Tag Archives: Spain

Wheelchair Travel: Bilbao, Spain (Six Stars)

The Guggenheim, Bilbao Spain

 

Helen and I recently went to Bilbao, Spain. We’d had a trip arranged in 2014, but I had disability-related complications at the time that cut the trip short and we didn’t make it.

It remained on our list of places to go, and I am glad that it did. For someone I n a wheelchair, Bilbao (at least the parts we visited) is a dream. I mean like Barcelona-easy. We were there for only three nights and didn’t explore much of the city outside the Old Town (“Casca Vieja”), so this is not intended to be a definitive overview of Bilbao as a whole, but rather an attempt to share with you what the part of the city that we visited was like for wheelchair travellers

Before I go any further, I want to say that in every trip we have made to Spain,we have found that it really helps to have even a very basic ability to speak Spanish. Even just a little. There are free programs available (I like Duolingo a lot for this) on the Internet and tutorials on Youtube that can help you learn to get by. The people of Spain like it when we try, and it will enhance your vacation. Don’t let a lack of ability in Spanish deter you from taking a trip to Spain, however. It can enhance your experience in Spain, but by no means is it necessary to be able to speak even a word of Spanish unless you get out of the more populated areas.

Onward to Bilbao…

The airport is comfortably small, easy to navigate, with the good rolling surface that is typical of airports and there is a manned information booth near the exit. The personnel working the information booth when we visited was very friendly, spoke good English, and was happy to provide us with maps. Outside and to the right there is the stop for the 32/47 bus/ Autobus (this number is correct. It is not two different buses, but rather the number for the bus that runs between the airport and Bilbao and back). The 32/47 bus arrives/departs every 30 minutes at the airport  from downtown Bilbao, and runs the same schedule coming back. Tickets are available just inside the airport right next to the information booth at a clearly marked kiosk and the price is, at the time of this writing, 1.40 Euros each passenger (vs 20.00-26.00 Euros for a cab). Tickets can also be purchased on the bus. The bus has an easy ramp, and so in addition to saving money, we also saved me having to make a couple of transfers into and out o a cab

The bus trip to the first stop from the airport (our stop) took a little over 20 minutes through some beautiful, scenery, including a close pass by the Guggenheim.

Our hotel ( https://www.barcelo.com/en-gb/hotels/spain/bilbao/barcelo-bilbao-nervion/ , good disabled access room) was approximately a mile from our bus stop. The journey was relatively easy, with a working lift at one point where we encountered stairs, and only one stretch that I found difficult (the bridge cross the river. The gradient was ok, but it is paved with a slip-free surface that was somewhat akin to carpet, and so not quite as easy to traverse as a smooth surface). The surface of the sidewalks/pavements was very similar to that of Barcelona, which means that they were easy and cobble-free.

On the East/North side of the river, there is a wide promenade that allows pedestrians and people in wheelchairs to walk/roll along the river without worrying about traffic. Pedestrian crossings are generally signal-lit with an audible assist for people with vision impairment.

The promenade on the east bank of the Nervión river, Bilbao

We had intended to visit the Guggenheim, and found our way to the Museum a short distance from our hotel, and were pleased to find that the entrance and interior of the museum appear to be completely accessible. Unfortunately it was packed with local Bilbao residents who were taking deserved advantage of the Guggenheim’s generous policy of providing free admission to the people of the city. I don’t know if this happens every Sunday or maybe just the last Sunday of the month (when we were there), but for us it meant that we would have had to deal with a crowd unfortunately large in size, and so we decided to skip it, It wasn’t until later in the day that we discovered that the Guggenheim is not open on Mondays.

Important note: The Guggenheim is not open on Mondays.

This freed us up for exploring the Casca Vieja, and so we spent the rest of our holiday in Old Bilbao. This part of the city was for me an extremely easy roll, no hills and only one or two very mild grades, with very little traffic and good rolling surfaces for my wheelchair. Most of the businesses had step-free access, and the weather was nice enough for us to sit outside when we sopped for a meal or a refreshing drink. I was very encouraged by the sheer number of other people in wheelchairs. I saw so many that I started to count them and by the time we left I had counted 23 separate people in wheelchairs in a span of three days. These were not multiple sightings of the same people. I have to say that I take this as a good sign regarding the ease of travel in a city. When there are a lot of other folks in chairs besides myself, it means that it’s easy to get around.

 

An example of the rolling surfaces in Casca Vieja, Bilbao

The weather in Bilbao is not as warm and sunny as Southern Spain, but it was mild enough for me to go out with just a hooded sweatshirt, and it only rained once (at which time we took advantage of some outdoor seating and whiled the time away over several glasses of very affordable wine). We ate outside for every meal, save one (that rainy night), and we enjoyed it.

Important note: Check the weather forecasts before you go and be prepared to bring warmer clothes than would normally be typical for a visit to Spain.

The highlight of our trip, according to my wife, our two dear travelling companions and myself was our “Pintxos Crawl” on our last day. Pintxos (pr Peenchos ) are the Basque take on Tapas; slightly smaller, with somewhat different ingredients. They are consumed–according to the “tradition” of a Pintxos Crawl—one at each Pintxos Bar, along with a drink, before moving on to the next.

My wife did the research as to where we should go, and so by the time she and I left the hotel we had a little list of Pintxos Bars to try, with plans to meet up wth our companions somewhere near the beginning of our crawl. The first three establishments on Helen’s list were unfortunately closed (I believe it might have been because it was a Monday), but by the time we got to the fourth, we found it open and welcoming, with an easily accessible entrance. The counter of food was a little high up for me to be able to really see clearly, but the proprietor was very helpful, and we got two Pintxos and a glass of wine each, and ate outside while we waited for our friends to catch up.

They did and we spent the rest of the afternoon and much of the evening in a slow, relaxing, leisurely stroll from one Pintxos bar to the next. It felt very civilized, and luxurious, and at one Euro eighty for the average Pintxo and the same amount for the accompanying copa de vino/glass of wine , it was very affordable as well. We had several other good meals in Bilbao, but the Pintxos were the stars in the crown.

Important note: I could be wrong, but I believe that Tue-Sat would be the best days to embark on a Pintxos Crawl, as there will most likely be more establishments open.

As far as accessibility, approx 95% of the Pintxos Bars we encountered had step free access. Indoor dining with standard height tables is available in most, but we prefer to eat outside so we did. The standard outdoor dining arrangements at a Pintxos Bar seem to be a high table (chin height for me in my chair) with stools. This was not a problem for me, as I was able to use my stool as a personal table. (see photo, taken at “Gatz”, one of the best places we tried)

Pintxos at the Pintxos Bar

We had a wonderful time in Bilbao with very few if any accessibility issues. We will be back


Wheelchair Travel: Barcelona, Spain

Barcelona III

Of all of the European cities to which Helen and I have travelled, Barcelona is one of our favourites. It has much to offer; from delicious food, the Spanish culture and architecture–including some of Antoni Gaudi’s masterpieces—sweeping vistas of the Mediterranean, shops, restaurants and bars, and best of all, for my purposes, Barcelona has the best wheelchair access of anywhere I have ever been outside of the United States.

In 1992, Barcelona hosted the Paralympics, and the entire city was revamped for those with mobility impairment and other disabilities, and the result is a city so free of obstacles that you can often forget that you are even in a wheelchair while you are there.

Some of the highlights:

  • The “Barri Gotik”. The old section of town dates to medieval times, with “streets” so narrow that there isn’t room for both sidewalk and street, so it’s all on one level. In other words, it’s flat with no curbs, and the paving is made of big flagstones which make for smooth and easy rolling. The Barri Gotik is a fascinating area full of history and dotted with squares and plazas where one can sit and take in the scenery, or enjoy the ambience with a glass of wine or meal at one of the many restaurants with outdoor seating. One can easily spend an entire day meandering through the warren of narrow avenues that make up this section of Barcelona.
barcelona1

In the Barri Gotik

 

  • La Rambla. This is a wide avenue that begins just south of the beautiful Placa Catalunya and runs all the way to the harbour at the city’s edge. La Rambla is split down the middle with a smoothly paved, tree-lined passage for pedestrians (no dodging motor traffic), dotted with cafes and market stalls, as well as a wide variety of street-performers. There is a slight incline toward the sea, but it can be easily managed if the wheelchair user has moderate upper body strength.
  • The ramped curbs/kerbs. In four or five visits to Barcelona over the years, Helen and I have covered a lot of ground, and in all but a very few instances out away from the city center, the curbs/kerbs are universally ramped, and done so at such a slight incline as to be almost un-noticeable. I often have to do a “wheelie” (balance on my back wheels) when coming down a ramped kerb in my home town of London in order to keep from pitching forward out of my chair, but in Barcelona there was never any need. The sidewalks/pavements were generally flat without sideward slopes, and the paving stones are smooth and easy to traverse. One truly can forget that one is in a wheelchair in Barcelona.
  • “Menu  del Dia”. This is a lunch deal (initiated by Franco in an attempt to eliminate the time-consuming practice whereby the workers of the cities would go home for their lunch),  which consists of a set menu with two courses ( starter and main), bread, a beverage ( a beer, soft drink or small carafe of wine) and a dessert, all for around 10-15 Euros. The normal time for lunch in Barcelona is between 1:00 and 4:00pm, and during this time there are many restaurants that serve their version of the Menu del Dia, A restaurant serving a Menu del Dia will advertise this fact with a chalkboard set up out on the sidewalk. The menu is set, but there is some room for choice; fish, meat or vegetarian, for example. It’s a great deal, and a wonderful way to fill up with good food inexpensively.
  • The Mediterranean. It’s a bit of a stroll to get there, but the roads to the beachfront are easy and smooth and with such a slight incline that it makes a journey to the waterfront worth the effort. From the bottom of La Rambla, a left turn will take the wheelchair traveller down the sidewalk, well away from the traffic of Paseig de Colom, and once one gets to the Ronda Literal, it’s easy to cross at the pedestrian crossing (watch the lights as well as the traffic) and head down along the harbor front with the yachts to your right and the outdoor cafes ( they’re expensive, but the seafood in these places can be extraordinary) to your left until one reaches the sea front. There is extensive pathways that allow for a long “stroll along the beach for wheelchair and scooter users. There seems to be something about being able to breathe some sea air and let one’s mind relax with the uncluttered view of the ocean horizon that has a strong rejuvenating effect on a person.
  • Tapas and Paella. Barcelona does these two specialties to perfection.
  • Antoni Gaudi’s structures. The inside of the famous Sagrada Familia church was not open to the public when Helen and I tried to visit in 2006, so I cannot say whether or not there is step-free access to the interior, but the exterior of the temple is unique and elaborately decorated with gothic figures and ornaments and worth the effort of getting there. We did visit his “Casa Pedra”, and although there is a very steep incline down into the building where they direct the wheelchair users, the interior of the structure itself was pleasantly accessible, with a very helpful staff. They even allowed me to take the lift to the roof, where I was hoping to be able to photograph the unusual chimneys and roofline, but unfortunately the accessible space on the roof is a scant 6 feet by six feet and it made me feel claustrohobic. To me it wasn’t worth it, but other wheelchair users might want to take a look and maybe a few photos, so be aware that it is possible and staff members are very helpful and willing to accommodate requests. My favourite part of the tour was the living quarters, where they have left the furniture and decorations of an apartment home in place as they would have been in the 1930’s, when the Casa Piedra was used as a residential block.
  • There are several hotels with fully accessible rooms (roll in showers with shower seat, ample space around the bed, sufficient grab bars in the bathroom, etc) in Barcelona. The “H10” not far from Placa Catalunya on Ronda de la Universitat is Helen and my favourite, but we enjoyed staying at the equally well-located although slightly more expensive “Hotel Jazz” on Carrer de Pelai as well. There are too many restaurants for me to list those with delicious food at affordable prices, but be aware that Barcelona is a haven for lovers of good food, and one is never far from a fine meal in an accessible restaurant in Barcelona, especially near the Barri Gotik.  The Placa Real for example is a lovely square, dotted with palm trees full of wild parrots, and a fountain, with four or five indoor/outdoor restaurants around the outer edge of the square.

     

Barcelona IV

In the Placa Real

 

   

A few tips:

  • Plan your trip for the spring when it’s lovely and warm enough to be able to dine outside, without suffering the heat of Southern Spain in midsummer. Helen and i  have only ever been in January, and while the weather was nice enough most days for us to eat outside, it was a little on the border of being too chilly, and we look forward to going some April or May, a time when the locals advised us that Barcelona weather would be at its best.
  • From the airport, take the Metro Bus if you are going toward Placa Catalunya. The bus will take you directly to the square (Or Placa Universitat, along the way) for a mere 3 Euros as opposed to the 30 Euros it will take you to get there by cab. All of the buses from the airport are accessible, with ramps and space for wheelchair users.
  • Bring a phrase book, and learn some of the basics (“I’m sorry” “Please” and “Thank you” can really help you get along). You don’t need to be fluent, but according to my experiences in Barcelona, you will get treated with more warmth by the Barcelonans if you make a little effort to say at least a few words in their language. Actually, it’s a little more complicated than that, with “Catalan” being the semi official language of Catalunya, of which Barcelona is a part, but almost everyone speaks fluent Spanish, while a surprisingly large portion of the population do not speak any English.
  • Any hotel near the Placa Catalunya will put you in close proximity to almost all of the sights and attractions of Barcelona.
  • Take advantage of the Menu del Dia, and set your activities in accordance with the Spanish Siesta timeframe which results in some businesses being closed from noon until 1pm. Be aware that Barcelonanans tend to eat late, and many restaurants will be devoid of fellow diners until after 8pm.
  • Carrer del Bisbe is the steepest street that I encountered in Barcelona, and I definitely needed assistance from Helen to get up the incline. It’s a beautiful street, but be aware that it’s not an easy trek.
  • Neither Helen nor I have ever had any problems with crime in Barcelona, but there are reported to be pickpockets in some areas, especially the crowds that form around the street performers. A good rule of thumb is to pay attention to your surroundings and pay attention to anyone who approaches you or your companions, but this is true of any city, really. There is a rather seedy neighborhood known as El Ravel to the West of La Rambla where drug dealers, prostitutes and their clients mingle that one would be well advised to avoid, unless one were looking for drugs or prostitutes. The residents of this section of Barcelona are openly hostile to the idea of being photographed.
  • If there is an International football competition (World Cup or Euro Cup) and Spain is playing a match, or of the Barcelona team is playing an important match, it would be a good idea to avoid the crowds after the game, especially if there is a Spanish/Barcelona victory. We’ve never been there during such an event, but there is ample video on the net that indicates that the celebrations can get a little excessive, and it would be dangerous to get caught up in such a crowd in a wheelchair.

In closing, I would give Barcelona high marks for having numerous things to do and see within walking distance of each other, great food and drink, and even higher marks for having the easiest wheelchair access of any European city to which we have yet been. If you’ve ever considered going to Barcelona in a wheelchair, I would go. I think you’ll have a blast.


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