There aren’t many cruise itineraries that allow you to visit 3 ancient marvels like the Colosseum in Rome, the Parthenon in Athens, and the Pyramids at Giza all in one cruise, which is why I was excited to embark on Royal Caribbean’s 12-Night Greece and Eastern Mediterranean cruise on the Legend of the Seas in June, 2009. You can’t beat the convenience of being able to see some of the most famous sites from the ancient world up close, all without having to change hotel rooms. As an added benefit, the cruise was round-trip from Rome, which gave us the opportunity to spend some extra time touring Rome before embarking on the cruise.
Altogether, the ship made stops at 7 ports in 4 countries. Along the way, we were able to do a lot of sightseeing, beginning with a scenic drive along the Amalfi coast in Italy. We also visited some ancient ruins in Ephesus and Rhodes and explored the Greek islands of Mykonos and Corfu on foot. The places we looked forward to the most, though, were a visit to the Acropolis in Athens and a drive into Cairo to see the world-famous Pyramids at Giza.
While the exciting ports of call were definitely a selling point for this particular cruise itinerary, the fact that it was also one of the most accessible Mediterranean cruise itineraries made this cruise an ideal choice for wheelchair users. To start, the ship docked at 6 of the 7 ports of call, which meant that only one port required the use of tenders. Even at that port though, I was still able to go ashore in my electric wheelchair thanks to Royal Caribbean’s accessible tenders.
The other thing that made this cruise itinerary ideal was the availability of wheelchair accessible sightseeing tours at many of the ports. While the cruise line itself did not offer accessible shore excursions at any of the ports, we were able to arrange accessible tours through private companies at 5 of the 7 ports on the cruise itinerary. Of course, no cruise itinerary would be considered “accessible” without the ship itself having a great level of access, and although the Legend of the Seas is one of Royal Caribbean’s older ships, accessibility on board was very good overall.
Our trip started out with a flight into Rome three days prior to the cruise, which gave us 2 full days to tour the city before the start of the cruise. For North Americans embarking on a Mediterranean cruise, I highly recommend flying to the port of embarkation at least a day early in order to sleep off the jet lag and get used to the time change before the start of your cruise. Most flights from North America to Europe are overnight flights arriving in Europe in the morning, so if you go straight to the ship from the airport upon arrival, it can be a very tiring day and you might not get the most out of the first day or two of your cruise. Of course, if your cruise starts in a city like Rome, you would be wise to fly into the city more than just one day before your cruise so that you can take in the wealth of history in the city prior to embarking on your cruise.
Upon arrival in Rome, the baggage handlers were unfortunately not able to bring my electric wheelchair up to the gate, which meant that I had to meet up with it in the baggage claim. So, a couple of airport workers assisted with transferring me into an airport wheelchair just outside of the door of the plane, and then they escorted my two friends and I through customs to the baggage claim, where they again helped with the transfer back into my wheelchair. The distance from the airplane to the baggage claim was quite far. There is actually an airport tram that we had to take to get there, so it was nice to have a couple of airport workers escorting us all the way so we didn’t have to worry about where to go. Fortunately, all of our luggage arrived safely and my electric wheelchair was in working order upon receiving it, which is definitely the way I love to start every one of my vacations.
Once we entered the arrivals hall, our driver was waiting for us to take us to our hotel in Rome. We arranged several transfers through a company that has wheelchair accessible vehicles. This company provided all of our transfers in Rome, including transfers from the airport to our Rome hotel, the hotel to the Civitavecchia cruise terminal, and the cruise terminal back to the airport. They also drove us to the Vatican one morning and the Colosseum the next morning. While the transfers were a little pricey, they were definitely convenient and our driver was great.
The drive from Rome Fiumucino Airport to our downtown Rome hotel took approximately 45 minutes, far less than the time I had read it was going to take. Traffic was not bad at all though, which likely explains it. Our hotel was conveniently located in the heart of downtown Rome, which made it easy walking distance to Campo dei Fiori, the Pantheon, Piazza Navona, and the Trevi Fountain. Even the Vatican and the Colosseum were within walking distance. The Vatican was about a 20 or 30-minute walk north, and the Forum and the Colosseum were about a 45-minute walk the other way.
The hotel itself was great. Our room on the second floor had two beds and a rollaway bed, and the bathroom had a nice roll-in shower. The elevator in the hotel was plenty long enough to accommodate me, which is often not the case with many elevators in Europe. The only slight problem with the hotel that we found at the beginning was a little 3 or 4-inch lip at the main entrance to the hotel. It was not a huge deal for my friend to help me over that bump, although I found it a little annoying the first couple of days to have to always get assistance over that bump rather than being able to go in and out of the hotel freely. That was until we discovered a small ramp sitting right behind the front door of the hotel. The ramp had clearly been custom-designed just for that lip. I’m not sure why none of the hotel staff pointed it out to us earlier, but it certainly would have been nice to know on Day 1 that there was a ramp available.
We spent our first full day in Rome touring the Vatican. It would probably take two or three days to truly take in all there is to see at the Vatican, but one day is definitely enough to see the highlights. We started by having the van company drop us off at the entrance to the Vatican Museums. Admission was free for a person with a disability and one companion, which was actually true of all the public attractions we went to in Rome that charged admission, including St. Peter’s Basilica, the Colosseum, and the Forum. This is pretty much the standard policy throughout Italy. However, when I was last at the Vatican Museums in 2003, they did want some sort of identification proving my disability (as if the wheelchair wasn’t enough), so this time I got smart and brought my disabled parking placard along just in case. We never had to show it, though.
The Vatican Museums were very accessible. We toured through the museum courtyard and the halls without any problem. There was a special elevator that took us up to the Raphael rooms. The 4 Raphael rooms served as apartments for Pope Julius II, who in 1507 commissioned the famous painter Raphael to decorate the rooms. The rooms were very busy, but definitely worth the visit.
Of course, the highlight of the Vatican Museums is the Sistine Chapel. It is here where bishops gather upon the death of a pope to elect a new pope, although the Chapel is more famous for being the place where Michelangelo painted the ceiling between 1508 and 1512. Wheelchair users enter the Sistine Chapel through a long hallway where everyone else exits the Chapel. There are 11 steps leading down to the hall, but there is a wheelchair lift that takes wheelchair users down the steps. I was actually stuck on this same lift for an hour back in 2003. The weight limit is only 230 kg (507 pounds), which is pretty much exactly the total weight of me sitting in my wheelchair. I e-mailed the Vatican a couple of weeks prior to the trip to inquire about the lift situation, and they said that it would not be a problem to transfer into one of their manual wheelchairs. So, rather than risk getting stuck again, I was fully prepared this time to transfer into one of the Vatican Museums’ manual wheelchairs for the trip down to the Chapel.
However, when we arrived at the steps, the museum worker told me to get on the lift. I immediately told him about my prior experience and double-checked the labeling on the lift to confirm the 230 kg weight limit, but he wanted me to give it a try anyway. While I was a little nervous about it, I definitely liked the idea of being able to go down to the Chapel in my own electric wheelchair rather than having to transfer into a manual wheelchair, so I got on the lift. Sure enough, it hesitated and lifted me up a little bit, but it didn’t really move very far. That’s when my friend got smart and grabbed the side of my wheelchair and lifted up on it to take some of the weight off. That did the trick as I went down without any problem. Of course, going back up is a lot harder on the lift than going down, so when it was time to go back up after visiting the Chapel, my friend really had to pull up hard on the side of my wheelchair to take some of the weight off, and he had to continue pushing up on my chair the whole way up the stairs as he walked alongside the lift. It wasn’t easy, but it worked out fine.
The Sistine Chapel itself was great. Of course, it was incredibly crowded with people everywhere, and you really have to make sure that people don’t trip over you as everyone is busy looking up at the ceiling taking in Michelangelo’s famous frescoes. One thing that really surprised me was the lack of Vatican security guards telling people not to take pictures. On my first visit to the Sistine Chapel in 2003, they were extremely strict about people not taking pictures inside the Chapel, and any flashbulb that went off was immediately met by a security guard shouting that no pictures were allowed. When we entered the Sistine Chapel this time around though, there were flashbulbs and people taking pictures everywhere. It wasn’t until about 10 minutes later that we heard an announcement over a loudspeaker that flash photography was not allowed, although that didn’t really stop anyone as there was no one there enforcing it.
Upon exiting the Vatican Museums, we made our way along the outside walls of Vatican City to St. Peter’s Square, which was probably about a 10-minute stroll. There was a large section of chairs set up in St. Peter’s Square in preparation for the Papal Audience the following day, which the Pope does every Wednesday except during the summer months. There was also a large lineup of people waiting to enter St. Peter’s Basilica. Fortunately, we were able to bypass the long line and go right through to the front. To enter the Basilica, there was an elevator on the right side that took us up to the main entrance. There were a few main doors leading into the Basilica, one of which was ramped for wheelchair access. After spending some time wandering around the inside of the Basilica, we went back outside to the elevator and proceeded down to the Vatican Grottoes, which is the level below the floor of St. Peter’s where many popes are buried, including the recently deceased Pope John Paul II. This is also where the tomb of St. Peter is located. Like St. Peter’s Basilica, the Vatican Grottoes were very accessible.
By the time we exited the Vatican Grottoes, it was late afternoon and we had pretty much-seen everything we intended to see at the Vatican. So, after spending a few minutes checking out the Obelisk and the Centro del Colonnato in St. Peter’s Square, we began the walk back to our hotel. Along the way we had a late lunch/early dinner at a sidewalk café and made stops at a few points of interest, including Castel Sant’Angelo and Piazza Navona.
We began our second full day of sightseeing in Rome at the Colosseum. The Colosseum is probably a good 45-minute walk from the hotel we stayed at, which is a long way to walk if you plan to do it both ways. There are plenty of notable things to see along the way though, including the Pantheon, the Trevi Fountain, Piazza Venezia, the Capitoline Hill, and the Forum. So, our plan was to start off by getting a ride to the Colosseum first thing in the morning, and from there to spend a couple of hours touring the Colosseum before using the rest of the day to walk back to the hotel, all the while stopping to take in various points of interest along the way.
One thing should be pointed out for wheelchair users who plan to tour Rome by wheelchair, though. Rome is full of cobblestone streets. In fact, there are very few paved streets that I saw, and those streets were typically heavily trafficked streets. So, wheeling around Rome by wheelchair can be a bumpy ride. The cobblestones are generally not so rough that they can not be navigated by wheelchairs, but they are consistently bumpy enough that those who have a real problem with wheeling on cobblestone will want to consider booking transfers with accessible vehicles rather than trying to wheel it on their own. I did not find a lack of curb cuts to be much of a problem because most of the streets were more like back alleys, so I spent more time just wheeling along on the roads than I did on actual sidewalks.
For such an old piece of architecture (it was completed in 80 AD), I am always amazed at how accessible the Colosseum is. The outside of the Colosseum is actually the roughest part as the area around the entrance is a rather bumpy cobblestone. There is also a curb that leads onto a sidewalk that goes into the Colosseum, although you can avoid the curb if you just walk around the Colosseum a little bit to where it levels out. Once inside, the main hall and the walkways around the upper and lower levels are completely paved. There is also a very modern elevator that will take people from the main floor to the upper level. Pretty much the entire area of the Colosseum that is open to tourists is accessible for wheelchair users, with the exception of a small area on the lower level where there are a few steps to go down and then back up to the other side. That area can be seen from above on the second level though, so it really isn’t much of a loss.
Unlike my last trip to the Colosseum in 2003, we decided to forgo the guided tour and just tour the Colosseum on our own. So, we got in line with everyone else to purchase admission. As soon as one of the staff members saw me though, he pulled me out of the line and escorted me through an empty aisle to the very front of the line to get tickets. Admission was free for me and one person, so only one of my friends had to pay, which was really nice. We certainly didn’t get this special treatment on my previous trip to the Colosseum. Once inside, we took our time walking around the upper and lower levels. One of the great things about visiting the Colosseum is that there is no time limit. You can basically spend as much time as you want to wander around. I must say, of all the places I have ever visited in my life, the Colosseum is easily the place that leaves me the most in awe. It is an amazing experience to look around the Colosseum and try to visualize the emperors who once sat there, the gladiators who once fought there, and the Christians who were martyred there. It is hard to imagine.
Next, we made our way next door to the Roman Forum, which served as the marketplace and the center of political and social activity in ancient Rome. On my previous trip, I entered the Forum on the east side through the Arch of Titus, which I now realize was not the best way to enter the Forum as it was lined with some of the worst cobblestones I have ever seen. The better entrance for wheelchair users is off of Via Dei Fori Imperiali, which is the busy main road that travels alongside the Forum and the Colosseum. This entrance is located on the side of a hill, but they have installed a wheelchair lift to take wheelchair users down to the Forum. The lift is hardly even necessary though as the ramp that most people take down into the Forum is paved and is actually one of the smoother surfaces we came across in all of downtown Rome. Once inside the Forum, I managed to wheel around a little bit, although the pathways were sporadic in terms of accessibility. Parts of the pathways were dirt or fine gravel and quite manageable, while other parts consisted of huge, uneven stones that only the most determined wheelchair users could go over. Although it is difficult for a wheelchair to get around in much of the Forum, there is certainly enough to see to make it worthwhile, such as the spot where Julius Caesar’s body was reportedly cremated and buried following his assassination.
After the Forum, we continued down Via Dei Fori Imperiali and up a side road to Capitoline Hill, where there is a big statue of Marcus Aurelius on a horse in the middle of a square. The square is surrounded by 3 palazzi (palaces) that together make up the Capitoline Museums. Behind the statue to the right of the center palazzo, there is a small road leading to an overlook that offers the best panoramic view the Forum. This is a great spot to stop for people who do not have the time to go into the Forum, although I would say it is a must-see even for those who do. Not only does it offer the best overall view of the Forum, but it’s also free.
Next, we made our way back down the hill and continued on through a busy Piazza Venezia (Venice Square), which is highlighted by a huge monument to Vittorio Emanuele II — the first king of a unified Italy. From there, it was about a 10-15 minute walk to the Trevi Fountain, a huge fountain completed in the mid-1700s. One popular legend has it that people who throw a coin into the water will ensure themselves of a return trip to Rome in their lifetime. Unfortunately, wheelchair users can’t really test this legend out because there are steps leading down to the fountain. One can still get a really good view of it from the top of the steps, though.
Our last stop of the day was the Pantheon, located just a short walk from the Trevi Fountain. The Pantheon was originally completed in 27 A.D. under Marcus Agrippa, although it was last reconstructed in 126 A.D. by Emperor Hadrian following a couple of fires. While Marcus Agrippa originally intended the Pantheon to be a temple to all the gods of Ancient Rome, it has been used for a number of different things over the centuries, including as a church, which is what is still used for today. The Pantheon is home to several tombs, including the tombs of a couple of Italian kings and the famous painter Raphael. While there is a small curb outside the main entrance, there is a wheelchair ramp off to the side. The inside of the Pantheon is completely wheelchair accessible, and admission is free for everyone. Once inside, make sure to take note of the dome ceiling. At the top of the dome is the Oculus, a large round opening that actually allows rain to fall inside the Pantheon.
LEGEND OF THE SEAS
The next morning, we checked out of our hotel and were picked up at 12 noon for the ride to the port. It was about a 1-hour drive from our hotel to the port of Civitavecchia. Upon arrival, we handed our checked luggage over to Royal Caribbean baggage handlers and proceeded to board the Legend of the Seas. Having made its maiden voyage back in 1995, the Legend is one of Royal Caribbean’s older ships. It is also one of their smaller ships with a capacity of only 2,076 passengers. It is still a very nice vessel though, and I found overall accessibility to be quite good around the ship.
We were booked into a wheelchair accessible junior suite stateroom. It was very accessible as the bathroom had a roll-in shower and there was plenty of space to maneuver around in the room. However, I was shocked to discover that there was a 3-inch lip that I had to wheel over to go out onto the balcony. Much like my experience at the entrance to our hotel in Rome, it was not a huge deal for my friend to lift me over the bump (although it wasn’t easy), but it was quite annoying to not be able to go in and out onto the balcony freely. After putting up with it for the first night, I decided to go to the Pursers Desk to complain about it. A day later, maintenance was by to take measurements, and in no time I had a custom-built ramp to solve the problem. This is a good example of how it pays to speak up and say something right away rather than just making do with the inconvenience. I was surprised that other past passengers had not pointed out the issue sooner, but perhaps there was a ramp there at one time and it somehow got misplaced, or maybe they just didn’t think that a quick fix was possible.
No one before me was put out to the extent that they didn’t go out onto the balcony at all. The ability to go outside in your own cabin is the reason people pay big bucks for a balcony stateroom. Royal Caribbean is typically ahead of the game in terms of accessibility, so I was very surprised to find this problem in our stateroom. Royal Caribbean’s Access and Compliance Department later notified me that the issue of the lip is only an issue on Royal Caribbean’s older ships, and in those cases, there should be portable ramps available on each ship that were made for this purpose. They aren’t really sure what happened in my case, although they did intend to investigate to ensure it doesn’t happen to other guests. The accessible balconies on all of Royal Caribbean’s newer ships are not an issue as they were designed to have level access from the stateroom onto the balcony.
Our first port of call was Naples, Italy, where I prearranged a full-day tour along the scenic Amalfi Coast. Once off the ship, we made our way through security to a nearby parking lot where an accessible van and a driver were waiting for us. The van was complete with a hydraulic lift and tie-downs, so we got in and began the journey south for the day. As we exited Naples, we drove alongside the mighty Mount Vesuvius, best known as the volcano whose eruption in 79 A.D. buried the nearby towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum, killing thousands of people. The ruins of Pompeii have since been excavated and have become a popular tourist attraction, but unfortunately, the site is not wheelchair accessible at all. However, since we were driving right by it, our driver decided to stop in and do a quick drive-through. While I could not go into the actual site, I was able to see some of the ruins from inside the van. It wasn’t much, but then again I wasn’t expecting to see any of Pompeii at all, so seeing something was definitely better than nothing.
Next, we made our way down the coast to the town of Sorrento, making brief stops at a few scenic points along the way. In Sorrento, we stopped to walk around town for a bit and do a little shopping. Then we met up with our driver again and continued on down the coast to the town of Amalfi. The coastline road to Amalfi was full of winds and curves as it weaved along the side of a cliff the whole way. The scenery was spectacular. We made a few more stops at scenic overlooks along the way before arriving in Amalfi. Once in Amalfi, we had about an hour to walk around town and grab some lunch at one of the many sidewalk cafés. Then it was time to head back to the ship to make sure we arrived in time. Rather than going back the same way we came, our driver took a more direct route from Amalfi and made it back to the port in just over an hour. In the end, we all really enjoyed the tour. It was a lot of driving as most of the day was spent inside the vehicle, but those who enjoy beautiful scenery will definitely enjoy a drive along the Amalfi Coast.
After our first day at sea, the ship docked in Athens, Greece, where we again had a prearranged full-day tour scheduled. We were met at the port by a driver, a private guide, and a wheelchair accessible van. After my previous visit to Athens for one day in 2006, I wanted to make sure that this time we were given ample time at the Acropolis to tour around on our own. So, I made sure to tell the guide right away so that he could plan the day’s schedule accordingly. Aside from the Acropolis, there wasn’t anything specific that I wanted to see in Athens, so I just left it up to the tour company to plan an itinerary.
We started off the tour with a drive to Cape Sounio, which was about a 90-minute drive south of Athens. The driver stuck to the coastal road the whole way so that we could see some of the nice coastal scenery along the way. The only problem was that we had just spent a full-day driving along the Amalfi Coast a couple of days earlier, so while this particular drive was a very nice drive, it was hard for us to truly appreciate in comparison to the spectacular scenery we had just seen along the Amalfi Coast. I was happy when we finally arrived at Cape Sounio, which is the site of some ruins of an ancient Greek temple of Poseidon. Poseidon was the god of the sea in Greek mythology. The temple was located atop a hill on the edge of the Cape so that incoming sailors would be greeted by the monument as they sailed in towards Athens.
When we arrived at the site, we got out of the van to explore the area. It was then that our guide asked me if I was able to walk at all because there was a huge flight of stairs on the side of the hill that had to be climbed in order to get up to the ruins of the temple. I was stunned. I told him that I could not walk at all. So, we just went over to an area where I could see the ruins from afar, and then he spent 15 or 20 minutes telling us as much as he could about the site from there. I must admit, I didn’t hear much of what he had to say. I was too steamed up about the fact that we had just driven 90 minutes to see something that was not wheelchair accessible. After the brief history lesson, the guide and my two friends went up to see the ruins up close while I waited at the bottom of the hill. There was no sense in having my friends miss out on the temple just because I couldn’t get up there. So, after an hour on the ground in total, we got back in the van and headed back to Athens. By the time we got back to the city, it was 1 p.m. We had just spent the first 4 hours of our 8-hour tour driving to see something that was not accessible. The day was definitely not off to a good start.
Upon arrival back in Athens, we spent some time driving past some of the major landmarks in the city, including the stadium where the first modern Olympics were held in 1896, the Greek Parliament building with the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier out front, and the remains of the Temple of Olympian Zeus. There wasn’t really enough time for me to get out of the van at each place though, so we basically just did a quick drive-by and the guide pointed out some highlights.
Next, we were off to the Acropolis to end the day. Unlike my first trip to the Acropolis in 2006, this time our driver drove us right up the pathway to the entrance, which regular vehicles are not allowed to do. When I got out of the vehicle, we were immediately approached by one of the staff members at the Acropolis with the most disappointing news of our trip — the wheelchair lift was broken. It had broken down earlier in the day, and given that it was a Sunday and not a weekday, it would not be fixed until the following day. They tried to page a technician to come in on short notice, but apparently, not many people answer their pagers on a Sunday afternoon. Given that the Acropolis is the highlight of a trip to Greece for most people, it is a little surprising that they don’t have a technician on duty at all times while the Acropolis is open. Our driver felt awful and made numerous phone calls trying to get someone to come out — including a phone call to the Greek Ministry of Tourism, but the timing was just bad. So, much like our experience at Cape Sounio, our guide just spent some time giving me a little history lesson at the bottom of the hill, and then I waited for an hour while he and my friends went to the top to see everything close up. While I was disappointed that I did not get to the top of the Acropolis, I felt very fortunate that at least I had been able to do it three years earlier. I can’t imagine the disappointment that someone would have if they were in Athens on a once-in-a-lifetime trip and the lift did not work.
On the way back to the port, we stopped briefly at a little market to pick up some souvenirs. While we were there, we struck up a conversation with a really nice man who owned one of the shops, and he ended up handing me a free T-shirt. In my mind, I certainly felt as though I earned that free shirt given all the waiting around I did that day while my friends toured around without me. At least it was a good way to end off the day … that is until I got home and realized that the shirt was way too small for me. I guess it just wasn’t my day.
Our day in Athens was easily the most disappointing day of the whole cruise (the only disappointing day actually). I have visited Athens twice now — each time for a day tour, and each time I left feeling like there was a lot of the city that I missed out on. The first time we only spent a few hours in Athens because it was a 90-minute drive between our resort and the city, and this time we only spent a few hours in Athens because we wasted the first half of the day driving out to see something that is not wheelchair accessible. I have definitely learned a few things based on these two experiences. First, Cape Sounio is not wheelchair accessible. It can be seen from afar, so if you have already visited the major attractions in Athens and are just looking for a day out that involves a nice coastal drive and viewing an ancient temple from afar, it’s not a bad trip. I would not recommend it for someone who is visiting Athens for the first time though. Second, the Acropolis should be visited first thing in the morning. That way if the wheelchair lift breaks down, there will hopefully be time left in the day for a technician to come out and fix it so you can still go to the top later in the day. Lastly, if I’m fortunate enough to visit Athens again someday, next time I am going to make sure that I spend the whole day in the city seeing things that I want to see. This means doing some research beforehand to come up with my own itinerary, and then forgoing the private guide and just hiring a wheelchair accessible vehicle plus a driver to chauffeur me around the city for the day. Hopefully the next time I visit Athens I will be able to leave at the end of the day with the feeling that we really made the most of our time there.
Our third port of call was the Greek island of Mykonos. This was the only port on our cruise itinerary that required tendering. Fortunately, Royal Caribbean is one of the few cruise lines that have wheelchair accessible tenders. So, after getting up in the morning, we went down to the lower deck where they were boarding people onto the tenders. I was a little nervous when I saw that everyone actually had to walk down several steps to get to the opening in the ship where they were loading people onto the tenders, but then one of the crew members directed me over to a small service elevator which took me down several feet to the bottom of the steps. Getting onto the tender was fairly easy as it was pretty much a level entry from the ship. The only issue was a bit of a gap between the dock and the tender, but there were several guys helping me get in and out, so it wasn’t a problem at all. I stayed right near the entrance inside the tender, so I was the last one on the tender and the first one off.
Since there was no accessible transportation available in Mykonos, we just walked around town for a couple hours. There were plenty of restaurants and gift shops near the port, as well as a small beach. The roads and walkways in town consisted of a stone surface which weren’t the smoothest ride, but they were definitely manageable for a wheelchair user.
The next day we docked on the Greek island of Rhodes. I prearranged a 4-hour island tour by wheelchair accessible van with a driver and a private guide. There was only one issue with the van. While it did have a hydraulic lift, it did not have a raised roof or a lowered floor, so the height from the floor to the ceiling was only 48 inches. I sit about 58 inches tall in my electric wheelchair. So, rather than sitting hunched over inside the vehicle for a few hours, I decided to just bring my manual wheelchair from home and sit in that for the tour instead. I sit considerably lower in my manual wheelchair than I do in my electric chair, so that worked out fine for the tour. I still had to watch my head getting through the door at the back of the van, but there was more headroom once inside.
Like our other guided tours, we met the vehicle, the driver, and the guide near the entrance to the port after we passed through security. We started the tour with a short drive out of town to see some of the ruins of ancient Rhodes. After a drive by some remaining columns from the Temple of Apollo, we made a stop at the stadium, which dates back to the second century B.C. It was a short walk from the parking lot to the stadium and the Odeon (theater) along a stone pathway. The pathway was a little rough in some areas, but not bad overall.
Next, we headed back to the city to tour medieval Rhodes. Our driver dropped us off at one of the 7 gates in the fortress of the Old Town. Then we made our way inside the walls to the Palace of the Grand Master, which was built by the Knights of Rhodes in the 14th century. There is an admission cost, but our guide did some sweet talking and they waived the fee for us because a lot of the palace is not accessible. Once inside, we took a walk through the courtyard and went into one of the buildings, which is now home to a museum.
That was pretty much the extent of our tour of Rhodes. We had one hour at the end of the tour to spend walking around the Old Town shopping for souvenirs and grabbing a bite to eat. Wheeling around in the Old Town was generally not too difficult. The only really bad road was the “Street of Knights”, which ran from the Palace of the Grand Master to the market area inside the front gate near the port. That road consisted of an incredibly rough stone. There was a paved sidewalk, but it did not extend along the whole road and there were no curb cutouts on it.
Our fifth port of call was Kusadasi, Turkey, where we had a full-day tour of Ephesus scheduled. Once again, we were met at the port by a wheelchair accessible van, the driver, and our private guide. I had no idea what to expect for this tour, so I was happy to find that the tour company had an excellent wheelchair accessible van with a hydraulic lift. The other thing we immediately noticed as we drove to our first stop was how well-paved the roads were between the port and the Ephesus area, which was about a 20-minute drive. After experiencing numerous old cobblestone roads in Italy and Greece, it was refreshing to sit in a nice wheelchair accessible vehicle and enjoy a smooth drive through the country.
Our first stop was the House of the Virgin Mary, which many people believe was the home where Mary spent her last years. The paved pathway leading to the home was completely accessible, although the house itself was not as there were a couple of steps just inside the entrance. The house is very small though, so wheelchair users could still go inside the main door to take a quick peek inside. The house serves as a chapel now, and people can file through to see the inside of the house. Just down from the house on the side of a hill is a wall where people could post their prayers. There are also a couple of springs along the wall. Many people come to drink from those fountains because they believe the water provides miracles.
Next, we were off to visit the ruins of ancient Ephesus, starting with the Great Theatre of Ephesus, which was first constructed in the 3rd century B.C. and seats 25,000 people. The theatre has biblical significance as it was here that the men of the city came to riot against the preaching of the apostle Paul. Paul wanted to come to the theater to talk to the men, but he was advised against it by the disciples and other city officials for his own safety (Acts 19:23-41). The theater is not wheelchair accessible, but you can get a good look at it from the outside.
Next, we walked over to the entrance of the ancient city. I was actually surprised by the decent level of access as there were ramps in a number of areas of the old city. The first stop inside was the Library of Celsus, which was completed in 135 A.D. and once held between 12,000 and 15,000 scrolls. From there, we followed the main street up the side of the hill, stopping to check out some of the various ruins along the way. We could not see everything as the stone path of the main road got rougher and rougher the farther we went along, but we were still able to see a good part of the ancient ruins.
Prior to going for lunch, we made one more quick stop — this one at the ruins of the Temple of Artemis. Completed in approximately 550 B.C., the Temple of Artemis was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Not much of it remains now though. There is basically just one column along with some remnants from the foundation laying in an open field.
Next, we were off to Ege Hali, a small Turkish business where they make Turkish Handwoven Carpets & Kilims. They also have a little restaurant area, so we started off with lunch. I’m always a little nervous about eating food that I am not familiar with in a foreign country, especially when I don’t get to choose from a menu. Fortunately, it turned out well. They brought out several plates of appetizers, followed by bread and chicken and beef kabobs, all of which were quite good. After lunch, we were treated to a lengthy demonstration on how they make Turkish carpets. The carpets aren’t cheap, but when you see all of the time and effort that they put into making them, it is quite impressive. The quality is outstanding as well.
That was pretty much the end of our day tour in Ephesus. We were dropped off near the port by mid-afternoon, where we were able to spend a little time browsing through the various shops. For a port in which I had no idea of what to expect, it really turned out to be one of the highlights of our cruise.
After only our second day at sea, we arrived in Alexandria, Egypt. This was the day I had been looking forward to the most on the cruise as Egypt had been at the top of my “places to visit” wish list for a long time. It was clearly the most popular stop for most people on the ship as we later heard that the ship was virtually empty during the day while most passengers were off doing shore excursions in Alexandria and Cairo. Of course, we were no exception as I made arrangements for a full-day accessible tour into Cairo through an Egyptian company that specializes in accessible tours.
Since Cairo is a 3-hour drive from Alexandria, we were off the ship at 8 a.m. to start our tour. When we arrived at the security checkpoint inside the terminal building, one of the security guards saw me and immediately escorted us back out to where we came in and around the side of the building to an outside gated entrance, where he let us out into the main parking lot. Clearly, the main entrance of the terminal was not accessible … more on that later.
Once inside the parking lot, we walked back towards the main entrance to the terminal building where we found a young man from the tour company holding up a sign with our name on it. He brought us over to the spot where the van was parked, and then he helped me get inside. The van was quite accessible. My main concern prior to the tour was the amount of headroom and legroom that there would be inside the van, but that turned out not to be an issue at all. They had a portable ramp that they used to get me in at the back, and although it was fairly steep, getting in and out of the van went quite smoothly with their assistance.
Upon leaving the port, we drove a few minutes to pick up another person that works for the tour company, and then we were off on the long drive to Cairo. It didn’t take long to see that Egypt is a whole different world from where I come from, or for that matter from anywhere I have ever visited. I used to think that driving couldn’t get any crazier than it is in Rome. That was until I visited Cairo. With a population of approximately 20 million people, Cairo is one busy city. My friends and I marveled at the way our driver weaved in and out of traffic, each time tooting his horn and avoiding other vehicles by inches. He wasn’t unique though — that’s the way everyone drove. It was also amazing to see the number of pickup trucks driving with a back end full of people, many of whom were women and children. You certainly don’t see that in North America.
Our first stop in Cairo was the Egyptian Museum, home to a vast collection of Egyptian antiquities, most notably the treasures of King Tutankhamun. This is where we met up with our private guide, who spent the day with us in Cairo. We made our way over to the entrance of the museum, where we passed through security and purchased admission. Then we noticed a problem. There were 8 steps followed by another 2 steps at the entrance to the museum, and the wheelchair ramp was completely blocked off by scaffolding as they were doing some work to the outside façade of the museum. I didn’t think there was any way I was getting inside that museum, which would have been a huge disappointment. However, our guide immediately went inside the museum and summoned several strong guys to come out and help lift me. Given that my wheelchair and I are a combined weight of over 500 lbs., I was still a little skeptical, but everyone grabbed on to a different part of my chair, and up I went. I’m not sure who was more relieved when I was finally at the top – me, or the guys carrying me!
Once inside the museum, our guide walked us through some of the highlights on the main floor. Then she had one of the security guards take us in a service elevator up to the next floor, where one of the main highlights of the museum can be found — the treasures of King Tutankhamun. Tutankhamun, often referred to simply as King Tut, was a pharaoh that lived during the 14th century B.C. and died at the young age of 18. Although he was a minor pharaoh in the grand scheme of history, he is famous largely because when his tomb was discovered in the Valley of the Kings in 1922, it was the most intact tomb to ever be discovered in modern times. Most tombs that have been uncovered by archaeologists in the last couple hundred years had been previously looted by grave robbers, so it was rare to find a tomb that still had all of the priceless treasures inside of it that were buried with the pharaoh. All of these golden treasures are on display at the Egyptian Museum, including his golden throne, his burial mask, and countless other golden artifacts. We spent the bulk of our short time at the Egyptian Museum in this area checking out the many priceless items.
The King Tutankhamun exhibit is completely accessible for wheelchair users. Unfortunately, other areas of the museum are not as accessible, such as the popular Royal Mummy Room. There are also no wheelchair accessible washrooms in the museum. Fortunately, the museum will be moving into a brand-new facility in 2012 which will be completely wheelchair accessible. So, if you are planning a trip to Egypt and the Egyptian Museum is at the top of your list of things to see, you might want to wait until 2012 when you’ll be able to take in all of the highlights of the museum. We only had time to spend one hour at the museum, but one could easily spend a whole day checking out all of the ancient artifacts.
Next, we were off to the Papyrus Institute, where we had some free time to walk around inside. The walls were lined with pictures for sale that were all painted on papyrus. Papyrus is a paper-like material that is made from a papyrus plant. The practice was popularized during ancient Egyptian times due to the abundance of papyrus plants in the region. At the front of the store, a man gave us a neat demonstration on how papyrus is made.
After the Papyrus Institute, we had lunch at a local Egyptian restaurant. Once again I was a little nervous about what the food would be like, but thankfully I ended up really enjoying it. We had a choice between fish or chicken, so I opted for the chicken with potatoes and rice. It was quite good. There were appetizers as well, although they recommended not eating the greens due to the different types of bacteria which we wouldn’t be used to.
After lunch, we drove to nearby Giza to see the world-famous Pyramids. Once inside the site, our driver took us to a lookout area where we were able to get out for a great view of the three main Pyramids in the distance. As we got out of the van to take some pictures, it wasn’t long before we were approached by one of the local men asking us if he could take our picture. Of course, all he really wanted was a tip, but he was really nice so we let him do his thing. He gave me a headscarf to pose in and took several pictures, including the obligatory tourist picture of me holding up my hand in a way that makes it look like I am touching the top of the pyramid.
Next, we drove a little closer and parked between the center pyramid (Pyramid of Khafre) and the Pyramid of Khufu, also known as the Pyramid of Cheops or the Great Pyramid of Giza. The Great Pyramid of Giza is the oldest pyramid, having been completed in approximately 2560 B.C. For 3800 years it stood as the tallest man-made structure in the world, and today it is the only one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World that is still standing. There was a parking lot next to the Pyramid of Khafre, so we were able to get out of the van and walk around a little between these two pyramids. It was definitely an impressive sight to gaze up at these pyramids that have been standing for over 4000 years!
Of course, it wasn’t long that we were out of the vehicle before we were approached by some more men looking to make a little money. This time they were offering camel rides. They said there was no set price, so you can basically pay them whatever you want. My friends certainly couldn’t pass that up! The men were quite happy to help them onto the camels, walk them around a little, and take pictures of them with a pyramid in the background. Of course, when it came time to tip them at the end, it was a bit of a different story. As my friend got out his wallet, they would say things like, “it’s up to you, some people give 20 euros, some people give 50 euros “. I would love to know how many people give 50 euros for a 5-minute camel ride! The truth is that no matter how much money you give them, they are always going to ask for more, and they are quite persistent. The most popular line we heard was “please, it’s for the camel, it’s for the camel”. The key is just to be very assertive with them. As long as you are fair with your tip and you give them a stern “no” when they ask for more money, they give up fairly quickly.
We finished up our trip to Giza by driving over a little further to see the Sphinx, a large monument with the body of a lion and a man’s head. The Sphinx is located directly in front of the Pyramid of Khafre. The head of the Sphinx is believed to be the image of the Pharaoh Khafre, who ruled Egypt from 2558-2532 B.C. Once again, we were able to get out of the van and walk around a little. The area consisted of a fine sand, so it was a little difficult to wheel around in certain areas. I still managed to get fairly close though, although you can’t go right up to the Sphinx. Unlike the first two stops, we weren’t approached by any men looking to make money this time, although this area did have a lot of kids selling little trinkets.
Next, we made a stop at the Philae Bazaar to end our trip to Cairo. We were given free time to walk around inside, where they sold a whole host of different merchandise. There was everything from chess sets, to Egyptian pottery, to gold jewelry. It was a great place to pick up some quality Egyptian souvenirs.
At the end of the day, we got back in the van and made the long 3-hour trip back to the port in Alexandria. After getting dropped off, we went back to the same gate that the security guard let us out at in the morning since we assumed that the main terminal building was not wheelchair accessible. This time there was a different security guard standing at the gate, and as soon as we went up to him, he motioned for us to keep walking to the main entrance to the terminal. Clearly, he didn’t speak English, and given the huge rifle he was carrying, we weren’t about to argue with him. So, we walked over towards the main terminal building wondering if maybe there in fact was an accessible entrance that we didn’t know about. Of course, when we got there, there was nothing but steps everywhere. So, we had no idea what to do. We ended up walking back towards the gate and the security guard where we had just come from, and fortunately, another man saw the confused look on our faces and came to our rescue.
He appeared to be either one of the tour bus drivers or possibly a guide, and he immediately went over to the security guard and clearly told him in Arabic that he needed to let us through because the main entrance is not accessible. The security guard would not allow it though, and the two men got into quite a heated discussion. The man who was helping us then stormed past the guard up to the gate and started to open it, but the guard immediately stopped him, and the two started to get a little physical with each other. We were quite surprised at this man’s perseverance to help us given the big rifle that the security guard was carrying, but eventually, the guard spoke to somebody on his radio and he ended up opening the gate for us. We, of course, thanked the man who helped us up and down, and then we went through the gate and made the short walk to the ship. It was definitely an interesting way to end our 12-hour tour of Egypt.
Following our third day at sea, the ship docked at our last port of call — Corfu, Greece. This was only the second port on the cruise itinerary where we were unable to arrange an accessible sightseeing tour. Fortunately, there is quite a bit to do near the port if you don’t mind doing some walking. So, we picked up a tourist map of the area and made our way into town. We ended up in the Old Town, which was a busy part of town full of tourist shops and activities. There was a huge square (Spianada) in the center of the Old Town, and adjacent to the square was the Old Fortress — a castle that was built in the 15th century. There is an admission fee to enter the Old Fortress, although we got in for free as there is no charge for a person with a disability and one companion. There wasn’t really much to see inside the fortress other than the Church of St. George, a small chapel that was completely accessible. Upon leaving the Old Fortress, we made the long walk back to the port. Of course, the walk back always seems to take twice as long as it does to get there, and by midday, it had gotten very hot outside. So, it’s important to make sure you have lots of fluids with you if you are going to spend the day walking around Corfu in the summer. I was relieved to finally get back to the ship to do a little cooling off.
After our fourth and final day at sea, the ship returned to Civitavecchia cruise port to end the cruise. Upon disembarking the ship, we gathered up our luggage and made our way outside, where we once again met up with our driver to take us to the airport. Following three days in Rome and 12 days on the cruise, I was happy that all of our hotel, transportation, and cruise arrangements worked out incredibly well. Aside from the one disappointing day in Athens, all of the tours were fantastic and we had a great time on board the ship. With so many impressive sights to see and such good access at so many ports, this was one cruise itinerary that I would recommend to any wheelchair user.