Wheelchaired In Paris

photo: view of bercy village

Except for its wine warehouse atmosphere, 'Bercy
Village' kind of looks like a village.

Over the Cobbles, Through the Hurdles

Paris:- Wednesday, 1. August 2001:- Getting around Paris with normal mobility takes a certain amount of extra effort because the métro is either below ground or above it. There are stairs up, or down, and if there are escalators you never know when you'll find one out of service.

When the métro was conceived and the first lines opened in 1900, no thought was given to the possibility that wheelchair drivers might want to use it.

Two world wars and after a long cold war, plus the rest of a century later, the conception of Paris' old métro has not changed a great deal. While everybody and his uncle have prospered from the mobile phone business, there is no capital left over to rip out the old métro and replace it with a completely new one.

And as challenging as the métro is, many of Paris' even more ancient streets are even unfriendly to fully mobile people. Pavements vary from rough cobbles to smooth asphalt, sidewalks vary in width and surfaces - and there are stone blocks and metal poles to prevent parking, but do not prevent you from bumping into them.

Some streets are downright dangerous, with very narrow sidewalks, and other streets are so narrow that they are perfectly safe because cars can't pass through them. But, attention! - because motorcycles can.

Put simply, if you value your neck, watch your step.

Last winter I got another concept of Paris' topography when I was forced to saunter around with one leg in a cast for a month. For aphoto: metro bercy elevator while I used a golf club as a cane, but quickly learned it was better to keep two hands free for balance, grabbing lifelines or warding off danger.

But what really requires raw courage, strength and determination, is getting around the city in a wheelchair. I recently got an email from Eric Eales who is planning to visit the city for two weeks in September.

The métro line 14's elevator entry/exit at Bercy.

He wrote, "On my last visit the hotel advertised an elevator that I had to crawl into, and fold the chair to get it upstairs. I'm trying to avoid that kind of hassle this trip.

"When I first came to Paris in 1968 I used crutches and climbed two enormous flights of stairs to the Egyptian room at the Louvre, watched for the whole 15 minutes by a solitary museum guard. When I had reached the top, he shook his finger at me and said, 'Fermé!'"

Ah, the bad 'good old days.' But there are other trouble areas. "I often have to ask for the door to be removed from the hotel room's bathroom. I don't need any special equipment or provision other than an absence of steps, and a bathtub I can access that isn't blocked by the door," Eric wrote.

He continued, "But most important, is an interesting neighborhood that is not in a sea of cobblestones. Cobblestones are okay to push over if you have to but would be tiresome to have to traverse several times a day to get in and out of the hotel."

The salons and exhibitions start up again in September, so there has been little time to let this drift along. Eric decided to cut his anxiety level and booked a studio out at the Bercy complex, partly because it is linked to the city's center by the new métro line 14, which has complete access for wheelchairs.

The downside to this is the studio-hotel is 'in a sea of cobblestones' because it is located at Paris' old wine storage area, now recycled into being a new center of fun-type activities. From Bercy to the Madeleine area in the center of Paris, the métro ride takes exactly 10 minutes - and you can sit in the driver's seat for the whole trip.

I put on my 'investigative reporter's' hat this excessively hot and sunny afternoon with the intention of giving a small bit of it a good look-over and run-through.

From where I live I take the métro's line six to Bercy, which has a transfer station to the line 14. From here I check out thephoto: interior, passage minervois Bercy park on foot and go all the way to its main métro station at Cour Saint-Emilion.

The métro line 14's wheelchair-sized elevators are all in place, and all the ones I try, work - both at Bercy and at Madeleine. Getting on a métro wagon is a straight roll-on job. For entries and exits, there are extra-wide ticket-control barriers, and these work for me too.

Of the two 'passages' through Bercy-Village, the one called 'Minervois' has the slightly smoother tiles - on the left.

At Bercy, from the métro station Cour Saint-Emilion, the wheeled driver only has about 25 metres of serious old-type cobbles to roll over until getting to the less knobby modern cobbles. These come in two versions - slightly knobby and slightly smooth - a feature that high-heeled ladies will also appreciate.

The route to the hotel passes through the old wine warehouses in what is now called 'Bercy Village.' Most of these warehouses have been converted into shops and wine restaurants, so there is a lively community of them within a fairly small area.

Of the two passages, the Saint-Emilion and the Minervois, the latter has cobbles that are almost like flat tiles. The biggest obstacles are some depressions in the cobbles that serve as rain gutters.

The entire route from the 'village' to the hotel is cobbled, but I saw roller kids going over these so the bigger wheels of a wheelchair should have a less bumpy ride.

The hotel that Eric booked - the Résidence Hôtelière des Berges de la Seine - is mainly convenient for its 142 moderately-priced studios. I neglected to check its bathroom doors - after merely being assured that the whole place is wheelchair-friendly.

Where the hotel is and away from the renovated 'village,' Bercy is not really an 'interesting or colorful' area. However it does have several plus points. In addition to all of the restaurants, there is a movie palace called 'UGC Ciné Cité' with about 18 screens, many showing late-model films with their original soundtracks.

Access to this is by elevator. The cinema even has several subscription cards available - one seems to offer unlimited movies for a month for 108 francs. Right next to the cinema's entry, there is a computer shop called 'Komogo' which also offers online access all week, from 11:00 to 21:00. The half-hour rate is 15 francs, about half of normal for Paris.

As a final wish, the Eric requested a swimming pool and a gymnasium. The hotel lady said 'no' but I have alreadyphoto: sign, cine cite, at bercy village found both, at the 'Waou Gymnase,' just past the Passage Saint- Emilion. Its rates might be high and its pool small, but it is there, and wheelchairs fit in its changing rooms.

As a bonus of a sorts, the Club Med has a new Paris operation called 'MedWorld' which offers everything except palm trees and Tahitian beaches. My guess is that 'MedWorld' has video games simulating 'club life' or something similar - and maybe 'virtual' tropical cocktails.

Finally, there's no point in getting a studio apartment with a kitchen without having some groceries, so these can be found at a 'Franprix' mini-supermarket, in the nearby Rue Baron-Le-Roy.

This is about four short blocks from the Saint-Emilion métro station - which makes it about a total of eight blocks from the hotel. However, given that there is nothing else around, its low prices on the items I checked, could make it worthwhile.

In fact, compared to Paris' center, many prices in Bercy seemed to be lower - and all of this is with access for wheelchairs.

Another bonus is having a part of the Bercy park right on the other side of the Saint-Emilion métro station. But its other, larger, part, near the huge Bercy sport palace, is accessible only with daring and fortitude - getting to it requires crossing a cobbled racetrack for trucks. The way around this is by the Rue Pommard.

Finally, if the plebeian wares at the 'Franprix' near Bercy dull over time, the elevator of the métro line 14's terminus at Madeleine exits on to the sidewalk right in front of Fauchon - one of the world's most famous if not its finest delicatessen.

To get out of the Madeleine station I have to take, if I remember correctly, three elevators. Going up to the street from the métro platform, between the second and the last one, there is a wheelchair-sized public toilet.

In reverse, after leaving Fauchon, the facility is one flight down, on the right, immediately after leaving the elevator.

The rest of Paris is harder and too big to tackle here. One thing my correspondent might appreciate, is the number of sidewalks that have been sloped to road level at intersections - for all roller folks regardless of their wheel sizes.

These were a tricky bit of terrain for me and my leg in a cast last winter. With one 'peg-leg' I was often in danger of tipping over on these minor slopes, mostly because I kept forgetting them.

In all I have spent about a week on this, off and on. The Tourist Office has a Paris hotel guide for 18 francs, which shows Paris hotels with wheelchair pictograms. From one Web site listing I've seen, I have gathered that many hotels that have rooms available, do not have many specifically designed for wheelchairs clients.

While several sources say that the only RATP buses equipped for wheelchairs are on its line 20, I've seen passengers in wheelchairs on number 38 buses - which may mean that many of the newer buses are accessible - with a little help from friends or other passengers.

The Web's Wheelchair Access

The 'good news' is not overwhelming. According to the Paris Tourist Office's internal database, there is ample online information about Paris for visitors with reduced mobility. In fact, it seems as if there are only two Web sites with some information in English - but maybe I didn't look hard enough, dig deep enough.

The 'touristic guide' Web site of the of the CNRH organization leads to http://whanditel.jouve.fr/cnrh/html/somus.htm and it is probably the most comprehensive. When I looked at it, it was in English too. This Web site has information about hotels too - although it fails to mention the one found by Eric.

The other Web site contains Ile-de-France transportation info. Here is the URL for its version in English, http://platefay.alias.domicile.fr/us/html/contents.html.

However the information it contains is doubtful. If you arrive at the Charles-de-Gaulle airport terminal one - CDG 1 - the site says that Air France buses, the RATP buses and the Roissy Bus don't have wheelchair access - which is may be true.

Then it mentions the RER 'B' station at CDG's Terminal 'T-9' and the airport shuttle bus which goesphoto: metro line 14 destination, madeleine there from airport terminals CDG-1 and CDG-2. I was on this bus recently and do not recall it having roll-on access for wheelchairs. [This will be re-checked soon, and corrected if necessary.]

The Madeleine in central Paris - is either the beginning or the end of the métro line 14.

If I was mistaken, then this is the way to get to Paris, because the RER 'B' line stops at Gare du Nord, Châtelet-Les Halles, Saint-Michel, Denfert-Rochereau and Cité Universitaire, all stations within Paris and all equipped with elevators.

Also, from this RER/Terminal 'T-9' station, if you take the RER in the opposite direction to CDG-2, you have a direct connection to TGV trains going north - without having to go to Paris train stations.

A final word about the Regional Express Network - the 'RER' - while it is possible to roll on and off its wagons, doing so with baggage will not be simple if you are a lone traveller.

The other Web sites were not in English or they just didn't work. One opened a browser window bigger than my monitor, making it impossible to see the entire page - partly because there was no scrollbar. Other Web sites were heavy with jazzy-Java and very short on accessible information - if they had any.

It gives me no joy to report this. It means the available information is incomplete or incorrect. The only way to fix it is to make the trips and carefully note all the necessary details, report them accurately and update the databases. It wouldn't do any harm to update the Web sites too.

If public transport seems too chancy, there are various taxi services that accommodate passengers with wheelchairs. Needless to say, these cost a lot more than public transport, but make trips from the airports to whatever door you want.

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