Travelling has always been a big part of my life. No wonder, that after leaving hospital in February 2012 I started thinking about it almost straight away. How would I do that now being on the wheelchair…? One was sure, it would not happen as often as before. After checking all the technical issues of travelling on a wheelchair and making a first flight to visit my family, it was time for planning the actual trip. Countries and islands of Mediterranean sea have always been one of my favorite destination for a trip. There are many islands to explore and one of them is an Italian island, Sicily with its still active volcano – Etna. This first year after leaving National Rehabilitation Hospital was a year of preparing myself and planning those several days of summer 2013. I quickly realised that there was much less to choose from all the places to stay in (hotels, hostels, guesthouses). And of course, it took much more time to book any. The priority is to make sure that the accommodation is adapted for your special needs. We all know how it might be in a real life. As I am a mountain lover, the mount Etna was my main target of this trip. I bought a crosscountry handcycle and trained as much as I could. I checked every possible accommodation around the volcano and also checked all trails cyclists use when cycling up Etna. There is one that leads the cyclists all the way up almost to the main crater . A couple of months before the trip our flights and all the hotels were already booked. In most guide books quite often it is mentioned that Sicily is not wheelchair friendly. Old cities with streets and sidewalks made of cobblestones and historic places are often located on a hilly terrain. But of course, not all of them. Unfortunatelly, it was not possible to rent a car with handcontrols. This is still a major problem in Europe. Only some places have them but I have not tried those, yet. Lucky me, I was not on my own and the duty of being a driver was my wife’s while I was her pilot; and she needed one as the route I planned ran across the whole island from Catania on a west side to Trapani on an east side. Our first target was naturally the volcano Etna and its surroundings. I found a nice guest house on the slopes of this mountain.
Agriturismo Biologico dell’Etna
No doubtly you need a car if you are a wheelchair user and want to visit this place as it is quite far away to the nearest shops or restaurants and the sourroundings are not too wheelchair friendly. If you have a car and want to use this place only for sleepover, easily book this place. Otherwise, I would not recommend it. During the summer, breakfast is served outside and to get there you need to go through old paving tiles, grass and small slope. (about 10 meters total). Kitchen is a little tight. In the bedroom, you might ask to move the bed to the side if there is not enough room to get in. All these drawbacks are of no significance really, if all you need is a 100% accessible bathrom (there is just about 2cm high threshold around the shower). All in all, the guesthouse was very nice and quiet. I would get back there, especially for those breakfasts under the kiwi trees.
The cable car takes tourists from 1900m above the sea level (you can get there by car) to 2500m level where people can transfer to the 4×4 cars and go higher. The cable car is very small and narrow – which means, not accessible. I was prepared for it and knew that I would be cycling up the curved trails of ETNA.
It was really hard because of the volcanic dust and steepness. The front, powering wheel simply kept getting stuck and spinning in one place. Then I needed a push (big thanks to my wife and some German guy who was also cycling up the Etna). I made as far as a little bit above the place where the cable car stops. At that point we decided to turn back as it was about 4pm and we still had about 3 hours drive to our next stop in Castlebueno near the famous city Cefalu.
Parking Spaces? Forget them in Sicily. Sure, there are parking spaces for disabled drivers but… usually occupied or very narrow. Driving in this island is a crazy experience. Drivers there don’t care about minor rules on the streets. Once we were honked at because we stopped on the red light (!!??) in front of a tunel entrance. We found out why when we got green and entered the tunnel. We met a few cars facing us from the other side of the tunnel, obviously they entered already on a red light and it was one way road only… yeah, I knew then why we were honked at. Funny experience driving in Sicilly. Don’t do it if your nerves are weak.
We arrived to the hotel at about 9pm and parked on the side of the road as the hotel does not have a car park. Ypsigro is a really nice hotel with ramps and elevator and general accessibilty. There were some little problems in the room and bathroom. It was not possible to get to the bed from its side as there was not enough space to roll in the wheelchair between the bed and the wall. The only way was the back of the bed. Still a bigger problem was in the bathroom. Roll-in shower did not have any grab rails and did not have a mounted stable chair. Only a plastic one and very unstable. I would not recommend this hotel if you travel alone.
Castlebueno is an old town located on the slopes of the Madonie Mountains with some hilly streets (paving stones). If this is not a problem for you I would recommend to visit its centre and stroll around.
The next town to visit was Agrigento on the other side of the island. On the way there, we visited Cefalu for a short beach break and The Villa Romana del Casale in the middle of Sicily – it is a Roman villa built in the first quarter of the 4th century containing the richest, largest and most complex collection of Roman mosaics in the world. There is a wheelchair path and you can see the most of the mosaics but unfortunatelly not all of them.
Agrigento, Antica Foresta Catalana
This time we arrived to our hotel quite early but that fact did not solve the parking issues. The Hotel is located in the very centre of Agrigento which means driving through very narrow streets. When we got to our place there was no free spot to park the car. The receptionists (owner?) just moved two motorbikes beside the hotel enterence while we got off the car in the midlle of the place. Then he parked our car squeezing it in a free spot he made. (a reverse procedure next morning:)) Apart from the fact of the parking issues (at this point, we knew it was just the charm of this island), the wheelchair accessibilty in the hotel was of top quality. Ramps where needed, the room and bathroom spacious. Roll-in shower and toilet with hand rails. As all the previous places, Agrigento is also an old town and a hilly one, too. The central location of the hotel made it easy for me, though. While in Agrigento, we were surprised by a week-long Festival of San Calogero, the “Black Saint,” so we enjoyed street performances, parades and many other shows, like this one. The only thing you have to struggle with is a steepy street down from the hotel to the main promenade. It is about 100 meters long and of course made of cobblestones.
Palermo, Centrale Palace Hotel
Finally, Sicilian Capital! Because it is the main city, we had a positive attitude regarding wheelchair friendliness. I don’t need to mention the parking issues again, as you might already know what it looks like :). The hotel has a private parking but for an extra fee. There is a small 1-2 inches step at the hotel enterance but after you pass it everything is just superb. A wide bedroom and a bathroom with a roll-in shower and hand rails where needed. Everything absolutelly accessible. We had a plan to visit the Catacumbas of Palermo and I found on the internet that it was suppposed to be partialy accessible. Unfortunatelly, it was not and no idea why… (a broken elevator maybe? they did not explain). I suggest contacting them directly if you want to try and visit them anyway. After a visit to Palermos Cathedral and a nice festive weekend in Capitol, La Festa di Santa Rosalia, it was time to hit the road again to our last hotel near the Trapani airport. But before we got there we made a little detour… there was time for some laziness on the most beautiful beach of San Vito Lo Capo. I bought a cheap, inflatable mattress just for a single use. The plan was to somehow push/pull me on it into the sea 🙂 but… what a great suprise I had there! A 100% wheelchair friendly beach with a super nice team! :)))
It was an amazing feeling to play in the sea water again! For the first time since on the wheelchair.
Villa Speransa, Marausa, Trapani
And our last stop: Villa Speransa in a really small village Marausa. This small B&B is great for wheelchair users who land in Trapani on a late evening or like us – have an early departure the next day, it is just a few minutes drive from the airport. It has also disabled facilities to very high standards and… something unusual… a huge, free carpark! There is a nice garden beside and a restaurant with a lovely food. We did not leave the permises of Villa Speransa so I can’t really say anything about the village itself.
Just a little thing worth mentioning about this airport. Generally it’s like most of the small airports but one thing was new for me. Disabled people after checking-in are asked to wait in a disabled-friendly room as they need to be guided to the gate completely diferent way then the rest of passengers. Forget the duty free shopping.
Sicily is definitelly a place worth the second visit. Just a few days is not enough time to see all that the island can offer. I really recommed visiting it. And if you did or want to, contact me, please. The more information we collect the easier we can make it for other wheelchair bound visitors! More info about Sicily trip here.
Thank You. Michal