Anybody can “collect countries” when they travel and check destinations off a bucket list. But you know you’ve truly visited a place by the people you’ve met and the experiences you’ve had. I would venture to say that my experiences as a wheelchair user are more intense than they might be for an able-bodied traveler, just because they don’t understand the emotions involved with just being able to do simple things they take for granted. I cried during a moment alone in a helicopter while atop a glacier in Alaska, just because I could physically be there. I got teary-eyed looking out my hotel room in Sydney at the Harbour Bridge – mostly because it had been my dream for 25 years to visit Australia, but partly because Sydney was so wheelchair friendly. I’ve been so incredibly lucky to have had dozens of amazing accessible travel experiences in 2017, and here is a list of my top 10.
10. Riding a beach wheelchair into the ocean in Bridgetown. I was born and raised in South Florida, and for my first 22 years of life lived no farther than a 30-minute drive from the ocean. Every weekend during high school I went to Fort Lauderdale beach to play volleyball, and I had a great tan throughout most of my 20s. Then I was diagnosed with MS in 2005, which meant I couldn’t be in the heat for more than 15 minutes without feeling ill, and I started moving to places nowhere near the ocean. I moved back to Florida in 2015 and did visit the beach in Sarasota several times, but I hadn’t been in the ocean since 2008. That changed last February when I visited Bridgetown, Barbados and stayed at a resort with complimentary floating beach wheelchairs. The water was a little chilly, but it was an unforgettable experience that reminded me so much of my home – and my life before MS.
9. Hearing an orchestra play Strauss in Munich. I developed my love of classical music at an early age, mostly because I started playing the piano at age seven. I was classically trained, so I had a love of many German and Viennese composers like Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and Strauss. Richard Strauss is best known in musical circles for his operas like Don Juan and Salomé, and in pop culture for Also Sprach Zarathustra, the opening theme music in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. So you can imagine my absolute joy when I discovered that I would be in Munich for a Philharmonic Orchestra performance that included Don Juan by Strauss – especially considering that he was born and musically trained in Munich. My accessible space in the Gasteig theater had a great view, and it was just a beautiful performance.
8. Eating a Belgian waffle in Brussels. I have eaten a Frankfurter in Frankfurt, a danish in Denmark, and a Polish sausage in Poland. But nothing beats the experience of eating a Belgian waffle in Belgium – especially when it’s in the Grand Place in Brussels, largely thought to be the most beautiful and impressive square in Europe. I guarantee you that whatever you’ve eaten in the US that claims to be a Belgian waffle comes nowhere close to the real thing in any capacity other than shape. These waffles are soft and melt in your mouth, served warm, coated with a sweet glaze and topped with fresh (i.e. real) whipped cream dollops twice the size of the waffle. And yes, they do count as a full meal.
7. Talking about socialism in Ljubljana. I really need to provide you some context here. My family is from Cuba, and my parents left in the early 1960s shortly after the Revolution. I grew up in a staunchly anti-Castro and anti-communist South Florida area during the Cold War. As a result, I was taught to believe that Yugoslavia’s leader from 1943 until his death in 1980, Josip Broz Tito, was evil, as were all other leaders and communist dictators in the Eastern Bloc. I was also raised to believe that socialism in any form was bad. As I got older, I learned from visiting Finland that socialism could work, but I thought only so in conjunction with democracy. You can imagine my surprise when I spent an evening in the capital of Slovenia talking to a local and a Bosnian refugee about how awesome Tito and socialism have been for their country. For some very brief history, Slovenia was part of Yugoslavia until it split along Republic lines in 1991 and gained independence in 1992. My new friends explained to me that after Tito split with Stalin, it allowed Slovenia to later on develop its own form of socialism that put it on a path to economic prosperity far more advanced than its former Yugoslavian neighbors. I was still a bit skeptical (and still don’t care for socialism), but it opened my mind and reminded me that while I love being American, our system isn’t meant for or desired by everyone.
6. Rolling down the Long Room Library in Dublin. If you ever visit Dublin, everyone will tell you that one of the things you have to do is visit Trinity College to see the Book of Kells. This centuries-old illuminated text containing the four books of the gospel was pretty cool, but no one told me about the Long Room Library we would see afterwards. The main chamber of the Old Library is the Long Room; at nearly 200 feet in length, it is filled with 200,000 of the Library’s oldest books and is one of the most impressive libraries in the world. Since 1801, the Library had been given the right to claim a free copy of every book published in Britain and Ireland. I have had several jaw-dropping experiences in places around the world, and entering this library was one of them; it was like walking into a Harry Potter book. The wood paneling, high vaulted ceiling, and musty smell of history were incredible.
5. Listening to the Chopin benches in Warsaw. Most people have at least heard of Frédéric Chopin, the famous Polish composer and pianist. He was a child prodigy and played all over Warsaw until he left for Paris in 1830, shortly before the Warsaw Uprising that would leave him stranded in France as an exile. After his death at age 39, his sister fulfilled his dying wish and smuggled his heart – preserved to this day in a jar of alcohol – back to Warsaw, where it is encased in a stone pillar in Holy Cross Church. As an homage to Chopin, the city of Warsaw placed fifteen musical benches at key sites connected with his life. Made of cast iron and polished black stone, these benches, designed by Professor Jerzy Porębski, feature a button which when pressed have been designed to unleash a thirty second torrent of Chopin. They also come equipped with a route map and brief explanations in Polish and English of the site’s relevance to Chopin. Needless to say, I pressed a lot of bench buttons during my stay. They made me smile and sigh every time.
4. Touching the Western/Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. I’m not Jewish, and there are no practicing Jews in my family. I have dozens of Jewish friends, many of whom I grew up with and are still good friends today. But in any case, I can’t say I have any deep spiritual connection to Judaism. I am, however, a practicing Catholic, and there’s no escaping the profound spirituality that permeates Jerusalem. It’s where the world’s three largest religions meet and mix and fight and coexist – sometimes like oil and water. I knew the history of the Western Wall before I saw it. The ancient limestone wall was originally erected as part of the expansion of the Second Jewish Temple begun by Herod the Great, which resulted in the encasement of the natural, steep hill known to Jews and Christians as the Temple Mount. It is also the holiest place where Jews are permitted to pray. The women and men must separate and pray on different sides of a long partition. There are Torahs and religious texts everywhere, people praying and crying. Every visible crack in the wall was stuffed with tiny slips of paper containing written prayers. I rolled my scooter up to the wall and laid my hand on it, not knowing what I’d feel as one of the new non-Jews in that space. What I felt was that I was invisible, but not in a bad way. I was glad for it. The women around me were all absorbed in their own prayers and hopes and pain. I just couldn’t believe I was allowed to be a part of that, if only for a minute.
3. Wandering through a maze of alleys in Crete. Have you ever been in a place where you felt like you were on a movie set? That’s what the town of Chania on the Greek island of Crete is like. It’s everything you imagine when you think of the Greek Isles – stunning views, lush mountains, relaxing beaches, and colorful buildings. The old town is built around a Venetian port and is also a relatively integral area where Venetian buildings, and later Turkish elements, compose a unique architectural style. It is commonly said that it’s very easy to find your way into Chania but much harder to get out. The heart of Chania is still the old town, with its narrow, labyrinthine alleyways and listed buildings dating from different periods. Many of these buildings have been turned into small hotels, restaurants, shops, or homes. My best friend and I happily got “lost” (we had an awesome guide to help us navigate) in the maze of vivid alleys, taking in the bougainvilleas, bright shutters and doors, lines of drying laundry, and dozens of alley cats under a cloudless sky. The best part? The ample outdoor seating for incredible food, the flat and comfortable roads and sidewalks, and the incredibly friendly and helpful Greek people.
2. Eating Wiener Schnitzel in Vienna’s Stephansplatz. I love German food. I mean, I REALLY love German food, and Wiener Schnitzel is right up there with one of my favorite dishes. Imagine my surprise when I learned during my visit to Vienna that the breaded veal cutlet is actually a Viennese dish (The “Wien” in Wiener means Vienna in German). In Austria the dish is traditionally served with a lemon slice, lingonberry jam, and either potato salad or potatoes with parsley and butter. The term Wiener Schnitzel is actually protected by law, and any schnitzel called by that name has to be made from veal. My favorite place in all of Vienna is the Stephansplatz – a large pedestrian area filled with shops, restaurants, musicians, singers, and street performers. You could find tiny churches with jaw-dropping interiors hidden at the end of narrow alleys and haute couture boutiques on the same street. It was here that I spent every evening in Vienna, enjoying one of my favorite meals on earth while watching the world go by.
1. Shopping in a Christian icon store in the West Bank. I’d like to think I know more than the average bear about Israel and its history of conflict with the Palestinian Authority and other neighbors. But apparently the geography isn’t my strong suit. This became apparent when at the end of our amazing (and intense) day in Jerusalem, our guide told us he was taking us to a Christian icon store in Bethlehem owned by an Arab friend of his. Well…we had no idea Bethlehem was in the West Bank. It was dark, so when we approached the checkpoint, the border wall loomed very high and very foreboding before us. After passing through, it was extremely clear we were in another place. The political graffiti on the Palestinian side of the wall was fascinating, and passed in a blur as we drove by. The lights and sounds were bright and intense. Once at the store, it took some work and a lot of improvisation to get me in, but the metal ramp, the owner’s great hospitality, and the incredible selection of olive wood, gold, and mother-of-pearl items made every moment even more memorable. On the way back while waiting in traffic, we watched in the oncoming lane a very long convoy of cars and buses filled with men waiving militant-looking flags, honking horns, and celebrating something. We learned later it was members of the PLO/Fatah celebrating Israel’s release of one of their prisoners. My best friend and I celebrated this incredibly intense experience back in Jerusalem with an amazing Italian dinner under the stars with live music playing nearby.
Are you ready to create your own amazing accessible travel experiences? Contact me at Spin the Globe/Travel and ask me how I can help you!