This article is intended as an introduction, a starting point for your research and a way to convey realistic expectations. We hope it will help you plan an access strategy based on your interests, budget and mobility capabilities and limitations. We try to describe in nuts and bolts terms access conditions you may encounter that other sources of information take for granted and, therefore, omit.
Although there are still many barriers in Rome, we were heartened to discover a growing awareness of access and the needs and rights of disabled people. Every day we saw several Romans and tourists in both manual and electric wheelchairs. Good access planning is evident in new construction and major renovations. This article includes bad experiences along with the good ones, but we truly enjoyed our trip and hope to return to Rome. Don’t be discouraged by the barriers; experiencing Rome is well worth dealing with them.
This article covers only access and assumes a basic familiarity with Rome. There are a myriad of superb books and articles about almost every aspect of Roman art, architecture, history, culture, cuisine and daily life, and many excellent travel guidebooks.
In planning our trip we used the Internet and other information sources but not a travel agent. We traveled on our own, not with a tour group. We also toured Florence; for comprehensive, reliable, useful access information in English about Florence, we highly recommend Barrier Free Travel, a Florence-based non-profit dedicated to disability access in Florence and Tuscany. (See Additional Information, below.)
We have tried to be as accurate as possible, but of course accuracy is not guaranteed. The reader should confirm all information, especially access details, directly with hotels, museums, transportation providers and other facilities. As in all research, primary sources are much better than secondary ones. We encountered many gaps, errors and inconsistencies in access information, especially regarding transportation. Quite often, the facts on the ground are better than the information about them. The Roman talent for art, architecture, design, engineering, construction, plumbing, cuisine and many other things doesn’t extend to organizing and disseminating information. Also, things change. It is essential to re-confirm information shortly before acting on it. Note that not all phone numbers in Italy have the same number of digits.
Because one’s physical capabilities, limitations and equipment affect the access achievable under a given set of environmental and design conditions, and one’s point of reference colors one’s perception of access, we’ll tell you about ourselves. Howard has muscular dystrophy and uses an electric wheelchair. On this trip Howard used a Quickie P110 folding electric wheelchair that is 25 (63.5 cm) wide and weighs approximately 100 pounds. It has gel cell batteries. Howard is six feet tall, cannot walk and can transfer to an inaccessible automobile only with great difficulty. Michele is able-bodied. We are fortunate to live in San Francisco, where access is generally excellent.
A form of hotel access questionnaire is Appendix A. You are welcome to adapt it for your own use. A metric conversion guide is Appendix B. A dictionary of key access terms in Italian and a pronunciation guide, both by Cornelia Danielson of Barrier Free Travel, are Appendix C. This article (including the appendices) may not be reproduced or used for profit without our written permission, but readers are welcome to reproduce or use it for any other purpose.
Because of the complex and difficult public transportation situation, staying in a central location is critical unless you are able to transfer easily to a taxi. Being within rolling distance of museums, antiquities, churches, restaurants and shopping saves time, energy, frustration and expense. At least as important, it’s exciting to stay in the heart of the centro storico, where one can roll by the same building or piazza ten times and discover something new and enriching each time. We stayed in an ideal central location one block from the Pantheon. Rolling by the Pantheon and Piazza Minerva several times each day was thrilling. Up to a point, we would forego a large room, stylish atmosphere and contemporary amenities for a great location.
Albergo Santa Chiara. Via Santa Chiara, 21. www.albergosantachiara.com
email email@example.com Phone +39-066-872-979. Fax +39-066-873-144. We stayed at this terrific three-star gem located near Piazza Minerva, one block from the Pantheon. We found out about it from Claudia Young’s article (see Further Information, below) and didn’t do much other research on hotels. The central location is perfect. The lobby is much nicer than it appears on the web site photos. The staff was helpful and professional and breakfast was good. The front entrance is level with the street, with double sliding doors that open automatically. There are three stairs from the lobby to the breakfast room so we ate breakfast in the lobby.
We stayed in the accessible room, Room 120. It is quiet, large and extremely well lit, though without a view or much natural light. It’s pleasant enough that one doesn’t mind spending time in the room for a break from the hustle-bustle of central Rome. The bed is good transfer height and firm but not too firm. The doorways are 90 cm (35′) wide.
The room has two bathrooms, both tiled in travertine. The able-bodied one has a stand-up shower. The accessible one is very large, with a roll-in shower on a gradually sloping floor, a pullout shower nozzle in a large sink and, in lieu of a bidet, a handheld shower unit near the toilet. The shower has well-placed grab bars and a wall-hung pull-down seat that’s quite small. The water is hot whenever desired and very forceful. Both bathrooms have emergency call cords and nice features such as electric towel warmers, large mirrors and effective fans. The accessible one even has two flush buttons for the toilet, one wall-mounted forward of the toilet and one on the toilet. As is typical in Roman accessible bathrooms, the grab bar alongside the toilet is mounted on the back wall and can be flipped up if not needed.
Transfer to the toilet is not ideal but not bad. There is sufficient transfer space on one side of the toilet, but the handheld shower unit, a soap dish and a plumbing fixture protrude several inches from the back wall, and the portion of the back wall next to the toilet is at a slight angle from the portion immediately behind the toilet. One’s wheelchair can’t go all the way against the back wall or completely parallel to the toilet. A complete side-to side transfer isn’t possible, but a side transfer at a moderate angle is; the angle between toilet and wheelchair is much closer to parallel than to a right angle.
There are some barriers that are minor for someone traveling with a companion but potentially significant for a solo wheelchair traveler. The shower spray itself and its controls are too high and the controls lack a temperature indicator. One of the bathroom light switches is inaccessible. Though the lower closet shelves are accessible, the hanging pole is too high and there is no clear path to it. The dresser is large but the drawer handles are far apart and difficult or impossible for most people to reach from a wheelchair. The window controls and curtain pulls are too high.
The largest barrier for us was that the elevator is shallow and the control buttons are difficult to reach. We had to remove Howard’s footplates for his wheelchair to fit in the elevator. With the footplates removed, both of us fit, but just barely. According to hotel personnel, the elevator door opening is approximately 80 cm (31″) wide; we didn’t measure but this seems accurate.
Overall, the Santa Chiara is excellent for wheelchair travelers with a companion and for slow walkers. It might pose difficulties for a solo wheelchair traveler, depending on one’s abilities and reach. Considering the age of the building and the typical Roman constraints, the proprietors have done a very good job in providing access. And the location, plumbing, room size and quiet are difficult to beat!
Grand Hotel Minerva (Crowne Plaza). Piazza della Minerva, 69. Phone +39-06-695-201. Fax +39-06-679-4165. This elegant, five-star hotel in Piazza della Minerva has a steeply ramped front entrance (originally low stairs, which have been paved over to create a ramp) and a celebrated roof bar with a panoramic view. There are several large elevators, but the bar is up two flights of 12 stairs each from the top floor and isn’t served by the elevators. We didn’t inspect the guest rooms.
Albergo del Senato. Piazza della Rotonda, 73.
firstname.lastname@example.org Phone +39-06-678-43-43. Fax +39-06-699-40-297. This three-star hotel facing the Pantheon claims to be accessible, per its website, but there are three stairs at the entrance and we couldn’t find a level alternate entrance. Per the hotel, the elevator is 88 cm x 100 cm and the bathroom door width is 67 cm.
Hotel Cosmopolita. Via Santa Eufemia, 5.
email@example.com Phone +39-06-699-413-49. Fax +39-06-699-413-60. This four-star hotel near Trajan’s Markets, renovated in 2002, has a steep slope at the entrance. There is a large wheelchair accessible bathroom on the ground floor. The desk clerk was friendly and helpful when Howard asked to use the bathroom. He told us the hotel has accessible guest rooms. We didn’t inspect them but this hotel is worth considering for someone who wants to stay near the Forum and Capitoline Hill.
Numerous apartments in Rome are offered for short-term rental by dozens of apartment services and real estate brokers. But despite months of research we were unable to find an accessible apartment in the centro storico. The closest we found was a two-bedroom apartment in Residence San Pietro, a modern building on the far side of the Vatican from the centro storico, which the agents state is accessible.
III. WHEELING AROUND
We toured Rome during one of the driest Mays in memory. One evening saw a couple hours of light rain. Although we took some buses, we rolled and walked most places. In planning your trip, if you prefer to roll/walk or are unable to use inaccessible taxis, we recommend you travel when the weather is likely to be good, if you have a choice.
Paths of Travel
Many major intersections lack curb cuts or curb ramps. Many site ramps, curb ramps and curb cuts are steeper than in the U.S. When we say that a place is accessible by a ramp, we mean it is physically accessible. That does not necessarily mean it is accessible independently or would qualify as accessible under U.S. law. Even with Howard’s powerful electric wheelchair, Michele often had to push going uphill, guide going downhill and tilt and lift the wheelchair on curbs and up steps entering stores and restaurants. Because Howard uses an electric wheelchair and we traveled together, these barriers were less significant than they would be for a person using a manual wheelchair or traveling alone.
Many small and medium-size streets lack sidewalks and are made of “Saint Peter’s stone.” The stones are picturesque but uneven; don’t roll too fast immediately after eating. The good thing about these streets is that there is no curb, hence no need for curb cuts.
Parking is tight and parked vehicles often block curb cuts. Construction sites that block sidewalks do not provide an alternative path of travel or a protected path, as they are required to do in the U.S. Even in streets with sidewalks, it is often necessary to roll in the street because of blocked curb cuts, blocked sidewalks and construction obstacles. Even a power wheelchair user or a strong person in a manual wheelchair will require frequent assistance up or down curbs. But don’t be discouraged. People are very willing to help.
Traffic is heavy. Drivers are aggressive in an impersonal way, but very skilled, alert and aware of pedestrians; they are not angry or deliberately inconsiderate. Many of the streets are one-way, making crossing manageable. The yellow lights are long compared to the U.S., as are the entire traffic light cycles, so there is ample time to cross.
Avoid Ponte Vittorio Emanuele II, the bridge that leads to the Vatican; it has a ramp with an extraordinarily steep double-angle on the Vatican side of the Tiber. (Great for skateboards but not wheelchairs.) The adjacent bridges, Ponte Sant’ Angelo and Ponte Principe Amedeo, have no such obstacles, although there aren’t curb ramps at all adjacent street corners.
The pedestrian footbridges Ponte Sisto and Ponte Fabricio/Ponte Cestio (the two segments of the bridge that crosses Isola Tiberina island) have a semicircular metal-railed barricade at each end that allows pedestrians to pass but not vehicles. Howard was barely able to pass through, and in one of them it was necessary to remove his footplates.
Stores and Restaurants
Many stores and restaurants are up one or, less frequently, two stairs. The proprietors are very willing to lift your wheelchair into the store or restaurant, although they often require instructions on how to do it. Many trattorias have outdoor tables. Enjoy your meals outdoors as the Romans do and you will avoid any barriers.
Michele used ATM’s at a variety of banks in various locations. All were too high for a wheelchair. We had no occasion to enter banks, but on casual observation, the entrances to many banks seemed to be up a difficult step and through an inaccessible security booth.
IV. GROUND TRANSPORTATION
We rolled/walked most places, but took several different bus lines on enough occasions to get an impression of the bus situation. Many Roman bus lines are accessible, but despite the schedule frequency, a wheelchair traveler can wait a long time for the bus. Not all the buses on an “accessible” line are actually accessible; our impression is that approximately half are. The percentage may vary depending on the line. Instead of lifts, access is by means of a retractable ramp on the side entrance. Almost half the accessible vehicles we tried to use had broken ramps or drivers who were unable to get the ramps to function. The effective slope is often steep, depending on the sidewalk and street topography at the particular stop. The drivers are poorly trained on the ramps – sometimes they deploy the ramp so the bottom edge is on the street but too close to the curb for a wheelchair to alight. The wheelchair securement area in the bus is near the side entrance but quite short and often lacks lockdowns; there is typically a short seat belt. The bottom line is that one can’t rely on the buses to get anywhere on time. One can get lucky, but don’t count on it. But on vacation, one can often better afford the extra time – getting places on time on vacation, especially in Rome, is less critical than being on time to work or an appointment. Hopefully the bus situation will improve as new buses replace older ones.
The website of ATAC, the public transit agency, has some information in English. www.atac.roma.it We strongly urge you to call ATAC when you are in Rome to confirm the information. Phone +39-06-469-540-01.
We didn’t try the Metro. Many of the stations are stated to be accessible, but those in the centro storico near where we stayed (Colosseo, Circo Massimo and Cavour, all on Line B) are not.
Public Van Services/Paratransit
We had heard from the Roman disability organization CO.IN that the Commune of Rome (the Rome municipal government) sponsors a free accessible van service from the airports and train station to Rome hotels. We reserved a ride from DaVinci (Fiumicino) airport months in advance and received confirmation by email. A couple weeks before arrival we tried to reserve transportation from the hotel to the train station and were told by Hotel Reservation, the agent for the Commune of Rome, that the service had been discontinued. (The airport web site and CO.IN’s information still described the service at that point; the former even stated that it is available at the last minute at the airport.) Had we not tried to arrange a ride to the train station or otherwise re-confirmed, we would not have been notified that the service was discontinued and could have been stuck at the airport without an accessible ride. We arranged a ride with Fausta Trasporti, a private van service (see below).
There is an accessible train from the main airport, DaVinci, to the main train station, Roma Termini, but this still doesn’t bring you to your hotel and it may not be feasible if you have a lot of luggage and are tired from a long plane flight.
ATAC also provides a paratransit service within Rome, but we called them several times to ascertain eligibility and arrange rides and were told contradictory information each time, so we never used it.
We had heard that the Italian intercity train company operates an accessible van service from the hotels to the train stations in the major cities, and that one can reserve a ride by contacting the “Centro di Accoglienza” or “Hospitality Center” at the station of origin. But when we were in Rome this service had been discontinued, at least for Rome.
Free sightseeing tours of Rome and environs on an accessible minibus are provided by Capodarco Cooperative and arranged through CO.IN. Availability is very limited, however – the tours serve Romans as well as tourists, and in May 2003 operated only once a week on average. Although we tried to reserve six weeks before the beginning of our trip, the tours were already filled. Contact Annagrazia Laura of CO.IN. Cooperative Integrate Onlus. firstname.lastname@example.org www.coinsociale.it Phone +39-06-712-9011. Fax +39-06-712-901-79.
We include the above information not to discourage you from trying to get a ride from public agencies but to emphasize that the situation changes frequently, programs you’ve heard about may or may not operate when you are in Rome and new programs may be adopted or discontinued ones reinstated. It is imperative to confirm the specifics as close as possible to your travel time.
Private Van Services
We ended up getting a ride from the airport from Fausta Trasporti. We also hired Fausta for the day to take us to Hadrian’s Villa and for a ride to the train station. They were reliable and convenient, but expensive. The driver was gracious, helpful and spoke English fairly well. The van was clean and large and had a heavy-duty lift.
Fausta Trasporti. www.faustatrasporti.it email@example.com Phone +39-06-503-6040. Fax +39-06-519-684-17.
Other van services, which we didn’t use, are:
Leurini SRL. firstname.lastname@example.org Phone/Fax +39-06-308-913-93.
Schiaffini Travel. Schiaffini is a large company with several locations in Rome. www.schiaffini.com email@example.com Phone +39-06-938-7123. Fax +39-06-936-610-81.
Private van services are expensive in part because the vans are large enough for several wheelchair passengers, so, in effect, one pays for unused space if one is alone or with only a sole companion. Prices are sometimes negotiable.
We didn’t see any accessible taxis or learn of any from our research.
We reserved first-class seats on a Eurostar from Rome to Florence. When taking intercity trains, wheelchair passengers are required to register, by phone or in person, with the “Centro di Accoglienza” or “Hospitality Center” at the station of origin at least 24 hours in advance. One is supposed to check in at the Hospitality Center (which is marked with the wheelchair logo) at least 45 minutes before departure. Although we had heard that passengers in electric wheelchairs are required to transfer to a train seat or manual wheelchair, Howard was not asked to do this and remained in his electric wheelchair. There was ample room in the train for the wheelchair. Wheelchair passengers embark and disembark by a portable, attendant-operated lift from the platform to the train. The lift is quite narrow, as are the stair lifts in Rome (see Equipment; Lifts, below). The ride was pleasant, fast, smooth and uneventful, except that, after we checked in at the Hospitality Center an hour before departure time, an attendant led us toward the appropriate track and disappeared without a word for 45 minutes. (This wasn’t due to a language barrier, as his English was quite good.) For information, start with www.trenitalia.com
V. PUBLIC BATHROOMS
Roman bathrooms typically are large and clean and have great plumbing, often including handheld spray units. Many bathrooms, accessible and regular, are staffed by an attendant who cleans them frequently. Most wheelchair accessible bathrooms have large toilets that are higher than the typical accessible high toilet in the U.S. They typically have flip-up grab bars mounted on the wall behind the toilet and an emergency pull cord alarm. We didn’t seek accessible toilets in stores, restaurants or churches. But without exception, every museum we visited that is accessible has an accessible bathroom. Some bathrooms we used are described below.
Coliseum. The bathrooms are outside the Coliseum itself, near the intersection of Via dei Fori Imperioli and Via di San Giovanni in Laterano. The accessible one is small but there is an attendant to keep ensure privacy.
Roman Forum/Trajan’s Markets. Hotel Cosmopolita, Via Santa Eufemia, 5, near Trajan’s Markets, has a large wheelchair accessible bathroom on the ground floor.
Tiber Island (Isola Tiberina). The emergency department of Fatebeneratelli Hospital has an accessible bathroom. The accessible entrance to the emergency department is up a ramp on the side facing the river, toward the back of the hospital.
Trastevere (Villa Sciarra). The botanical garden Villa Sciarra, located at Via Calandrelli, 35, has an inaccessible bathroom near the main entrance, but there is a bathroom a few hundred feet away that lacks grab bars but is large enough for a wheelchair and has a level entrance. There is an actual accessible bathroom in the garden approximately one kilometer from the entrance.
Accessibility of some museums we visited is described below. We urge you to try to tour all major museums, parks and antiquities sites that interest you – they are likely to be at least partially accessible and you will probably see something interesting and beautiful on the way.
Villa Borghese (Museo e Galleria Borghese). Piazzale Scipione Borghese, 5. Phone +39-06-842-416-07. The first floor of the museum is accessible through a rear entrance facing the gardens. There is one moderate height stair. An attendant-operated stair-climbing device is available to take slow walkers and people who have difficulty climbing stairs to the second floor, but it can’t accommodate wheelchairs. Bernini’s stunning sculptures, Canova’s sensual yet refined Pauline Bonaparte and many other masterpieces are on the first floor, so a visit is a must even though the second floor is inaccessible. There is an accessible bathroom in the basement; the basement is accessed via stair lift from the front of the villa. Reservations are required to visit the museum. We strongly recommend early morning reservations because the museum, which is small, is likely to be less crowded early in the day.
Capitoline Museums. Piazza del Campidoglio. Phone +39-06-671-027-33. The piazza, on Capitoline Hill, is accessible via a moderately steep winding path to the right of Michelangelo’s Cordonata staircase as you are facing the staircase. There are two related museums in separate buildings, the main entrances of which are up three or four large stairs through the loggia facing the piazza.
The museum on the right is the Palazzo dei Conservatori. There is an accessible side entrance to the right, just above the path by which you accessed the hill, but it is always locked and you must get the attention of a museum employee at the main entrance. The doorway is up a small step from the path and leads to a large, attendant-operated elevator. There is a cafe on the top floor with a sweeping view from Saint Peter’s to the Spanish Steps.
The museum on the left is the Palazzo Nuovo. Although there is an accessible entrance to the lower level on the front left side, down the hill along a steep path that continues down toward the Forum of Caesar and Trajan’s Column, for security reasons the museum guards didn;t allow Howard to enter through it, so they carried his wheelchair up three stairs at the front entrance. From the entrance level one descends a series of several long stairways via separate stairlifts to reach the lower level, which has a terrace with a stunning view of the Roman Forum, with the Arch of Septimius Severus prominently in the foreground. Using the stairlifts was so complicated and time-consuming that the guard, on her own initiative, let Howard exit through the aforementioned door along the hillside.
Persistence, insistence and patience are essential in dealing with the personnel in both museums. We experienced delays at each step of the process as museum personnel endlessly consulted with each other.
Palazzo Doria Pamphilj. Piazza del Collegio Romano, 1/A. Phone +39-06-679-7323. There are three or four stairs at the main entrance and a tiny lift, too small for most wheelchairs, from the lobby up to the gallery floors.
Museo di Roma (Palazzo Braschi). Piazza San Pantaleo, 10. Phone +39-06-687-5345. This recently and gorgeously restored palazzo just outside Piazza Navona houses a less well-known museum of paintings and art objects showing Roman life from medieval times onward. The 18th century ceilings are splendid and lack the baroque excess of earlier palazzos. A new stair lift brings you up three or four stairs at the entrance; from there a large, modern talking elevator in Italian and English serves the other floors. As of May 2003 one floor was still closed for restoration. The accessible bathroom is large, spotless and even has a view of the courtyard.
Vatican Museums. Entrance on Viale Vaticano. Phone +39-69-884-466. Disabled visitors are invited to go to the beginning of the entrance line, which is quite an advantage given the typically long lines. Access to much of the collection is generally very good, especially considering the age, size and complexity of the buildings. Access to the Sistine Chapel is by an old but serviceable stair lift, followed by a steep ramp in the chapel itself. The Rafael rooms are accessible via a separate elevator from the long hallway that leads to the Sistine Chapel. The Pinacoteca gallery of paintings is level with the main floor. The Egyptian, Assyrian and Greek galleries were under major renovation when we were there, and the path to the accessible elevators and stair lifts was blocked. Although it’s probably impossible to beat the crowds, getting there early when the museums open is as close as you can get.
Special, Limited Tours
The following masterpieces of Renaissance palazzo architecture are generally closed to the public but tours are given to a limited number of people upon written request several months in advance. Unfortunately, we learned this too late and the tours were full.
Palazzo Farnese. Piazza Farnese. This palazzo, home of the French Embassy, features a harmonious neoclassical facade designed by Michelangelo. It was undergoing a major restoration in May 2003. We were told there is a large elevator serving at least the major floors. Contact your local French consulate.
Palazzo della Cancelleria. Piazza della Cancelleria. Phone +39-06-69-884-816. Vatican offices are housed here. The courtyard is sometimes open. It has relatively level access from the street. We don’t know about access to the upper floors. Concerts are held here at certain times of the year. Contact your local archdiocese.
Coliseum. The entrance is on the side facing the Arch of Constantine. Heavy stone pavement surrounds most of the Coliseum, including the path from the Arch of Constantine to the entrance. The terrain is bumpy but level and passable. There is a large, modern elevator from the ground floor to the primary upper floor, and the walkway around the perimeter at that level is completely accessible. The bathrooms are outside the Coliseum itself, near the intersection of Via dei Fori Imperiali and Via di San Giovanni in Laterano. The accessible one is small but there is an attendant to ensure privacy.
Forum. The streets within the Forum are paved in large, irregular, uneven stones. Although the streets are relatively flat, there are some slopes. The terrain is difficult for a wheelchair, but it is possible to go through much of the Forum with a moderate amount of assistance. Enter on the east side, on Via Sacra near the Arch of Titus and the Coliseum, or on the north side, from Via in Miranda; while still difficult, the way there is much better than on the west side near the Capitoline Museums. The latter was impassible so Howard backtracked approximately halfway and exited on Via in Miranda, a steep paved path leading from Via Sacra north to Via dei Fori Imperiali.
Ostia Antica. www.ostia-antica.org (useful information in English). Happily, and contrary to what some sources say, it is possible to reach the extensive archaeological site at Ostia Antica on accessible public transportation from Rome. Although it isn’t easy, it’s absolutely worthwhile because this ancient Roman port town is well preserved, beautiful, architecturally fascinating and historically important. Getting there and touring the site are tricky and require an able-bodied companion, patience and a taste for adventure.
Take a local Roman bus to Piramide in Testaccio. Buses 60 and 160 from Via del Corso stop half a mile from Piramide; bus 30 from Piazza Venezia stops at the Metro station opposite Piramide. (As bus access information is inconsistent and changes frequently, confirm this directly with ATAC. Several accessible lines go to or near Piramide. 175 is very direct from Via del Corso but was inaccessible as of May 2003. Also note that, although some of the Metro stops in Rome are accessible, many of those in the heart of the centro storico are not, so one must take a bus to Piramide, not the Metro.) Don’t go to the ancient pyramid of Caius Cestius but to Saint Paul train station (Porta S. Paolo) across the street. The train station is next to the Metro station.
Take the train (not the Metro) outbound toward Ostia. Trains depart every 15 or 20 minutes. Be careful – the doors on the newer trains are level with the platform and have only a small gap but those on the older ones are a couple inches higher and have a larger gap. Don’t exit at Ostia Antica because the only external egress from the outbound platform at Ostia Antica is down a long flight of stairs to a tunnel under the platform. (We learned this the hard way: ATAC told us incorrect information, both on the phone and at the Rome station; we exited at Ostia Antica, saw that the platform was inaccessible, and waited for the next outbound train.) Exit one stop past Ostia Antica, at Ostia Lido Nord. (There are two Lido stops – Lido Nord is the one immediately after Ostia Antica; Lido Centro is the next one.) Lido Nord station, recently renovated, has a large, modern elevator; take it up to the walkway above the tracks, cross the elevated walkway and take another elevator down to the Rome-bound platform. (Lido Nord also has a textured surface for blind people along the platform.) Take the train toward Rome just one stop. Exit at Ostia Antica; the platform on this side of the tracks leads directly to the station exit. Exit the station, going down one medium height stair to the parking lot.
As you enter the parking lot, on the far left toward the middle of the left edge of the parking lot there is a walkway adjacent to a small divided highway (not an Autostrada, but busier and faster than a regular street). The walkway is narrow but paved, with signposts narrowing it in a few spots, but Howard was able to pass through with a few inches to spare. After several hundred feet there are two complex intersections of the divided highway and a couple other streets. You must cross the intersections to get to the town of Ostia; the town is small and the correct direction will be obvious as you approach. Fortunately, a traffic policeman was there both in late morning and on our return in late afternoon and helped us cross. There is one large step from the pathway into the street. Be careful. Once you’ve navigated that intersection, which would have been difficult without the policeman even with a companion and very dangerous for a solo wheelchair user without the policeman, you are in town a few blocks from the antiquities park entrance. Shortly after the intersection, on the way into town is a bustling bakery, Il Forno, with delectable take-out pizza.
We didn’t try to visit the Castle of Julius II, which is before the entrance to the antiquities, so we don’t know whether it is accessible.
At the antiquities there is a level, paved service road parallel to the Decumanus (the ancient main street, paved in large, irregular stones) going from the main park entrance all the way to the museum and cafe. The service road is above the Decumanus and affords a view of much of the antiquities below, but is not in them. The bathrooms at the cafe are accessible; those at the park entrance are not. The cafe and outdoor terrace are accessible. The museum was closed when we were there; there are a few stairs but there may be a portable ramp or accessible alternate entrance.
Closer to the park entrance than to the cafe/museum, a well-paved, gently sloping accessible walkway connects the service road with the ancient theater. It passes the Forum of the Corporations, which has well-preserved floor mosaics installed by traders and merchants to designate their specialties, merchandise and trade areas. The walkway ends at a flat area at the bottom of the theater. After exploring the theater we were able to go all the way west past the museum to the apartments in the Via di Diana and the large Capitolium Temple in the Forum. Howard proceeded via the Decumanus, rolling on its large, uneven stones that are similar to those in the Roman Forum. (Via di Diana and the surrounding area are inaccessible from the museum area because they are down a flight of stairs from the front of the museum.) There are large gaps between the stones. The stones peter out occasionally and the Decumanus becomes dirt and gravel. The ride was bumpy and Michele pushed Howard’s wheelchair in many places. But most of the site is fairly flat and there was no real danger of falling or losing control. The ground was dry; the going would have been impossible in wet ground.
We were at the site over four hours and didn’t see everything. There wasn’t time to explore much of the area east of the theater (between the theater and the park entrance) and it was quite hot. At a few places there are unpaved paths connecting the service road to the Decumanus; these are moderately steep but would have been accessible with assistance. Also, we didn’t go further west (toward the coast) than the Capitolium Temple. The site continues a good bit in that direction, but the service road ends before that area and the Decumanus becomes bumpier and more uneven.
Allow a full day to see this fascinating, beautiful site. Bring plenty of water, extra tire tubes just in case and your imagination.
Hadrian’s Villa. This large site is in Tivoli, almost an hour’s drive from Rome. The drive might be a bit shorter depending on where in Rome you are staying and if Rome traffic is light, but don’t count on that. We were unable to find accessible public transportation so we hired an accessible van with driver. (We didn’t go to the gardens of nearby Villa deEste, so can’t report on the state of access there.) As at Ostia Antica, the setting is beautiful, the ancient remains are architecturally significant and there is a rich history. The pools are especially spectacular. The term “villa” is somewhat a misnomer, as Hadrian’s Villa comprises many separate buildings. The site appears similar in size to Ostia Antica; it’s enlightening to consider that the villa complex for an emperor, his retinue, servants and soldiers was similar in size to an entire thriving port town.
Most of the paths are wide and of dirt, not gravel or stone, and therefore easier to navigate than the Decumanus at Ostia Antica. However, the site is hillier, and Michele and our driver pushed Howard’s wheelchair in several places. But many areas are level or only gradually sloping. As at Ostia Antica, the ground was dry and compacted; the going would have been difficult if not impossible in wet, muddy ground. The main bathroom, near the pool, is accessible although up a moderately steep hill. The lock handle inside the bathroom is small and difficult to grasp; be careful not to get locked in if your grip is not strong.
Pompeii, Herculaneum and Paestum. We had hoped to tour one or more of these ancient sites but despite much research, we couldn’t find consistent, reliable and encouraging information about access. We didn’t go, so have nothing to report. Although some of the guidebooks suggest day trips from Rome to Pompeii and Herculaneum, given the extra time and complexity of traveling in a wheelchair, if you decide to go there, Naples appears to be a better base because its much closer than Rome.
VIII. CHURCHES; SYNAGOGUE
Many of the churches have a few stairs. Access to some of them depends on the competence and helpfulness of the lay employees and clergy who happen to be there when you visit, which varies greatly from one church to another. Sometimes people were prepared and willing to help; other times they were neither. It is often necessary to have an able-bodied companion or passerby locate an employee.
Gesu. The front entrance has many stairs. The rear entrance, around the block, has two stairs, then one. The friendly, helpful employees were ready with portable ramps.
Santo Agnese in Agone. The front entrance has many stairs and there is no accessible alternate entrance.
San Clemente. There are several stairs down to the church immediately inside the entrance. We didn’t attempt to do so, but it might be possible to have several people carry a person in a wheelchair down the stairs.
San Giovanni dei Fiorenti. This church at the northern end of the picturesque Via Giulia has many steep stairs to the front entrance, but a steep, semi-permanent metal ramp is in place. The pavement at the bottom has a tricky double-angle. A policeman pushed Howard’s wheelchair up the ramp and steadied it on the way down. The church is less interesting than many, but it is commendable that the parish has provided access to a building with such a high, steep porch; many other churches with fewer stairs and lower porches have no ramps.
Santo Ivo alla Sapienza. This small gem by Borromini is only open Sunday mornings. It’s inside the courtyard of the Palazzo della Sapienza, the main entrance to which is up several stairs on Corso del Rinascimento. The Palazzo is now used for government offices. There’s an accessible entrance to the Palazzo on the opposite side, just down from Piazza Santo Eustachio, via a driveway with an attendant-operated gate. It’s normally closed on Sundays. From the perimeter of the courtyard there is one low step down to the center of the courtyard and from there two stairs up into the church. Unfortunately, despite our having arranged with the superintendent of the Palazzo building several days in advance to open the driveway gate for Howard on Sunday, nobody was there so Howard was unable to visit this church.
Santa Maria sopra Minerva. The front entrance has four or five stairs. The rear entrance, which is quite far, has one large stair down, then two up. The employees and clergy were unhelpful but some tourists lifted Howard’s wheelchair.
Santa Maria in Trastevere. The front entrance is completely level; there are no stairs.
Saint Peter’s. Access is excellent, there are fully accessible bathrooms and the employees are welcoming. Visitors in wheelchairs are invited to go to the front of the line.
Synagogue and Jewish Museum. Lungotevere dei Cenci. Phone +39-06-684-006-61. The main floor of the synagogue is accessed via a ramp on the right side, through a gravel path. A security guard is always present and can assist you through the gravel path. The museum and second floor of the sanctuary are up a flight of stairs and inaccessible.
IX. EQUIPMENT; LIFTS
The stair lifts at many museums and churches (even those that appear fairly new) are typically narrower, shorter and with a lower weight capacity (often 150 kg – 330 pounds) than in the U.S. (The typical capacity in the U.S. for lifts in public accommodations is 750 pounds; at a minimum, 500.) Howard’s wheelchair barely fit many of them – perhaps by 2′ in width. Generally, and unlike the typical lift in the U.S., the Italian lifts are able to operate with the moveable safety edges at the front and back in the lowered position (i.e. approximately parallel to the main platform and the floor), as opposed to the raised position (i.e. at perhaps a 45 degree angle to the main platform and the floor). Howard’s wheelchair footrests often protruded past the front edge and the rear tires often rested on the lowered rear edge. This is less safe because raised edges help prevent the wheelchair from moving forward or backward, so it is crucial to have one’s brakes on. Howard’s Quickie power wheelchair is quite standard in size; someone with a wider chair would have difficulty fitting on some of the stairlifts.
Electricity and Charging your Wheelchair
Italy uses 220 volt AC power. The standard plug, a three-prong grounded plug with all three prongs in a straight line, is different from the one used in most other European countries. Plug adapters are available at any travel store.
If you use an electric wheelchair, we recommend obtaining a wheelchair battery charger with settings for 110 and 220 volts. If you travel frequently it is a good investment; also, you only have to carry a charger, not a charger and a converter.
Although Howard’s charger has a 220 volt setting and we experienced no problems using it in Israel and France, in Rome and Florence the batteries charged hot (the charger and charger plug were hot to the touch) and the wheelchair’s circuit breaker tripped many times. Sometimes the chair charged okay on the second or third try after having been reset, but later in the trip the circuit breaker tripped almost all the time. An Italian wheelchair mechanic tested the wheelchair and circuit breaker; he concluded that they were not broken. We rented an Italian charger and experienced some of the same problems at first. Only when we plugged the Italian charger into a different outlet in the same room did it charge. As it appears extremely unlikely that several wall outlets in both the Rome hotel and Florence apartment were broken, and we were able to use other devices with smaller power demands in the same outlets, the tentative conclusion is that some wall outlets in Italy are incapable of handling enough current to charge a wheelchair, while others in the same room are. Do not be alarmed by this, but if you experience problems charging your wheelchair, keep trying different outlets.
X. ACCESS FOR BLIND AND VISUALLY IMPAIRED PEOPLE
The boxes for prescription drugs in Italy contain the name of the medication in Braille. A few of the museums in Rome have new elevators that announce the floors in Italian and English. Some of the curb ramps in Roman sidewalks at major intersections have textured markings. The train platform at the renovated Ostia Lido Nord station has extensive textured markings.
XI. ADDITIONAL INFORMATION
Rome In General
CO.IN. Cooperative Integrate Onlus. www.coinsociale.it firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com Phone +39-06-712-9011. Fax +39-06-712-901-79. This Roman disability organization has an online database of access information in English and will answer specific inquiries. It also works to improve access in Rome and Lazio, and provides various services to disabled people.
Emerging Horizons, www.emerginghorizons.com has links to several sources of access information about Rome and other Italian cities. Emerging Horizons publishes a print magazine containing articles about accessible travel to a variety of destinations, some of which are also contained on the website.
The European Union has produced country-specific disability travel guides in English, including one about Italy. Finding it may require some searching. It may also be available from CO.IN on request.
The website of the Society for Accessible Travel & Hospitality (SATH) contains articles, links and resources about accessible travel in general and traveling with a disability. http://www.sath.org firstname.lastname@example.org Phone 212-447-7284.
Alan Epstein, tour guide and author of the engaging As the Romans Do, and his wife Diane Epstein maintain an informative website with restaurant recommendations and descriptions of museums, galleries and other places of interest. http://www.astheromansdo.com email@example.com This site doesn’t contain access information. We especially liked the restaurant recommendations.
The United States Embassy provides referrals to English speaking doctors and dentists.
Foundation Santa Lucia – Santa Lucia Rehabilitation Hospital offers physical therapy and an accessible swimming pool. (We didn’t use this facility, so this information is based on our correspondence with it.) It is located several miles outside central Rome. A doctor’s letter is required in advance. http://www.hsantalucia.it firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. Phone +39-06-515-011/014/022/023/024. Fax +39-06-503-2097. Via Ardeatina, 306 – 00179 Rome.
Florence and Tuscany
Superb, reliable access information is available from Barrier Free Travel, a non-profit dedicated to making Florence and Tuscany accessible. Contact Cornelia Danielson, Executive Director, Barrier Free Travel, firstname.lastname@example.org Phone/Fax +39-055-233-5543. Via Benedetto da Foiano, 19 – 50125 Florence.
– Howard L. Chabner and Michele E. DeSha 2005