely to be operational – we found that around half were out of commission. Furthermore, the instructions provided were unclear but my husband finally managed to solve the process during an after-dinner ramble.
Then decide precisely what you want to see.
For museums, http://www.museiciviciveneziani.it/main.asp?lin=EN
gives access to a site providing location, opening times and layouts as well as what can be seen in all the city’s museums. If it’s a really popular sight, arrange to get there for opening time. However, there are clearly different views on popularity and as in visits to other Italian tourist centres, many people will simply go to see the famous bits which take a few minutes in each building before scurrying onto the next “sight”. For example, during our visit a major Veronese exhibition was in its last week at the Museo Correr. Based on recent experiences at London galleries, we were expecting long queues, having to book, a scrum of people – all the usual challenges. Even though it was a wet afternoon, the rooms were almost empty, allowing a leisurely and unrestricted view before moving through the rest of the museum.
Do you book in advance for “sights”?
On balance, it wasn’t necessary. In late May, we visited the Basilica, Doge’s Palace and Accademia around opening time. The only delay was at the Doge’s Palace where my husband had made a booking and the staff rejected the forms for lacking a reference number.
The Chorus card giving access to churches was available at a concessionary rate. The museums either waived entrance fees altogether or sought a nominal payment. The Venicecard although available to disabled travellers is not worth it.
The Sanitrans water taxi (arranged in advance through our hotel for €65 exclusive of tip or direct on + 39 041 523 99 77) from Marco Polo was a wonderful experience: collected by the two man crew at arrivals, we were assisted onto the shuttle bus which runs to the landing stages from the terminal – about five minutes drive and the bus is fitted with an access ramp so there is no problem in getting on. At the landing stage, a scissor lift on the motor boat allowed my wife to be wheeled on in complete safety and lifted down into the cabin. A rather bouncy ride across the lagoon to the city was followed by a superb trip down the Grand Canal in brilliant afternoon sunshine (rather than the more rapid route via Rio Pieta) culminated in landing at a private pier and accessing the hotel through some government offices complete with armed guards. It was such a good experience that we used Sanitrans for the return journey. The alternative is to take an Alilaguna ferry from the airport. This takes around an hour depending which route is used and there is space on each boat for two wheelchairs. http://www.alilaguna.it/?funzione=120&fascia=0&idstazione0=0&idstazione1=0
gives access to the Alilaguna timetables and route maps for regular services from the airport to the City.
The disabled access map of Venice shows the areas around each waterbus stop which can be accessed without crossing a bridge. The secret therefore is to use the waterbus system to move between these zones and to travel on land within them. For example, the route that everyone takes from St Marks to the Accademia involves crossing five bridges plus the seriously daunting Accademia bridge. Get onto a Line 1 waterbus at St Marco Vaderossa and two stops later, you are dropped off directly in front of the Accademia.
gives access to online timetables while the Hellovenezia website at http://www.velaspa.com/en/orari_fr.html provides both on-line and a downloadable timetable which can be printed off and is in both Italian and English. It also includes separate maps of the various routes which are less confusing than a single general map. This is a really useful document and was vital to planning.
The waterbuses themselves are highly reliable and with wheelchair access to those on most routes. We can vouch for lines 1, 82, Lagunanord . Unlike UK public transport, they turn up on time and on the popular routes, if the boat is full, there’ll be another one along in a few minutes. Many landing stages have electronic displays showing the next arrivals with times and destinations. Wheelchairs are accommodated in the covered area immediately behind the bridge which gives good views off to either side in you can fit yourself into a corner against the stern cabin. The landing stages are all floating and therefore (in theory) are on a level with the boat deck when you land or embark. The ramps to the stage from dry land move with the tide – yes, this is the Mediterranean or rather the Adriatic and so there are tides. Of course, due to waves on the canals, there is a tendency for the landing stage and boat to move up and down out of sequence. Moving on and off the boat can requires a bit of skill and choosing the right moment – best when what you are moving onto is above where you are - but the crew will ensure that the boat is kept secure against the landing stage and will offer help. The only problem we had was slightly bending a front wheel through a rather exuberant disembarkation which my husband bent back into place. The waterbuses are free for disabled users and helpers are supposed to pay €3.5 on routes outside the central area. In reality, a great deal of flexibility is shown, including staff calling disabled users to the head of the queue.
Without doubt one of the most dramatic routes is up the Grand Canal from S Marco at dusk. Lights flickering on the water, illuminated buildings, cafes on either bank – and its free! It’s worth going all the way up to Roma and then taking another boat back to S Marco, sitting on the opposite side to get another view coming back.
St Marks Basilica
Unmissable. Disabled access into the Basilica during the morning only is by a doorway from the Piazzetta dei Leoni on the north side of the church controlled by an attendant and currently surrounded by building works. At other times, I understand it is closed off and you have to find an attendant – we didn’t visit in the afternoons, so I can’t comment on what happens. This side entry also doubles as access for worshippers. Although the parts for a ramp system were stacked up inside the door and could have been in use at some stage, we found that the way in was over a raised step which was just wide enough to pull the chair up onto it backwards, turn it very carefully through 180 degrees so it didn’t slip off and now facing the right way, carefully let it down the other side. Once inside the porch, a ramp runs up into the chapel and there are no more steps throughout the main body of the Basilica unless you want to look at the Pala d'Oro. A charge is made for this and the area is only accessible via steps to the immediate right of the altar and through a turnstile, returning the same way. There is space just before this area to leave a chair out of everyone’s way.
Arrive at the Basilica around 15 minutes before the main doors are opened and you can enjoy the interior in some peace before everyone else is let in. This is at the end of Mass so it is expected, quite properly, that you will be quiet. You will be restricted to a side chapel behind a barrier until the service finishes, but you can see a great deal from there. Although it is claimed that visitors are limited to ten minutes (and probably most only stay ten minutes as they come in groups and are marshalled through intensively by their guides) there are plenty of corners to get you out of the flow and no-one seems to be too worried if you go against the flow . A pair of binoculars is strongly recommended to help in viewing the ceiling mosaics.
It is now possible to get up to the Museo Marciano where the originals of the four bronze horses are on display together with displays of mosaics, tapestries and books and to look at the ceiling mosaics from a different and closer vantage point. Disabled access was not advertised in any way and only came to light when my husband clambered up the steep stairway to the Museum and spotting a lift in a corner, made some enquiries. It is also challenging. Ask one of the attendants: the way from inside the Basilica is down a flight of steps to the left of the altar and then left again into the cloister. It may be possible to enter through an office building which faces onto the Piazetta dei Leoni, which involves fewer steps – we came out that way and it was physically a lot easier but you’re dependant on what the staff will allow you to do. Once in the cloister, two more steps and the lift from a storeroom takes you up to the first level of the museum. An attendant will wait to take you to the second level and also operate the two stair lifts when you need them. The stairlifts are narrow and will only take a standard wheel chair but will deliver you to the area where the original horses are on display and allow you to look down the nave. The view is well worth the effort. The museum has WCs on the first level.
One of the easier ones. The entrance from the Molo San Marco is on the level but tickets are only available from the office on the left-hand side as you enter which is up some steps. Once into the Palace courtyard, the disabled WC is next to the general lavatories on the right hand side and is kept locked – the key is available from the attendant in the general toilets and because the entrance to these is unisex, there can be a queue to be worked around.
Access to the upper floors is via a lift from the cafeteria at the end of the central courtyard again on the right hand side. Attendants will operate it for you and were very helpful. A great deal of the floor space is accessible with ramps up to the ballroom area which is incredible. The Palace does get very busy but during our visit people tended to come in groups, leaving spaces between them to see everything if you were patient – and a lot of what you really want to see is high up in the rooms.
The Secret Itinerary – reputed to be one of the best tours in Venice – can’t be done in a wheelchair.
Difficult but worthwhile: An elegant flight of stairs runs up from the main entrance in the arcade running under the museum by the post office. I left my wife there and went up to the ticket desk on the first floor to arrange for an attendant to operate the lift, which is accessed from Calle Larga Ascension which runs down to Bacino Orseolo. Best to go down in the lift with the attendant so you know precisely where it comes out. It is a very small lift and while it can be accessed via a ramp, we had to fold the wheelchair up to get it in and my wife had to stand.
Once on the first floor, it’s very straightforward and you can happily ramble though to the Archaeological Museum and Library but to get to the second floor – which is strongly recommended because of the paintings there – including the famous “Two Venetian Ladies on a Terrace” by Carpaccio - requires another small lift which is well hidden accessed by ramps and difficult to get into.
Described as “fully accessible”. Close but not quite accurate. To get there, you have a choice of disembarking at the Ca Rezzonico vaporetto stop and crossing a wooden bridge to the front of the building or taking an 82 to Zattere and walking for about half a mile over what appears to be a bridge-less terrain. “Appears” is the word because the steps of the Ponte S Barnaba just as before you arrive at the museum extend across the pavement you will want to use. But it is a pleasant walk, taking you past There may be a way around them, but we went for assertive action here. Anyway, once at the Ca Rezzonico, there are only a couple of steps down into the entrance foyer. Lift, WC and café are fully accessible. However, one room on each floor is not accessible due to steps and the attic gallery over the main top floor is step access only. Also, as is to be expected in Venice, some of the floors are decidedly off line and uneven so some care with the chair is necessary.
Something of a challenge but well-worth all the effort, despite the look on my face in the photos my husband saw fit to take. Three steps up into the entrance foyer and then two long flights of stairs to the main floor. A stair climber is available and having called in advance with a day and time to visit there was only a delay of a couple of minutes before it was encouraged into operation. However, once on the first floor, there were two further sections of a couple of steps each to be negotiated but once past these, the floor was open. Disabled WC about halfway round. Locked but key available from attendants. More steps to be negotiated on the way out before heading down the two main flights again with the assistance of the climber.
One of the easiest. Disabled access is through the doors accessing the WCs from the entry courtyard and then into the cloakroom and then the main hallway. If locked, the key can be sorted out at the ticket desk. Lift to all floors. Very accessible. However, a question mark does exist over the contents – in addition to some very well known works, the gallery contains some late C19th /early C20th examples of doubtful meaning and value!
Steps into foyer but believe ramp can be provided. Lift to upper floors access from ground floor by temporary ramp. Could only access first floor during visit due to some unspecified technical problem with the top floor. Access to loggia on first floor up step.
Flight of steps up to first floor where the displays are, internal steps. WC. Access very complicated.
Very difficult. Two flights of stairs to first floor. Promised stair lift has not materialised.
Scuola Grande del Carmini
Difficult – steps to ground floor and two flights of stairs to upper floor.
Scuola Grande di San Rocco
Difficult – two steps up to entrance on ground floor and two long flights of stairs to the first floor. Stair climber seen but not in use. Suggest calling ahead to make arrangements because the first floor is incredible and worth the effort.
Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni
Steps to the ground floor and a stairs to the first floor. In reality, it’s the ground floor which is the interest with the famous sequence of paintings by Carpaccio showing St Augustine with his fluffy little dog, St Jerome with his Lion
A very limited number of bridges have been fitted with stair lifts. They do not always work so don’t rely on being able to use them. Of the four which we tried, only one was in working order.
The instructions which are available at http://www.comune.venezia.it/letturagevolata/up/paragrafi/ih/schede/Istruzioni%20servoscala%20in%20inglese.doc aren’t very clear. In fact, they a total puzzle until you realise that one of the keys unlocks the lid on the lift itself to reveal the control panel.
There is a separate lift for each side of the bridge and the “rest” position is at the top of the bridge to which the lift will return automatically if not used after 10 minutes. Each lift has a control pillar at the bottom of the rails on which it runs.
If the lift is not in the rest position, it is called by inserting the key in the pillar, turning it and pressing the button
When the lift has reached the bottom of the rail, open the cover to the control panel on the lift itself – this is secured by a lock on the top of the panel.
Loos – there is a habit of fitting very low lavatory pans without seats. While the latter is inconvenient, the level of the pan is difficult and requires careful manoeuvring – even more interesting if the lights go out as well if they are on a timer!
Flooding – Venice does have a flooding problem which can be serious. However,
http://www.comune.venezia.it/maree/en_previsione.asp will give you a forecast for the next three days ahead if you’re worried.
Hotel – we stayed at the Violino d’Oro, which has a specific disabled room with bathroom on the second floor overlooking the canal. Ramps into the hotel and into the breakfast room on the ground floor, excellent lift, wide doors in the disabled unit and a huge bathroom with grab rails and easy access shower. Very helpful staff – recollect it was €250 per night including breakfast (decent with good coffee) with a 10% discount for cash.
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