As you can see, we love Rome! Reluctant as we are, to begin with a cliché, it is true that “Roma, non basta una vita” – “Rome – a lifetime is not enough.” Above all, we hope this article will inspire you to go: access barriers are not trivial and often frustrating, but the high points are high. Like everyone who enjoys traveling, our highs come from the people we meet, the beautiful and inspiring art, architecture, and natural scenery we see, the culture we experience, the history we learn, and the food and drink we relish. These are reasons enough for returning to a place we find endlessly fascinating and exhilarating.
Wheelchair access adds another dimension. As a disabled traveler (Howard) and an able-bodied spouse who is affected by access barriers (Michele), there are some unique high points: the sense of empowerment and optimism in being able to travel, in overcoming the obstacles and barriers, in seeing how other places handle access and realizing that no place has a monopoly on good design or best practices, and in experiencing real progress on repeat visits. The differences in access between one place and another yield interesting and valuable insights about cultural differences in general, unexamined assumptions, priorities, values, organizational methods, and design styles. Even the downside has an upside: encountering access barriers in other places makes us appreciate just how good access is at home.
This article is dedicated to Jason Shuffler, Chris McCloud, Cornelia Danielson, and Martina Dalla Riva, with great affection and with many thanks for making our trips unforgettable!
We traveled on our own, not with a group. In planning our trip we used the Internet and other information sources but not a travel agent.
We’ve tried to be as accurate as possible, but it’s essential to 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. Things change. It’s critical to re-confirm information shortly before acting on it.
About Us. Because one’s capabilities, limitations, and equipment affect the access achievable and his point of reference informs his perceptions, we’ll tell you about ourselves. We are fortunate to live in San Francisco, where wheelchair access to buildings, monuments, streets, and sidewalks is generally excellent. Howard has muscular dystrophy, uses a power wheelchair, and cannot stand or walk. Michele is able-bodied. In 2014 and 2012 Howard used his everyday wheelchair, a Permobil with a seat elevator, reclining back, elevating footrest, and tilt-in-space.
The Permobil is comfortable and rugged, but there are some disadvantages. It weighs around 325 pounds (148 kg) and, unlike the Quickie lightweight folding power chair he used in previous trips to Italy, it cannot be tilted and lifted, although it can climb a curb or step around 3 inches (7 to 8 cm) high. This presented obstacles we hadn’t encountered on previous trips to some restaurants, stores, and churches. The Permobil is 26 inches (66 cm) wide and, with the footrest in the shortened position, 48 inches (1.22 meters) long. Howard is 6 feet (1.83 meters) tall and, when seated in his wheelchair, 57 inches (1.45 meters) high. All other dimensions in this article are approximate; we didn’t have a tape measure.
A Call for Advocacy. Researching your trip, the trip itself, and the time after you return presents great opportunities to educate and advocate for access. If we learn that something isn’t accessible and could feasibly be made accessible, or that something is mostly accessible but could be improved, Howard often sends an immediate email with detailed recommendations. On our trip, we provide feedback in real-time. After we return Howard writes letters advocating better access, including appeals to government officials. We aren’t only critical – we try to acknowledge and appreciate good access, and we also recognize the logistical and architectural difficulties and limitations in making old buildings and ancient sites accessible. Our communications have usually been well received and our efforts have helped spur improvements.
Howard has written to the mayors of Rome and Paris about access issues, including the need for more curb ramps, and to the CEOs of the Rome and Paris airports. When writing to government officials, we usually send copies to local disability organizations. Sometimes a complaint or recommendation from us, as foreign tourists, can lend additional credibility and cumulative weight to similar advocacy by local individuals and disability organizations. Ironically, it may be easier for officials to ignore or delay action on a complaint by a local than one by a foreign tourist. See Section 17 of this article for a list of Italian disability and medical organizations.
We urge you to use your trip as an opportunity to help move the ball forward on disability access – you will already have the information and the impressions will be fresh in your mind, so writing an effective letter won’t take much extra time.
Good News about Smoking. We continue to be delighted by the complete lack of smoking in restaurants and cafes. An Italian law became effective in 2005 that bans smoking in restaurants, bars, and cafes nationwide, except in specially ventilated smoking rooms. (We’ve never seen restaurants or cafes with smoking rooms.) The penalties for patrons are strict, and those for proprietors even stricter. In our experience, the law is taken quite seriously. Smoking is permitted at outdoor tables, but this has rarely been a problem: it seems that smokers have become more considerate even when smoking outdoors. Also, if you eat outside in a crowded, bustling city such as Rome, vehicle exhaust is unavoidable, so you can’t expect perfectly clean air anyway. And a collateral benefit of the smoking ban is that fewer people use cell phones in restaurants in Italy than in the US – many go outside to have a cigarette and use their cell phones.
Phone Numbers. The country code for international calls to Italy is +39 (from the US, 011-39). Not all phone numbers in Italy have the same number of digits, so it’s important to double-check. Unlike in some other European countries, you must dial 0 before the area code whether calling within Italy or from abroad; the 0 is not dropped when calling from abroad. For example, to call Rome from the US, dial 011-39-06-xxx-xxxx and, from within Italy, 06-xxx-xxxx.
Floor Numbers. We use the Italian designation for floor numbers in buildings. For example, the “first floor” is the floor immediately above the ground floor, which Americans refer to as the “second floor.” In Italian elevators, for example, the ground floor is “0”, rather than “1” as in the US.
Websites. Most Italian websites that we link to have English webpages that are easy to find; usually there is a logo for English at the top of the homepage.
Table of Contents. After this introduction, the sections of this article are:
2 – General Access in Rome
3 – Public Bathrooms
4 – Electricity; Wheelchair Repair; Personal Care; Medical Needs
5 – Transportation in Rome
6 – Intercity Trains in Italy – Trenitalia
7 – Hotels and an Apartment
8 – Museums
9 – Churches
10 – Synagogue and Jewish Museum
11 – Antiquities and Other Sites
12 – EUR (Esposizione Universale di Roma)
13 – Outside Rome
14 – Walking Tours – Context Travel and Katie Parla
15 – The Great Courses Lectures
16 – Information
17 – Italian Disability and Medical Organization
Appendices. A hotel access questionnaire is Appendix A. You are welcome to adapt it for your own use. A metric conversion guide is in Appendix B. A dictionary of access terms in Italian, including a pronunciation guide, by Cornelia Danielson of Barrier Free Travel, is Appendix C.
Legal Stuff. This article and the appendices may not be reproduced or used for profit without our written permission, but readers are welcome to reproduce or use them for any other purpose.
2 – GENERAL ACCESS IN ROME
Although many barriers remain, we continue to be heartened by the growing awareness of access. People sincerely want to help. We saw locals and tourists in manual wheelchairs and a smaller number in power wheelchairs and scooters. Curb ramps remain the most problematic area; far too many corners still lack them, and many curb ramps are too steep and lack textured surfaces. But we’ve seen noticeable improvements on each trip. Interestingly, some curb ramps have railings, and some sidewalks have grooves in the pavement leading to the curb ramps to provide wayfinding for blind people using canes.
Terrain and Paths of Travel. The historic center of Rome is rugged. There are many hills, the streets are bustling, lively, chaotic, and crowded, and the pavement is uneven.
Many intersections, even major ones, lack curb ramps. Not infrequently there is a curb ramp at one end of the street but not the other, so it’s necessary to backtrack and roll in the street. Many site ramps and curb ramps are steeper than in the US. When we say that a place is accessible by a curb ramp or site ramp, we mean it is physically accessible, not necessarily that it is accessible independently or would qualify as accessible under American law. Because Howard uses a power wheelchair and we travel together, these barriers were much less significant than they would be for someone using a manual wheelchair or traveling alone. Conditions have improved over time, however, and more and better curb ramps are being constructed.
Parking is tight and parked vehicles often block curb ramps, although we have encountered this less on each successive trip. Construction projects that block sidewalks typically do not provide an alternative path of travel or a protected path, as would be required in the US. It is often necessary to roll in the street because of missing curb ramps, blocked curb ramps, blocked sidewalks, and construction obstacles. Even a strong person in a manual wheelchair will require frequent assistance up and down curbs. But don’t be discouraged – people are very willing to help.
Many small and medium-sized streets lack sidewalks and are made of black “Saint Peter’s stone,” so named because it has a point, like the dome of Saint Peter’s, on the side facing down into the earth. The stones are picturesque but uneven; don’t roll too fast right after eating. Cars, motorcycles, bicycles, and pedestrians share the same space. The good thing about these streets is that there is no curb, hence no need for curb ramps.
Traffic is heavy on the main streets, with cars, motorcycles, and scooters vying for limited space. Drivers are aggressive in an impersonal way, yet very skilled, alert, and aware of pedestrians; they are not angry or deliberately inconsiderate. Roman pedestrians are unfazed by drivers, unafraid of them and, it seems, sometimes even unaware of them. Many of the streets are one-way, making crossing manageable. The yellow lights are long compared to the US, as are the entire traffic light cycles, so there is ample time to cross. Some areas in the center of Rome have limited vehicular access, although some drivers ignore the prohibitions. There are some pedestrian-only zones.
The reward for navigating the difficult streets of Rome is that there is beauty and life wherever you turn. You can go to the same place many times, and each time notice something remarkable that you missed before.
Barricades at Ponte Sisto. Ponte Sisto is one of the main bridges on the Tiber River, connecting the main part of the city to the heart of Trastevere. On each side of the river, there is a chain that keeps vehicles out. It was locked day and night during our 2014 and 2012 trips, whereas on previous trips it was sometimes open. To allow pedestrians to pass there are semicircular metal barricades at both ends of the chain, but they are too small for many wheelchairs. In 2012 Howard got stuck, and Jason and several bystanders had to lift his Permobil millimeter by millimeter. (On previous trips he was just barely able to make it in his Quickie.) To cross the river into Trastevere we went to Ponte Garibaldi, the next bridge south, which has no barricades. Some of the other bridges may also have chains and barricades.
There is a similar barricade in the street leading from via Arenula to the Jewish Ghetto, but it is significantly larger in diameter and Howard had no problem navigating it.
Termini train station area. The area around Roma Termini train station, at least the streets between the station and Santa Maria Maggiore, seems much cleaner, more orderly, and less seedy than in the past.
Restaurants and Stores. Restaurants and stores typically have a threshold step from 2 to 8 inches (5 to 20 cm) high, and few have portable ramps. This was rarely a problem for Howard in past trips because he used a lightweight (100 pounds/45 kg) power chair with a tubular frame similar to that of a manual chair. It was not difficult for Michele to tip and lift the chair up one step or occasionally even two. Michele is quite proficient at this and employees were always eager to help, although often they did not quite know how. It was amusing for Michele to watch as strong, macho men tried to use brawn instead of finesse and then were amazed – and slightly embarrassed – when she showed them how easy it was to do. (Michele is 5’4” tall.)
That was not possible in 2014 and 2012 because Howard used his Permobil, which weighs around 325 pounds (148 kg) and has a solid frame, so the entrance step presented much more of a problem. The Permobil can go up a step of approximately 3 inches (7 to 8 cm), but the entrance step at many restaurants and stores is higher. The entrance step would present problems for travelers in wheelchairs that cannot be lifted.
Many cafés and restaurants in Rome have outdoor tables, and we ate most meals outside. Eating outdoors is one of the joys and delights of being in Rome in warm, sunny weather. The entrance steps would be much more of an obstacle in other seasons when sitting outdoors is not an option. For travelers in wheelchairs and scooters who have a choice of when to travel, being able to avoid the entrance barriers in restaurants and cafés is another reason for visiting Rome when the weather is good.
Museums, Monuments, Churches, and Antiquities. We urge you to try to tour all major museums, monuments, palazzos, churches, parks, and antiquities that interest you – they are likely to be at least partially accessible and you will see something interesting and beautiful on the way.
Elevators and Lifts. In American parlance an “elevator” is a vertical access device with a fully enclosed carriage and, usually, automatic doors; and a “lift” is a smaller vertical access device that is typically open at the top, does not have full height sides, can accommodate only one person, and may not be usable independently. Lifts are typically installed outdoors or when space is limited. Types of lifts include “platform lifts,” which travel straight up and down, and “stair lifts,” which travel diagonally along a stairway. In British parlance, the word “lift” denotes both true elevators and these types of lifts. We use American terminology because it is more precise. It’s important to know whether a vertical mobility device is a true elevator, which is typically larger, capable of carrying more weight, easier to use, usable independently, and less prone to breaking down, or merely a lift.
Many of the platform lifts and stair lifts in Italy (even many of the newer ones) are typically narrower, shorter, and have a lower weight capacity than in the US, sometimes as low as 330 pounds (150 kilograms). (The typical capacity in the US for lifts in public accommodations is 750 pounds or, less commonly, 500.) Howard’s Quickie power wheelchair, which he used in 2009, 2006, 2005, and 2003, barely fit many of them – perhaps by 2 inches (5 cm) in width (one inch/2.5 cm on each side). That wheelchair is standard size; people with wider chairs or with scooters would have difficulty fitting on some of the lifts. A heavy wheelchair such as a Permobil is too heavy for some of these lifts and too long.
Unlike in the US, many Italian lifts are able to operate with the moveable safety edges (mini-ramps) at the front and back in the lowered, open position (roughly parallel to the platform and the floor), as distinguished from the raised, ramped position (at perhaps a 45-degree angle to the platform and the floor). On previous trips, Howard’s Quickie wheelchair footrests often protruded past the front edge, and the rear tires rested on the lowered rear edge. This was a bit scary because there was no room to spare and no raised edges to help secure the wheelchair in place. It is essential to align one’s chair precisely and make sure the brakes are secured.
In 2014 and 2012 Howard did not try any lifts in his Permobil.
A brilliant exception to the small, low-weight capacity lifts is a custom-built, one-of-a-kind lift that was installed in the Medici Chapels in Florence in 2014. From the entrance level of San Lorenzo Museum (behind the Basilica of San Lorenzo), there is a new elevator up to a floor with direct access to the Chapel of the Princes, and from that level, a custom-built telescoping lift gives access to the other chapel, Michelangelo’s New Sacristy/Medici Chapel. It travels vertically and then a telescoping platform slides forward to cover the horizontal gap between the top and bottom stairs. Howard’s Permobil fit easily lengthwise and widthwise, and the lift easily handled the weight. The platform is shaped to perfectly match the irregular space it traverses. These access improvements were due in large part to the advocacy of Cornelia Danielson, an American friend of ours who lives in Florence and is an architectural historian, access expert, the author of The Accessible Guide to Florence, and a Context Travel docent (see Section 14 – Walking Tours – Context Travel and Katie Parla, below).
ATMs/Banks. Michele used several ATMs, all of which were too high for a wheelchair. We had no occasion to enter banks, but on casual observation, the entrances at many banks seemed to be up a difficult threshold step and through an inaccessible security booth.
Solo Wheelchair Travelers. Rome is endlessly fascinating, lively, and energizing. Despite the obstacles, we believe that some wheelchair users would be able to travel to Rome alone if they are used to the hustle and bustle of a dense city and not shy about asking for help.
Because we travel together, some inaccessible elements in hotel rooms that would present significant barriers for someone traveling alone aren’t obstacles for us. We don’t mean to minimize their importance but we didn’t keep track of them. In describing hotel rooms, we generally haven’t included things such as door pressure, door swing clear space, and accessibility of light switches, temperature controls, electric outlets, window latches, and curtain pulls. We recognize that even a relatively accessible hotel room, restaurant, store, or monument may be extremely difficult or impossible for someone in a wheelchair traveling alone unless he or she is willing to ask for help.
3 – PUBLIC BATHROOMS
Public bathrooms in Rome typically are large, well-designed, and clean, with high-quality plumbing, often including bidets or handheld hoses in addition to the sink. The main exception is bathrooms in restaurants, which usually are quite small. Many bathrooms have high-quality tile, often of marble or another stone. Many are staffed by an attendant who cleans them frequently.
Almost every museum we visited has a well-designed accessible bathroom. Because museums are free for disabled people, if you need to use the bathroom and are near a museum, you can even if you don’t want to see the exhibits. We’ve also had good luck finding accessible bathrooms in government buildings, and there are plenty of government buildings in Rome. Some of the larger and more upscale hotels have accessible public bathrooms in the lobby. Most of the train stations we’ve been to in large cities in Italy have large, clean, accessible bathrooms. Most employees, guards, government workers, and salespeople are quite willing to let a person in a wheelchair use the bathroom even if he isn’t a customer. However, Howard generally didn’t seek accessible bathrooms in restaurants or most churches. (Saint Peter’s and a couple of the other major churches do have accessible bathrooms.)
Wheelchair accessible bathrooms often comprise a single user, unisex, lockable room with enough space for a companion, rather than an accessible stall in multi-stall men’s and women’s bathrooms. Sometimes one must ask for a key; this minor inconvenience is well worthwhile because it ensures the bathroom is clean and isn’t likely to be occupied by an able-bodied person who could be using the regular bathroom.
Most accessible bathrooms have large toilets that are higher than the standard accessible high toilet in the US. Typically the toilet is long and has a tank, which means that if there is enough space next to the toilet for a wheelchair, which there usually is, the wheelchair will be well aligned with the toilet. (Occasionally we have seen square bathrooms where the sink and toilet are caddy corner from each other and there isn’t quite enough space for a wheelchair to get past the sink and next to the toilet.) Often there is a cutout at the front of the toilet bowl designed to enable one to use the handheld hose. Typically there is a flip-up grab bar on the side of the toilet away from the wall, and often also a fixed grab bar on the wall side. An emergency alarm with a pull cord is always within reach. The sinks are large and the faucet handles are long. Even some bathrooms that are not fully accessible are large enough for a wheelchair.
One design flaw is that almost all the locks for the accessible bathrooms and stalls we’ve seen in Rome (and probably inaccessible ones as well) are small locks that require twisting; we’ve seen very few levers or sliding handles. Operating this type of lock requires fine motor skills, so if your hand strength or dexterity is limited, be careful not to lock yourself in the bathroom. This style of lock is not permitted in the US.
The attention to water, bathrooms, and plumbing in Rome and cities throughout Italy is a legacy of ancient Rome, whose hydraulic engineering and plumbing set the standard for the world until the 20th Century, where public baths were a major civic, cultural, and social institution, and where abundant fresh water was available to everyone daily. (Just how much water is the subject of lively and longstanding scholarly debate. The issue will probably never be resolved definitively but there is a consensus that supplying all one million Roman residents with sufficient high-quality water, albeit only through public fountains and baths in the case of the poor and middle classes, is one of the great achievements of ancient Rome.)
Here are some of the accessible public bathrooms Howard has used:
- Hotel Cosmopolita (near Trajan’s Markets). Via Santa Eufemia, 5. This hotel has a large accessible bathroom on the ground floor.
- Galleria Alberto Sordi (near Piazza Colonna). There is a medium size accessible bathroom at this elegant shopping galleria located opposite Piazza Colonna, the piazza where the Column of Marcus Aurelius is located. The men’s, women’s, and accessible bathrooms are through a narrow hallway, so to get to the accessible bathroom one has to go past people waiting in line for the men’s and women’s rooms. There is an attendant.
- 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 rear of the hospital.
- Casa della Memoria e della Storia (in Trastevere). This library and resource center for the study of Roman urbanism, located at via S. Francesco di Sales, 5, off via di Lungara in Trastevere, was renovated in 2006. It has a superb accessible bathroom – large, with a large toilet, plenty of adjacent transfer space, a large sink, and an emergency alarm cord. The employees were very cordial when Howard asked to use the bathroom, proudly pointing out its access features.
- Villa Sciarra (in Trastevere). This botanical garden, located at Via Calandrelli, 35, has a bathroom near the main entrance that was inaccessible as of 2006, but it may have been upgraded since then. There is also a bathroom a few hundred feet away that lacks grab bars but has a level entrance and is large enough for a wheelchair. And there is an actual accessible bathroom in the garden approximately one kilometer from the entrance.
4 – ELECTRICITY; WHEELCHAIR REPAIR; PERSONAL CARE; MEDICAL NEEDS
Electricity and Charging your Wheelchair
The standard plug-in in Italy has three prongs in a straight line (one is the ground) and is different from the plug used in most other European countries. Although you can buy a plug adapter in Italy, they are available at travel stores and online, and you’ll save time if you buy a few at home before your trip.
We strongly recommend gel cell batteries, which are non-spillable, safer, and more acceptable to airlines than wet batteries. Air travel is difficult enough for passengers who use power wheelchairs; wet batteries compound the problems for everyone.
Italy uses 230 volt AC power at 50 Hz frequency. (France, Spain, Israel, and many other countries also do.) If you use a power wheelchair, you’ll need a wheelchair battery charger with a setting for 220/240 volts. It eliminates the need for a separate voltage converter or transformer, which are heavy and expensive. A surprisingly small, lightweight, and inexpensive charger with dual settings (110 and 220 volts) is available from MK Battery. Alternatively, you can buy a European charger with 220/240 only. Also try Lester Electrical, an American manufacturer.
Unlike Italy’s 50 Hz, the frequency in the US is 60hz or 60 cycles per second. The difference in frequency could have an impact on your battery charger’s performance if it’s not rated for both frequencies. The symptoms would be overheating and possibly noise. The only time Howard had problems with his charger in Italy was in 2003 when it sometimes overheated and tripped the circuit breaker in our hotel room. He was using a charger with 110/220 settings and it was set at 220, but we don’t know what frequency it was rated for. We were never able to figure out the problem and ended up buying a European charger, which worked fine. So it may be that some dual voltage chargers aren’t set for quite the right frequency, whereas European-only 220/240 chargers are. (Thanks to the electrician and wheelchair expert David Caplan for this explanation.)
If you use a power wheelchair or a scooter, it’s a good idea to contact your dealer or the manufacturer before the trip and ask for a referral for a dealer/repair shop. In 2005 Howard needed to purchase a new charger in Rome because his charger was stolen at the train station. In 2009 he needed minor wheelchair repairs in Bologna. Both times he called the Italian branch of Sunrise Medical/Quickie for referrals to wheelchair dealers, and they immediately provided excellent referrals.
- Permobil Italy. Disabili Abili. Although they are near Florence, they can arrange for repairs to Permobils anywhere in Italy. Phone: +39-055-360-562. Email: email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org
- Sunrise Medical/Quickie Italy. email@example.com. Phone: +39-052-357-3111.
- Medical Equipment Dealer in Rome. Ortopedia Mancini. Phone: +39-06-321-3148. Fax: +39-06-321-3208. Address: via Tacito, 94 (in Prati neighborhood). Howard purchased a battery charger at the Prati location in 2005. There is another location at via dei Savorelli, 3. Phone: +39-06-637-3302. Open Monday to Friday 8:00 AM-noon and 2:30 PM – 6:30 PM. They don’t speak English.
Howard hired a personal care assistant in Rome in 2014 and 2009. It worked out very well; the man was extremely dependable, skilled, strong, gentlemanly, and friendly. The price was reasonable. Although he didn’t speak English and we don’t speak much Italian, communication was easy, and as a bonus, we learned a few more words of Italian. (He spoke several languages, was a lightning-fast learner, and learned more English from us than we learned Italian from him.) We hired him through the following agency, which also has offices in Bologna, Florence, Milan, Naples, and throughout Italy:
- PrivatAssistenza. www.privatassistenza.it.
- Rome agency: firstname.lastname@example.org. Phone: +39-06-8530-5263.
The United States Embassy in Rome provides referrals to English-speaking doctors and dentists. Howard needed emergency dental work in 2003 and was given a referral to a superb dentist.
Foundation Santa Lucia – Santa Lucia Rehabilitation Hospital, several miles outside central Rome, offers physical therapy and an accessible swimming pool. We haven’t been there, so this information is based on correspondence. A doctor’s letter is required in advance. Phone: +39-06-515-011/014/022/023/024. Fax: +39-06-503-2097. Address: via Ardeatina, 306.
5 – TRANSPORTATION IN ROME
ATAC Paratransit Service
Unfortunately, the service described in the following paragraphs was discontinued in 2014 due to funding cuts. Because the situation is in flux, we include a description of it in the hope that it may have been reinstated by the time you read this article. For simplicity, we refer to it as paratransit, but because the fare is much greater than the bus fare would be, it isn’t truly a paratransit service in the American meaning.
ATAC, the public transportation agency of Rome, provides a paratransit service within Rome, and airport transportation. (The service used to be called Trambus. Don’t confuse it with Trambus Open, which operates open-top sightseeing buses.) We used the ATAC paratransit service many times in 2012 and previous trips for airport transportation, to and from the train station, and within Rome. The vehicles are large accessible vans, most with lifts at the side, and a few with ramps at the rear. The vans are spacious, and the interior height was never a problem. The drivers have always been on time (often early), skilled (driving a large van through the complex, crowded, narrow streets of Rome is no mean feat), and courteous. In 2012 the cost was €23 one-way within Rome and more expensive for airport transportation. The rates are more than a regular taxi but much less than a private accessible transportation service. Two companions are allowed to travel with the disabled person. You can pay the driver. Cash only.
Reservations must be made at least a day in advance. Although officially reservations must be made from 8 AM to 1 PM, Howard has sometimes been able to call in the afternoon. Transportation is provided until at least early evening. One drawback is that you must call to reconfirm between 6 PM and 8 PM the evening before your transportation. We don’t know about weekend availability within Rome. In 2012 ATAC picked us up at Fiumicino Airport on a Sunday; perhaps they were willing to provide airport transportation on weekends because there were few other alternatives. We were charged a higher rate for Sunday service.
Sometimes the lifts were a bit small and rickety; most times they were larger and sturdier. In 2012 the van that picked us up at the train station when we returned from Naples had an old, small, and rickety lift. The entire van tilted when Howard got on it, so the driver had him get off immediately. He called for another van, which took half an hour, waited with us until the new van arrived, and was very helpful. This was the only time out of six or seven rides that Howard was not able to use the lift. His Permobil weighs 325 pounds (148 kg). When reserving transportation it’s a good idea to mention the dimensions and weight of your wheelchair.
Marco Padroni was our initial contact to arrange transportation, as in past years. We believe he runs the paratransit service. He is conscientious and does an excellent job with what undoubtedly are quite limited resources. He speaks some English.
To reserve, call 800-469-540. Centrale Operativa Diversamente Abili. Fax: 06-46-95-44-57. email@example.com
Direzione Superficie – Servizio Produzioni Speciali – Centrale Operativa Trasporto Diversamente Abili
Office Phone: +39-06-46-95-38-09. Fax: +39-06-46-95-44-57.
Buses and Trams
The buses in Rome are of a low-floor design similar to those in Paris and Spain; the low floor makes for a smooth ride. We took buses in 2014 and 2003, but not on the trips in between. In general, the Roman buses are crowded and, despite the theoretically frequent schedule, the actual frequency can be hit or miss. Sometimes one can wait 45 minutes or more. Not all the buses on an “accessible” line are accessible; the percentage varies depending on the line. Some buses have a motorized retractable under-floor ramp at the rear entrance, and others have a folding ramp operated manually by the driver. The latter is more reliable because there is less that can go wrong. Several of the accessible buses we’ve tried to use over the years had motorized ramps that were broken. For those that did work, the effective slope was often steep, depending on the sidewalk and street topography at the particular stop. The wheelchair securement area in the bus is near the rear entrance, which is good, but it is small and often lacks tie-downs; there is typically a short seat belt.
In 2012 Howard tried to take the bus on one occasion, but the first two buses that came didn’t have access ramps, so we rolled/walked. We noticed access ramps on some small buses that run frequently from Campo di Fiori/Piazza Farnese to Villa Borghese and Piazza del Popolo but didn’t try them.
In 2009 we took one tram, which was old and not accessible. The boarding platforms, which are up a gradually sloped ramp, are level with the floor of the tram, so there was no vertical gap. There was a horizontal gap of around 8 inches (20 cm); our friend enlisted some passengers to help carry Howard’s wheelchair over it. This would be possible for manual wheelchairs and lightweight power wheelchairs, but not heavy power wheelchairs such as a Permobil, or scooters.
The bottom line is that one can’t rely on the buses to get anywhere on time. (Able-bodied Romans say the same thing.) One can get lucky but don’t count on it. But on vacation, one can often 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.
In 2012 ATAC told us that, as you reach a bus stop, you can call 06-46-95-41-61 and an accessible van will pick you up and take you to your desired stop on the route of the bus you’re waiting for. We have not tried this, and wouldn’t hold our breath waiting for the van.
Rome has a fairly extensive Metro system consisting of two lines, Line A and Line B. In 2012 Howard had his first and only experience with it. Howard and Jason took the Metro for a tour of EUR with Context Travel (see Section 12 – EUR and Section 14 – Walking Tours, below). We boarded Line B at Piramide station and took it to EUR Magliana, the closest of the three Metro stations in EUR. We strolled the length of EUR and took EUR Fermi, the furthest of the EUR stations, back to the historic center of Rome, exiting at Cavour. Piramide station has a medium size elevator from street level down to the train level; it worked fine. The boarding platforms at EUR Magliana, EUR Fermi, and Cavour are at street level; no elevator is needed. Magliana and Cavour have gradually sloped ramps from the station to the street, but at Fermi, there is no curb ramp and it was necessary to go all around the piazza to find the lowest curb, which was still several inches high, to access the station. At Magliana and Fermi, the streets around the station are moderately steep, and many of the nearby sidewalks lack curb ramps.
There is no vertical gap between the boarding platforms and the Metro trains, and the horizontal gap is a few inches. The horizontal gap is a bit wider than at BART in the San Francisco Bay Area but was not difficult for Howard to traverse with a running start. His Permobil is front-wheel-drive; getting over the gap would be more difficult for rear-wheel-drive wheelchairs and scooters. Most people in manual wheelchairs would need help. Even so, Metro access was much better than we had expected.
It’s difficult to find up-to-date information about the accessibility of the Metro stations. According to an email from ATAC, all of the stations on Line B are accessible either by an elevator or a “montascale” (“electric stairs”). A Google image search of montascale reveals a strange, scary-looking device that is not a true stair lift or platform lift, let alone a real elevator. Howard has never seen one, much less tried one and would be very reluctant to do so even if his wheelchair fit. The ATAC website has some pages about disability access; according to them Colosseum, Circus Maximus and Cavour stations are accessible by a montascale, and all the others on Line B have elevators (“ascensori”). It’s unclear whether ascensori means true elevators or could also include platform lifts or stair lifts. It’s also unclear how up-to-date the information is; as described above, at Cavour the platform is at street level, so, fortunately and contrary to the website, not only is it unnecessary to use a montascale, one doesn’t even need to use an elevator.
According to an email in 2012, the only stations on Line A with elevators or lifts are Battistini, Cornelia, Baldo degli Ubaldi, Valle Aurelia, Cipro, Manzoni, Re di Roma and Furio Camillo. The others are inaccessible.
As we have sometimes seen in Italy, actual progress on the ground in access can outpace the information available. The ATAC webpage about Metro access.
Private Accessible Transportation Providers
Over the years, most recently in 2014, we’ve taken several rides with Fausta Trasporti, a company specializing in accessible transportation. They have always been reliable and convenient. The drivers have been friendly, helpful and have spoken English fairly well. The vans have been clean, large, and equipped with a heavy-duty lift. Faust is expensive, but no more so than its competitors. Private services are expensive in part because the vans are large enough for several wheelchair passengers, so, in effect, one is paying for unused space if one is alone or with only a single companion. Prices can be negotiable. If your wheelchair is small, you may be able to fit into a smaller vehicle, which might be less expensive.
- Fausta Trasporti. Phone: +39-06-503-6040. Fax: +39-06-519-684-17. Contacts are Signora Flavia Pompei firstname.lastname@example.org or Signor Aldo Di Filippo.
- Schiaffini Travel is a large company with several locations in Rome. Accessible transportation is only a small part of their business. Phone: +39-06-713-0531 or 06-938-7123. Fax: +39-06-713-0537.
- Simet. Phone: +39-0983-520-315.
6 – INTERCITY TRAINS IN ITALY – TRENITALIA
7 – HOTELS
For lodging, as for real estate, the three most important factors are location, location, and location (assuming good wheelchair access). Strolling through a vibrant, beautiful, lively neighborhood is one of the most enjoyable things about traveling. It’s exciting to stay in the heart of the city, where one can go by the same building, monument, or piazza ten times and discover something new and fascinating each time. Strolling at night is romantic and exhilarating; staying at a central location makes it easier to stay out late. A central location is also more conducive to an afternoon nap because it’s easy to go out again afterward.
Because accessible public transportation is often difficult to find, unreliable, and subject to change, staying in a central location is critical unless you are able to transfer easily to an ordinary taxi. Being within rolling distance of museums, antiquities, monuments, churches, restaurants, and shopping saves time, energy, uncertainty, frustration, and expense.
In keeping with the Italian emphasis on water and bathing, all wheelchair accessible hotel rooms we’ve seen in Italy, except one, have roll-in showers, unlike in the US and some other countries where only a minority of “accessible” guest rooms do. (It is telling that in French a roll-in shower is known as a “douche a l’Italienne” – an Italian shower.)
Hotel rates in Italy typically include breakfast and value-added tax (VAT), making it easy to budget your trip. The only thing not included is the local lodging tax, usually a few € per person per day.
When inquiring about access, we use the questionnaire attached as Appendix A and ask the hotel to email photos of the accessible room, especially the bathroom. When it comes to wheelchair access, a picture truly is worth a thousand words.
Hotels – Where We Stayed
We enthusiastically recommend Hotel Ponte Sisto. 2014 was our fourth stay at this elegant, unpretentious, spacious, and ideally located hotel. Besides having at least two wheelchair accessible double rooms, we learned that Hotel Ponte Sisto has two accessible single rooms. We also recommend Albergo Santa Chiara, where we stayed in 2005 and 2003. Both are excellent for wheelchair travelers with a companion and for slow walkers. They would pose difficulties for a solo wheelchair traveler, depending on one’s abilities and reach. Considering the age of the buildings and the typical Roman constraints, the proprietors have done a very good job providing access.
Hotel Ponte Sisto. Via dei Pettinari, 64. Phone: +39-06-686-310. Fax: +39-06-683-017-12. Four star.
We stayed here in 2014, 2012, 2009, and 2006. It’s very well located: as the name implies, it’s close to the Ponte Sisto (the bridge commissioned by, and named for, Pope Sixtus IV) leading to Trastevere, and it’s near Palazzo Spada, via Guilia and Piazza Farnese. In the heart of Rome, the neighborhood is quiet. The rooms, courtyard, and other common areas are beautiful and well-maintained. There is a large, sunny courtyard enclosed by the building’s orange/red stucco walls, with abundant purple bougainvillea, other lush plants, and a fountain; breakfast is served there in good weather and it’s a quiet, bright place to relax after the intensity of a day in the streets of Rome. When the weather is chilly, breakfast is served in a lovely dining room. The staff has been helpful and professional, and breakfast has been good.
The street, via dei Pettinari, has rough Saint Peter’s stones, the typical street pavement in Rome, and no sidewalks or curbs. There is a threshold step approximately 3-4 inches (8-10 cm) high at the hotel entrance. The doors are not automatic. A portable ramp is available, which the friendly doorman will set out when he sees you; if he isn’t there, you must find someone and have them ask an employee. In 2014 and 2012 Howard was able to go up and down the threshold in his Permobil without the ramp.
The courtyard is level with the lobby. The floor leading to the breakfast room and bar is gradually sloped. The elevator is fairly large, and plenty wide for Howard’s wheelchair. Elevator depth is adequate, with several inches to spare lengthwise with Howard’s footrests in a medium-length position. The elevator is large enough for one person in a wheelchair and two able-bodied people.
There are at least four accessible rooms (two doubles and two singles), all of which face the courtyard. On all our visits we’ve stayed in Room 107, which we were told is the largest of the accessible rooms. (We saw Room 105. It has a roll-in shower and isn’t as large as 107 but is adequate size.) The bedroom is large, with a high ceiling and two tall, elegantly shaped, and framed windows with bright sunlight and a sweeping view of the courtyard. The room is well-lit and quiet. The nightstands at either side of the bed are movable and the light switches above them are at an accessible height. The bed is very comfortable. The closet is partially accessible – the drawers are at an accessible height but the pole for hangers is too high.
The marble-tiled bathroom is square and fairly large. There is a threshold of around 1/2” to 3/4” (1-2 cm) between the bathroom and bedroom. There is plenty of open space on one side of the toilet for a wheelchair. However, because the tank is built into the wall, the toilet is shorter than most Italian accessible toilets we’ve seen (“short” meaning “not long”; it isn’t too low to the ground). There is a vertical floor-to-ceiling grab bar at the wall side of the toilet, and a wall-mounted, fold-down horizontal grab bar on the other side that, unfortunately, is a bit short. There is a notch in the front of the toilet bowl, and a handheld water hose nearby instead of a bidet. The sink is large, with plenty of space for toiletries on the counter, but it is a bit low. The hair dryer is inaccessibly high. There is a medium size roll-in shower with grab bars and a small wall-mounted seat. There is no threshold between the shower and the rest of the bathroom. As is typical in Rome, the water pressure and temperature are superb. The shower controls and soap dish are a bit too high to reach in a wheelchair. There is an electric towel warmer that is too high to reach in a wheelchair.
After our visit in 2006, I wrote to the hotel asking them to make a few minor access improvements. They responded immediately and made the changes.
Albergo Santa Chiara. Via Santa Chiara, 21. Phone: +39-066-872-979. Fax: +39-066-873-144. Three star.
In 2005 and 2003 we stayed at this gem located near Piazza Minerva, on a quiet street one block behind the Pantheon. The central location is perfect. The lobby is much nicer than it appears on the website. The staff was professional and the breakfast was good. The front entrance is level with the street, with sliding doors that open automatically. There are three stairs from the lobby to the breakfast room, so we ate breakfast in the lobby.
The only barrier for us was the elevator – it’s shallow and the control buttons are difficult to reach. Michele had to remove Howard’s footrests for his wheelchair to fit in the elevator. (On these visits Howard was using his Quickie power wheelchair with removable footrests; see Introduction, above.) With the footrests removed, both of us fit, but just barely. According to hotel employees, the elevator door opening is 31½ inches (80 cm) wide; we didn’t measure but this seems accurate. We don’t know the depth or width of the elevator, so don’t know whether a larger power wheelchair or a scooter would fit. Before making a reservation, it’s imperative to inquire about the exact dimensions of the elevator.
We stayed in the accessible room, Room 120. (We believe it is the only accessible room.) It is quiet, large, and quite 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 is firm but not too firm. The doorways are 35 inches (90 cm) wide.
The room has two bathrooms, both tiled in travertine. The able-bodied one is medium size and has a stand-up shower. The accessible one is extraordinarily large, with a roll-in shower on a gradually sloping floor, a pullout shower nozzle in a large sink, and, instead of a bidet, a water hose near the toilet. The shower has well-placed grab bars and a small wall-mounted seat. The water is hot whenever desired and very forceful. Both bathrooms have emergency call cords, electric towel warmers, large mirrors, and powerful fans. The accessible one even has two flush buttons for the toilet, one wall-mounted forward of the toilet and one on the tank.
Transfer to the toilet is not ideal but not bad. There is sufficient transfer space on one side of the toilet, but the water hose, a soap dish, and a plumbing fixture protrude several inches from the rear wall, and the section of the rear wall next to the toilet is at a slight angle from the section immediately behind the toilet. A wheelchair can’t go all the way against the rear wall or completely parallel to the toilet. A completely parallel side-to-side transfer isn’t possible, but a side transfer at a moderate angle is; the angle between the toilet and wheelchair is much closer to parallel than to a 90-degree angle. There is a grab bar at the side of the toilet away from the wall; it’s mounted on the rear wall and can be flipped up.
Some barriers are minor for someone traveling with a companion but significant for a solo wheelchair traveler. The shower hose and 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 pole for hangers 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.
Hotels – Other Possibilities
The following hotels are worth considering; we’ve visited them but haven’t stayed there.
- Hotel Cosmopolita. Via di Santa Eufemia, 5. Phone: +39-06-997-071. Fax: +39-06-997-0707. Four-star. In 2003 we entered this hotel near Trajan’s Market in search of an accessible bathroom. The immediate terrain is somewhat hilly and there is a steep slope at the entrance. There is a large accessible bathroom on the ground floor lobby. The receptionist 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 very close to the Imperial Fora.
- Hotel Pomezia. Via dei Chiavari, 13. Phone/fax: +39-06-686-1371. Two stars. We visited this hotel in 2005. It’s in a great location between Largo Argentina and Campo di Fiori in the heart of the historic center. We were shown an accessible guest room on the ground floor with a large, well-designed accessible bathroom including a roll-in shower. The bedroom is not large but is adequate size. The hotel and guest rooms are clean, basic, and spartan. The people at the Pomezia were very gracious and the rate was inexpensive. There is one medium-height stair at the entrance, so assistance is required.
- Hotel Residenza in Farnese. Via del Mascherone, 59. Phone: +39-06-682-10980. Fax: +39-06-803-21049. Four-star. We visited this hotel in 2006. It’s well located, across the street from Palazzo Farnese, near Giulia. The street is sloped somewhat steeply upward toward the entrance, which has no stairs. (There is no sidewalk or curb.) There are automatic doors. The hotel is located in an ancient monastery and the common areas on the ground floor are a bit dark. We asked to see an accessible room, but the one accessible room was occupied. The staff told us the accessible room has a roll-in shower and doesn’t have a view. The staff was friendly and showed us the common areas on the ground floor. There is a somewhat steep ramp in the lobby bridging an 8-inch (20 cm) high change in level. Howard fit in the elevator with his footrests in the shortened position.
8 – MUSEUMS
Disabled visitors and one companion are admitted free to all government-owned museums in Italy and most others, such as the Vatican Museums and the Jewish Museum. One must still get tickets ticket at the ticket counter, although employees were sometimes willing to let us in without a ticket. The tickets make good souvenirs – they have rich, well-crafted images and graphics – another reason why it’s advisable to get them. The date of our most recent visit is indicated for each museum.
Museo dell’ Ara Pacis (“Altar of Peace”) (2012)
Access is very good in this Richard Meier building that was completed in 2006 to house Augustus’s “altar of peace.” A gradually sloped ramp outside the building leads to the entrance, which is on the south side of the building. The ramp is behind the stairs and fountain that face via di Ripetta; it’s closer to the riverside than to via di Ripetta and is a bit difficult to see from via di Ripetta. The block of via di Ripetta where the museum is located is closed to vehicles and paved with bumpy stones. Embedded in the wall along via di Ripetta is the Res Gestae of Augustus, the inscription in which the first Roman emperor recounted his life and achievements.
Inside, a gradually sloped ramp leads to the room where the altar is located. The only obstacle is a threshold 3 inches (7-8 cm) high at the entrance to the altar room; this is a narrow threshold, not a stair, and one must go up and then down it to enter the room. Howard was able to do this in his lightweight power wheelchair in 2009, and many manual wheelchair users would be able to with assistance, but Howard did not try it in 2012 when he was using his Permobil. Understandably, preservation and historical authenticity trumped access in this element of the museum. Inside the altar room, the passageway around the perimeter between the base of the altar and the walls was wide enough for Howard’s lightweight power wheelchair with several inches to spare on each side. A visit to this museum is worthwhile even if a person in a wheelchair cannot go inside the altar room, because one can see much of the altar and all of the surrounding wall friezes from outside the room.
A relatively large elevator serves the museum’s ground floor, basement, and upper floor terrace. In the basement, a gradually sloped ramp leads down from the level of the elevator to an exhibit gallery. The bathrooms are in the basement. There are large accessible stalls in the men’s and women’s bathrooms with a large, high toilet; ample side transfer space, grab bars, a large sink, and an emergency alarm cord.
The selection of Richard Meier to create the first entirely new major building in the historic center of Rome in 50 years was controversial because the mayor of Rome selected him instead of holding a competition; because he is American, not Italian; and because he is a modernist. The work has met with mixed reactions. The previous Mayor of Rome, Gianni Alemanno, had stated his desire to tear down the building, and, reportedly, had been supported in that goal by then-Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. In 2012 it was our understanding that the building will not be torn down, but the adjoining travertine wall along the river will be because it blocks the view from the Lungotevere of the churches across the street from the museum. We weren’t there in 2014 and don’t know the current status of these plans.
In our opinion, the building is a masterpiece. It’s modest in scale, the ideal size and shape for the altar. It’s respectful of the site and the street line, and yet its glass walls have opened up the site, affording an expansive view of the river on one side and providing both a beautiful visual connection and an appropriate symbolic one to the Mausoleum of Augustus on the other. Pedestrians interact with the building: from the river, one can see through the building to the mausoleum, and the museum tantalizes pedestrians with a glimpse of its contents. Natural light floods in, yet the building protects the altar (and visitors) from the sun’s rays, heat, humidity, pollution, and all the other elements that are ravaging so much of Rome’s patrimony (and that harmed the altar when it was housed in the museum’s predecessor, built in the 1930s).
The building has lots of glass, but not too much; the glass is balanced by travertine and Meier’s signature white-coated steel. Perhaps one can criticize Meier’s use of white steel, but the building also has plenty of travertine, a classic Roman stone and completely appropriate in this setting, its rough, unfinished surfaces complementing the smooth, carved marble friezes of the altar. (Travertine is also historically appropriate: when installed in the first century B.C.E., the altar faced a piazza paved in travertine.) One can imagine, however, that if the building were clad only in glass and travertine, its strong, clean lines might be obscured and diminished, and there might not be enough contrast in color between the building and the altar. Appropriately, the building is all straight lines and right angles; except for the columns inside, there are no curves. Its rectangular shape echoes that of the altar.
The small piazza with a fountain in front is filled with people, hardly the sign of a failed building or one disrespectful of its surroundings. Choosing to include a fountain is very much in keeping with Roman history and tradition.
Inside one feels serenity, quiet, and the physical and mental space to contemplate the art. Unlike so many modern museums, the building is subordinate to its contents rather than trying to overshadow them. Yet, unlike some other modern museums, there is grandeur and a hierarchy of space. Unlike them, too, a sense of anticipation builds as the visitor proceeds from the entrance to the primary exhibit, the altar. An inviting path of travel, the right proportion of spaces, and an ideal combination of natural and artificial light draw the visitor toward the altar.
The gift shop is small, modest, and unaggressive – unlike those in so many museums in the US, the visitor has to seek it out rather than being forced into it when exiting an exhibit.
Certainly, one wouldn’t want many buildings like it in the center of Rome. But there’s hardly any danger of that, and the argument that this one is but the first step on a slippery slope isn’t convincing given the lack of available sites for new buildings, the rigor and slow pace of design review, and the archaeological considerations in any building project in the historic center.
Any entirely new building, and any architect, would have been controversial. Exactly what kind of building do its critics believe would have been appropriate?
Villa Borghese (Museo e Galleria Borghese) (2014)
The ground floor is accessible through a rear entrance facing the garden. There is one moderate-height stair from the garden that was not difficult in Howard’s Permobil and, in previous visits, lightweight power Quickie, in both cases with some assistance. A portable ramp may now be available. An attendant-operated stair-climbing device is available to take slow walkers and people who have difficulty climbing stairs up to the first floor, but it can’t accommodate wheelchairs.
Bernini’s stunning Apollo and Daphne, Pluto and Persephone, David and Aeneas, Canova’s sensual Pauline Bonaparte, and many other masterpieces are on the ground floor, especially the sculpture collection, so a visit is a must even though the first floor is inaccessible. There is an accessible bathroom in the basement; the basement is accessed via a stair lift from the front of the villa. Reservations are required, the number of visitors is limited, and visits are limited to two hours. We strongly recommend morning reservations because the small museum is likely to be less crowded early in the day. Reservations can be made online, although it may still be necessary to get to the museum early to pick up the tickets. Also, guided tours in English are offered at least once a day. We have taken the tour twice, and it is superb.
Borromini Perspective at Galleria Spada (2012)
Part of Palazzo Spada houses government offices, and the other part houses the Galleria (museum). Although not the original architect, Francesco Borromini worked on this palazzo, his most noteworthy contribution being the perspective, which is now accessible by a series of semi-permanent ramps. The main ramp is gradually sloped and has handrails. The other ramps, each of which traverses one step, are somewhat steeper but still only moderately steep. The installation of these ramps several years ago was a major and commendable access improvement. The picture gallery is not accessible – it is up one floor from the ticket office, there is a tiny elevator far too small for a wheelchair, and Howard was told the gallery is up several stairs from the elevator landing on the first floor. But the perspective is the main attraction and the staff is eager to show it to visitors, so a visit is well worthwhile despite the inaccessibility of the picture gallery.
Capitoline Museums and Capitoline Hill (2014)
The exhilarating Piazza del Campidoglio, designed by Michelangelo, is accessible via a moderately steep, winding, asphalt-paved path to the right of Michelangelo’s Cordonata stairway as you are facing the stairway. There are two related museums in separate buildings, each of which has a portico two or three stairs up from the piazza. Access has steadily improved over the years, both physically and in the employees’ knowledge, competence, and attitude.
At Palazzo dei Conservatori, the building to the right of the Cordonata, there is an accessible side entrance to the right, along the accessible path that goes to the top of the hill. It is locked and one must first get the attention of a museum employee at the main entrance (which faces the piazza); this takes only a few minutes. There is a permanent curb ramp, of the same small paving stones as the sidewalk, leading from the path directly into the doorway. Inside there is a large elevator that serves all floors. All of the floors are accessible. A light-filled, accessible pavilion was built several years ago to display the original bronze equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius (the statue in the piazza is a copy) and the statues of Constantine and Hercules. There is an accessible café/restaurant on the top floor with sweeping views toward St. Peters and beyond. One floor below it there is a view terrace facing the Vittoriano Museum; we were able to exit the area by going downhill from the terrace directly to the accessible path.
To access the portico of Palazzo Nuovo, the building to the left of the Cordonata, there is a gradually sloped, nonskid ramp at the end of the portico closest to the Roman Forum (the end farthest from the Cordonata). From the portico, there are two or three stairs to enter the building, and a moderately steep portable ramp is available. It’s easy to get the attention of a museum employee to set out the ramp. From the ground floor to the first floor there is a Plexiglas elevator large enough for a person in a wheelchair and two other people, although it is not very deep.
The Gallery of the Tabularium is down several long flights of stairs from the ground floor of Palazzo Nuovo and can be accessed by wheelchair users via a series of stair lifts. We haven’t been there since 2003 and don’t remember their size or weight capacity, but it was complicated and time-consuming to use them. The museum employees may now be more proficient in operating them. There is also an accessible entrance directly to the Gallery on the rear left side of Capitoline Hill, downhill from the piazza along a steep path that continues down toward the Forum of Caesar; this entrance is locked but the museum employee allowed Howard to exit through it. If you want to use this entrance and avoid using the lifts to go to the Gallery, you must ask an employee and insist that you know such an entrance exists. It may also be possible to access the Gallery from Palazzo dei Conservatori.
Galleria Corsini (2006)
There are no stairs at the entrance. A moderately sloped ramp on the ground floor leads to two very large, modern, Plexiglas elevators from which one has a nice view of the courtyard. The gallery is on the first floor and there are no changes in level among the rooms. A large accessible bathroom is on the second floor, with a large, high toilet; grab bars, a large sink, and an emergency alarm cord. The outer door to the bathroom area is heavy and would be impossible for most wheelchair users to pull open from inside, so assistance is required.
Galleria Doria Pamphilj (2003/2011)
There are three or four stairs at the main entrance and a tiny elevator, too small for most wheelchairs, from the lobby on the ground floor up to the gallery floors. We saw the building in 2003, and in 2011 we received email confirmation that the access situation had not changed.
Villa Farnesina (Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei) (2014)
There are several high stairs at the main entrance. The employees brought out a very wide, steep, wooden ramp for Howard. He was able to access the building, but only with his Permobil tilted as far as possible, and with a great deal of assistance from one strong man on each side to make sure that his wheelchair didn’t slip and to help provide extra pushing force. The frescoes by Raphael, Sebastiano del Piombo, and Baldassare Peruzzi are on the ground floor. There is a small elevator to the upper floors that may be accessible for people in small manual wheelchairs. The gardens are easily accessible.
Jewish Museum (2009)
See Synagogue and Jewish Museum, below.
Designed by star architect Zaha Hadid and located a few blocks from the Parco della Musica (see below), this museum of contemporary art and architecture was opened in 2010 to much fanfare and acclaim. It is accessible, although, strangely, all of the entrances have a 2-inch (5 cm) high threshold, and the approaches to many of the entrances are at weird, sharp angles. This building looks much better and more interesting in photos than it is in real life.
Palazzo Altemps – Museo Nazionale Romano (Roman Sculpture Museum) (2006)
A level accessible entrance is located just a few feet from the main entrance. A moderately sloped ramp on the ground floor leads to a large, attendant-operated elevator. The galleries are on the ground floor and first floor. There are changes in level of several inches among many of the galleries, but there is a ramp at each change in level. Some ramps are short and fairly steep, which was not a problem in Howard’s power wheelchair, but many manual wheelchair users would need assistance. We didn’t look at the bathroom. The staff was extremely helpful.
Palazzo Braschi – Museum of Rome (2006)
This beautifully restored palazzo at the southern end of 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 some earlier palazzi. 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 all of the other floors. Howard was in his lightweight power wheelchair when he used the stair lift, but we recollect that the lift is fairly large and probably can accommodate a heavy power wheelchair such as a Permobil. The accessible bathroom is large, immaculate, and even has a view of the courtyard.
Palazzo della Cancelleria (2014)
Vatican offices are housed in this large palazzo, the first palace in Rome to be built in Renaissance style. Concerts are held here from time to time. The splendid arcaded courtyard, which is sometimes open to the public, has relatively level access from the street. We don’t know about access to the upper floors. Sometimes the guard has let us in to admire the courtyard; it’s worth trying.
Palazzo Farnese (French Embassy) (2012)
Michelangelo was the second of three main architects to work on this sumptuous Renaissance palazzo, widely considered one of the greatest achievements of Renaissance palace architecture. (It was begun by Antonio da Sangallo the Younger and completed by Giacomo della Porta.) The proportions of the rooms – length, width, and height – the flow from one room to another, and the placement of the windows, are perfect. The building has ceiling frescoes by the Carracci brothers, primarily Annibale Caracci, which in their day (the Baroque period) were considered to rival Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling. The motifs are mythological rather than religious. The building was meticulously restored in the early 2000s.
Palazzo Farnese can be visited only on guided tours conducted by embassy staff. Spaces are limited and must be reserved far in advance. Until several years ago tours were only in French and Italian, but now English language tours are available. Reservations must be made through Inventor Rome, a French association dedicated to Roman culture.
We had taken French language tours in the past; in 2012 we took our first English language tour and understood much more. The guide was knowledgeable, proud, charming, witty, and welcoming. The tour lasted an hour. It was easy to sign up on the website.
The stone paths in the courtyard are a bit bumpy; this was not a problem in Howard’s power wheelchair but manual wheelchair users would encounter a bumpy ride. A small but adequate attendant-operated elevator serves the piano nobile (first floor), which is the only floor the public can visit and where the magnificent Sala Hercules and the rooms with the Caracci frescoes are located. Howard’s wheelchair fit in the elevator easily.
The public bathrooms are on the ground floor and lack accessible stalls. Legally, an embassy is considered to be located on the soil of the country it represents, not the one where it is physically located. Interestingly, the lack of an accessible stall in a bathroom that was renovated recently is entirely consistent with our experience in government buildings in France, and not those in Italy, where the bathrooms are far more accessible. A French bathroom, physically located in Italy but legally in France!
Palazzo Massimo alle Terme – Museo Nazionale Romano (2014)
This extraordinary museum of ancient Roman sculpture, painting, coins, and jewels, one of several branches of the National Museum of Rome, is fully accessible. There is an accessible entrance at the side of the building. A medium-sized elevator serves all floors; Howard easily fits. It may be necessary for an able-bodied person to go to the front entrance and ask an employee to open the accessible entrance.
Parco della Musica (Music Auditorium and Park) (2012) and Palazzetto dello Sport (2012)
This music complex was designed by Renzo Piano and opened in 2002. It has three auditoriums of different sizes, arranged around a courtyard, and a cavea with bleacher seating for outdoor performances. At ground level, there is a continuous lobby connecting the three auditoriums, plus a café, bookstore, exhibition gallery, and other shops, all of which are accessible. We went to the café but didn’t go to a concert or see the inside of the auditoriums. The courtyard is essentially level, with some gradually sloped ramps. There is a medium-sized accessible bathroom in the lobby. The remains of an ancient Roman farm, discovered during excavations for the project, have been preserved and there is an exhibit about them in the lobby, which is accessible. When the remains were discovered, Renzo Piano redesigned and reoriented the buildings.
At the top of the hill, there is a terrace with a good view of the Flaminia neighborhood, and from there, one can see the exteriors of the three auditoriums up close. From the ground level to the top of the hill, there is a steep paved path that Howard was able to climb fairly easily in his power wheelchair. Manual wheelchair users will need major assistance. Alternatively, there is a small elevator from the lobby, just large enough for a wheelchair user and one other person. However, at the terrace level, there is a 4 to 5-inch (10 to 13 cm) step to enter and exit the elevator.
A few hundred feet from the Music Auditorium is the Palazzetto dello Sport, an innovative, now iconic thin-shell concrete domed sports stadium designed by engineer/architect Pier Luigi Nervi for the 1960 Olympics. It is easily reached via an asphalt-paved bike path with curb ramps. It’s closed to the public unless there is a sporting event but can be viewed at close range from the bike path.
Vatican Museums (2012) and Sistine Chapel (2009)
Disabled visitors are invited to go to the beginning of the entrance line, quite an accommodation considering that the lines usually are blocks long. As in previous visits, we were told that the (Gregorian) Etruscan Museum and (Gregorian) Egyptian Museum are not wheelchair accessible. The magnificent Pinacoteca (picture gallery) is easily accessible. The Raphael Rooms are accessible by a small elevator from the long gallery that leads from the Papal Palace to the Sistine Chapel. (The Hall of Maps is along this gallery.)
The Sistine Chapel is down a small, crowded stairway from the long gallery. In 2009 Howard was just barely able to use the small, rickety old stair lift in his Quickie lightweight power wheelchair. If the same stair lift is still in use, it is doubtful that it could accommodate the weight of a large power wheelchair or scooter, and perhaps not even its width and length. The bottom line is that one must measure one’s wheelchair or scooter and inquire about the exact dimensions and weight capacity of the stair lift. The lift possibly could, and if so should, be replaced with a newer, larger one. However, considering that the stairwell is narrow and the Chapel is part of the 15th century Apostolic Palace, has irreplaceable, delicate frescoes on all four sides and the ceiling, and can only be approached internally via hallways in the palace, there truly is limited potential for renovation. Perhaps if Michelangelo were alive he’d devise a way.
The English language webpage of the Vatican Museums includes a section on disability access.
For information about Saint Peter’s Basilica, see Section 9 – Churches, below.
We inquired about access and were informed that due to natural and architectural barriers, the Vatican Gardens are not wheelchair accessible. For those who are able to walk, tours are given on a limited basis and it’s necessary to make reservations far in advance. Fax: +39-06-6988-5100.
Vittoriano Museum (Complesso del Vittoriano) (2009)
This museum is housed in the grandiose, oversized white building located between Capitoline Hill and the Roman Forum that everyone loves to hate. The building, dedicated in 1911 to King Victor Emmanuel II of Savoy, houses a permanent museum about the Risorgimento (the Italian unification) and special exhibits such as a wonderful exhibit of the 13th/14th-century painter Giotto and his contemporaries that we saw in 2009.
The entrance is off via dei Fori Imperiali, up a steep hill. A series of moderately steep permanent metal ramps lead to the entrance. From there, wheelchair access is by a stair lift up several stairs to a landing. The stair lift is a typical Italian one in size – Howard’s lightweight power wheelchair fit without any room to spare on the sides and with his footrests protruding over the front edge. We did not visit this museum in 2012. Larger and heavier power wheelchairs, such as Howard’s Permobil or a large scooter, might not be able to fit on the stair lift. From the landing, there are two very steep permanent ramps leading up to another landing. When we exited the museum, Howard went down the ramps backward and Michele held his wheelchair. The whole procedure was difficult. From the upper landing, there is a medium-sized elevator to the exhibit galleries; Howard fits in the elevator easily; larger and heavier power wheelchairs would also fit in the elevator.
The building comprises two sections that aren’t connected by level floors, so near the entrance there is another stair lift, identical to the one described above, leading to the other section of the museum. To go from one section to another, you must go back down one stair lift to the entrance, and then up the other stair lift to the other section.
There is an elevator to a viewing terrace at the top of the building, Roma dal Cielo, but we didn’t try to go there and research indicates there are many stairs to get to the elevator.
9 – CHURCHES
The date of our most recent visit is indicated for each church.
Movie recommendations are beyond the scope of this article, but one movie merits mention because of its unique relevance. Most of the churches designed by the great Baroque architect Francesco Borromini are not accessible, so for Borromini enthusiasts in wheelchairs, the next best thing is to watch La Sapienza, a 2014 drama in French and Italian about the journey of a contemporary French architect to Rome to admire Borromini’s architecture. The photography is exquisite and there are long scenes inside San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane and Sant’ Ivo alla Sapienza, including images of their rotundas, plus shots of other Roman gems.
- Gesu (2003): The front entrance has many stairs. The rear entrance, around the block, has two stairs, then one more. The friendly, helpful employees were ready with portable ramps, and Howard was able to enter.
- Sant’ Agnese in Agone (2003): The front entrance has many stairs and there is no accessible alternate entrance.
- Sant’ Andrea al Quirinale (2006): Bernini’s elliptical masterpiece is inaccessible. The only entrance is through the front porch, which is semicircular and has around 10 semicircular, concentric stairs. Given the number of stairs and the building’s unique and beautiful facade, installing a permanent ramp would be infeasible and would irreparably harm the beauty and integrity of the facade. A portable ramp should be considered, but it would probably have to be unfeasibly long, given the number of stairs and the small size of the site. Although it was disappointing not to be able to enter, the façade is so gorgeous that it was worth a visit just to see it.
- San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane (2006): Borromini’s complex, undulating Baroque jewel is inaccessible. The only entrance is through the front door, which is up three stairs. Given the small site, the building’s unique and beautiful façade, and the narrow door, there isn’t enough space to install a permanent ramp and, even if it were possible, it would irreparably harm the building’s beauty and integrity. However, because there are only three stairs, a portable ramp might be feasible and should be considered. Although it was disappointing not to be able to enter, the façade is so magnificent that it was worth a visit just to see it.
- Santa Cecilia in Trastevere (2006): This church is easily accessible. At the entrance, there is a threshold of a few inches at most.
- San Clemente (2012): Because of its ancient provenance and multiple underground levels, San Clemente is not accessible. There are four high stairs, each of which is 12 inches (30 cm) in height, down to the main entrance, which is at the highest and most recent level, and many more stairs down to the lower levels. There are also many stairs down to the courtyard from outside the building.
- San Giovanni dei Fiorenti (2003): Located at the northern end of the Elegant via Giulia, this is the church of the Florentine community in Rome. Michelangelo, a Florentine, proposed several designs for this church, none of which were used. There are many steep stairs up to the entrance, but a steep, semi-permanent metal ramp is in place. The pavement at the bottom has a tricky cross slope. A policeman pushed Howard’s wheelchair up the ramp and steadied it on the way down. This church is less interesting than many, and all wheelchair users will need major assistance on the ramp, but it is commendable that the parish has provided access to a building with such a high, steep porch.
- SS Giovanni e Paolo (2012): This church is on Celian Hill. There is a forecourt, paved in bumpy cobblestones, that is somewhat steep and has some challenging cross slopes. Howard was able to navigate it with moderate difficulty. Many manual wheelchair users would need assistance. From the forecourt, one can see large parts of the Acqua Claudia aqueduct and other antiquities. On the day of our visit, the gate to the enclosed area to the right of the forecourt was open, and we were able to enter and see the ancient foundation of the Temple of Claudius and buildings from many eras. However, this area is not always open and it’s difficult to predict when it will be. The church itself has at least one high step and is inaccessible; our notes don’t have details about the height of the step. The beauty of the hill and the opportunity to see so many antiquities from a unique, close perspective made a visit worthwhile for Howard even though he could not access the church.
- Case Romane del Celio, a complex of ancient Roman houses, is underneath the church; see Section 11 – Antiquities and other Sites, below.
- Sant’ Ignazio (2012): There are two ramps at the entrance: a moderately sloped, long ramp, and a second, somewhat steep ramp. Both have handrails. Howard was able to enter easily.
- Sant’ Ivo alla Sapienza (2012): Borromini’s masterpiece is only open Sunday mornings, plus some holidays and special occasions. It’s inside the courtyard of Palazzo della Sapienza (the “Palace of Knowledge,” formerly the University of Rome law school and now the Italian State Archives), the main entrance to which is up several stairs on Corso del Rinascimento. There’s an accessible entrance to the courtyard on the opposite side, near Piazza Sant’ Eustachio (site of the justly celebrated Café Sant’ Eustachio), via a pathway with a gate operated by a caretaker. Depending on the day and time, Howard has sometimes been able to access the courtyard by getting the attention of the caretaker and asking him to open the gate. From the arcade of the courtyard, there is one low step down to the interior of the courtyard, and from there two stairs up into the church. There is no ramp and Howard has not been able to access the church. Even so, it’s worthwhile being persistent and getting into the courtyard, from where one can admire the white stone façade so beautifully integrated with the arcade, the tower’s sinuous interplay of convex and concave curves, and the surprising, delightful spiral spire. Sant’ Agnese in Agone and San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, Borromini’s other great churches, are also inaccessible and can only be appreciated in a wheelchair from outside, but they are in crowded places. The courtyard of Palazzo della Sapienza is quiet and its scale intimate; it’s the best place to appreciate Borromini’s genius from a wheelchair.
- Saint John in Lateran (2005): We don’t remember the details and didn’t take good notes, but Howard was able to access this basilica fairly easily. The basilica and the site on which it’s located are gargantuan, so it took a while to figure out access, but once we did there were no problems. The 13th-century cloister, with its beautiful spiral columns, is down four or five high stairs from the basilica, so it’s inaccessible. There is an informative, well-organized audio guide available in English.
- San Lorenzo in Lucina (2012): The piazza in front of the church is flat and is paved with smooth, large stones. There is a 2-inch (5 cm) step at the entrance to the church, and Howard was able to enter easily.
- San Luigi dei Francesi (2012): There are three stairs up to the entrance. There is a ramp on the right side with a handrail on the side away from the church. However, it is extraordinarily steep – one of the steepest ramps we’ve seen anywhere (not just in Rome). Howard was just barely able to go up and down it in his Permobil. Going down required using the wheelchair’s tilt feature at the maximum angle, and he asked someone nearby to walk alongside him just in case. Anyone in a power wheelchair without this feature would need major assistance, and manual wheelchair users would need more than one person to push them up and down. Once inside the church, an individual in a wheelchair can easily maneuver and have an unobstructed view of the three Caravaggios in the Contarelli Chapel.
- Santa Maria Maggiore (2012): Access is excellent. From the piazza in front of the church to the entrance porch there is a wide, gradual, well-designed multi-sectional ramp with a rubber surface and handrails. There is a small ramp at the door. The chapels have one or two high stairs and are not accessible, but they can easily be seen from the aisles.
- Santa Maria degli Angeli/Baths of Diocletian (2012): Michelangelo’s basilica is accessible – the entrance is at ground level and there is no threshold. The sacristy, which is outside and has an informative exhibit about the baths and their re-design by Michelangelo as a church, is accessible from the basilica without stairs or a threshold. At least part of the remainder of the baths complex, which is a branch of the National Museum of Rome, is accessible by a ramp from the street (not directly from the church), but the entrance is hard to find and the baths have always been closed when we’ve tried to visit.
- Santa Maria sopra Minerva (2009): There is a front porch with three or four stairs up to a landing, then another one or two stairs to the entrance. The rear entrance, which is quite far, is reached via the street to the right of the church. The rear entrance has one large stair down, then two up. In 2003 the employees and clergy were unhelpful but some tourists lifted Howard’s wheelchair. We went here in 2009, the physical barriers were the same and we couldn’t find anyone to help, so Howard couldn’t enter. There is a convent in the building to the left; Michele rang the doorbell and the employee was not helpful. On both occasions, the employees were the least friendly of those at any church in Rome. They were probably the only unfriendly employees we’ve encountered. Howard has written to the church more than once asking them to improve access and has received evasive responses.
- Santa Maria del Popolo (2012): There are 12 stairs leading up to the entrance, so this church is inaccessible.
- Santa Maria in Trastevere (2006): Access is easy: the entrance is completely level; there are no stairs.
- Santa Maria della Vittoria/Cornaro Chapel (Bernini’s Ecstasy of Saint Teresa) (2012): This church is inaccessible – the only entrance is through the front porch, which has approximately 10 stairs. Although its façade is similar to that of Santa Susanna (see below), which has a superb ramp, the latter church has fewer stairs. A ramp appears to be infeasible at Santa Maria della Vittoria.
- Saint Peter’s Basilica (2009): 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. A medium-sized elevator takes disabled visitors to the entrance porch and narthex. On one visit we were fortunate to find the elevator out of service. Why fortunate? An employee took us into a restricted area, around the left side of the basilica, and let us in through the apse (the entrance to the apse was level with the pavement). After feeling the heavy presence of throngs of tourists in the piazza, we appreciated the emptiness and quiet of the restricted area and felt special to be allowed there. Besides being able easily to get up close to the extraordinary works of art in and near the apse without having to fight the crowds, on our way inside we were able to pause and admire the exterior of the building – the extraordinary walls of the nave and apse – massive, powerful, yet perfectly contoured, sculptural and proportioned – designed by Michelangelo.
- For a description of access to the Sistine Chapel, see Section 8 – Museums, above.
- San Pietro in Vincoli (2009): This church is located on Esquiline Hill, and the streets leading up to it are fairly steep. Wheelchair users must approach it from the streets below because the streets above have stairs. One of the streets is narrow and there is a blind corner, so beware of vehicular traffic. There are two relatively steep metal ramps leading up to the entrance. Howard was able to go up and down both the streets and the ramps without difficulty, but manual wheelchair users will need assistance. The entrance itself is level, and Michelangelo’s tomb of Julius II, with the statues of Moses and other figures including Rachel and Leah, is easy to access.
- Santa Praxedes/St. Zeno Chapel (2014): This basilica is on Esquiline Hill, a couple of blocks from Santa Maria Maggiore. From Santa Maria Maggiore along via Liberiana the way is flat, while from via Merulana in the opposite direction the terrain is fairly steep. The entrance is on the side of the church, up a stoop of around 2 inches (5 cm) or less. St. Zeno Chapel is up several stairs, hence inaccessible, but most of it can be seen and appreciated from the aisle.
- SS Quattro Coronati (2012): Off the beaten tourist path and situated on a peaceful, quiet, and serene site on the Celian Hill, this complex boasts a panoramic view of the Palatine Hill, with its greenery and reddish-brown brick antiquities, that gives one a different perspective of Rome than the usual tourist sites. Howard enjoyed our visit very much even though he could not access the main church. To access the site one must go up a steep street; there is no alternative route. There are sidewalks on both sides, but it was difficult to see whether there are curb ramps, so Howard rolled in the street, which is paved with smooth asphalt. There is a blind turn, so one must watch out for cars, but traffic was light. There is one step 3-4 inches (8-10 cm) high into the courtyard. From the courtyard, there is one step 3-4 inches (8-10 cm) high to the monastery where the Chapel of St. Sylvester is located. It was fairly easy for Howard to get to this point. The Chapel of St. Sylvester is down one high step from the lobby and Howard was unable to enter, but the chapel is small and most of it can be seen from the doorway. There is a 10-inch (25 cm) high threshold at the entrance to the main church; it would be impossible to enter for people in heavy power wheelchairs, but those in manual wheelchairs could be lifted without much difficulty. Once inside the church, it would be easy to access the cloister; there is a step only 2 inches (5 cm) high.
- Santa Susanna (2006): This church, which is near Santa Maria della Vittoria and has a similar façade, is easily accessible via a gradual, permanent ramp at the front entrance. The sleek modern ramp is made of wood, metal, and Plexiglas, with well-designed handrails and inscriptions on the bottom honoring the donors. This church is the home of American Catholics in Rome, which may at least partially explain the superb ramp.
- Tempietto (2006): See Janiculum in Section 11 – Antiquities and Other Sites, below. We have been unable to access the Janiculum Hill where Bramante’s masterpiece is located.
10 – SYNAGOGUE (TEMPIO MAGGIORE) and JEWISH MUSEUM (2009)
The entrance to the Synagogue is up several stairs and is accessed via a fairly steep metal ramp on the right side. The ramp has railings. The path to the ramp, which previously had a gravel surface, has been paved with smooth stones. A security guard is usually present to assist.
The Jewish Museum and the Spanish Synagogue are in the basement of the Synagogue. The entrance is via Catalana (the street away from the river), at the rear of the building. One must get the attention of an employee. There is a platform lift to the basement level, which is a typical Italian one in size, and Howard’s lightweight Quickie power wheelchair fits without much room to spare on the sides and with his footrests protruding over the front edge. Larger and heavier power wheelchairs, such as Permobil, and large scooters might not fit. Howard has not tried to access the Synagogue or museum since he began using his Permobil in our trips to Rome. Be careful when exiting the lift at the basement level because the pavement is a bit steep.
All of the museum exhibits and the Spanish Synagogue are on a single level. Admission is free for disabled visitors and one companion. The museum is fascinating, well organized, and well documented, spanning the 2,200 years of the resilient Roman Jewish community (actually, multiple communities from various places with different customs and rites) and including beautiful ritual objects of silver and textiles, ancient tombstones, and documents from the Ghetto period through Emancipation (1555-1870) until the present. The explanations are in Italian and English. There is an excellent bookstore with many books in English. There is a large, well-designed accessible bathroom.
The museum director and her staff have been very receptive to recommendations for improving access.
11 – ANTIQUITIES AND OTHER SITES
Many antiquities are free to all visitors. Disabled visitors and one companion are admitted free to those that otherwise charge an admission fee. One must still get tickets at the ticket counter, although employees were sometimes willing to let us in without a ticket. The tickets make good souvenirs – they have evocative images and graphics – another reason why it’s advisable to get tickets. The date of our most recent visit is indicated for each site.
Via Appia Antica (the Appian Way) (2009)
We took a fascinating though all too brief tour of some of the first sites along the Appian Way with Katie Parla (see Section 14 – Walking Tours, below). Because we were unsure about the accessibility and dependability of the buses, we arranged for paratransit transportation with ATAC (see Section 5 – Transportation in Rome, above).
First, we saw the Villa and Circus of Maxentius and the mausoleum he built for his son, located between the second and third mile of the Appian Way. The entrance to the site is relatively flat, but there is thick grass throughout. Howard needed a bit of help, and someone in a manual wheelchair would need significant help. The circus (which is the best preserved Roman circus by far) is downhill around 50 feet (15 meters), and the path is steep and has cross slopes, so Howard remained at the top. From there one can see some of the structures of the circus, but not most of them. Next, Michele visited the nearby Tomb of Cecilia Metella, which is completely inaccessible. Across the road are the remains of a medieval church, which Howard was able to access by a relatively flat path.
We continued strolling along the Appian Way another couple hundred feet, but soon the pavement stones were so rutted and uneven as to be completely impassable in a wheelchair, and the shoulder of the road ended. Many of the sites are located beyond this point, including the remains of ancient bridges, the Acqua Claudia aqueduct, temples and villas, and numerous mausoleums, gravestones, and inscriptions. Because of the pavement and the distances involved, the best (and really the only) way to see the entire area in a wheelchair would be to rent an accessible vehicle for the day and be driven to each site.
None of the catacombs – Jewish, pagan, and Christian – is accessible, as they are all underground.
It’s remarkable how green, serene, and pastoral this area has remained considering it’s so close to the center of Rome. If one didn’t know otherwise, one might think it is deep in the countryside. Even though most of the monuments are inaccessible, time spent here is enjoyable, insightful, and relaxing. Via Appia Antica is rich in history, and exploring it is well worthwhile despite the access limitations.
- Baths of Agrippa (2014): A bit of walls are all that remain. They are located on a street directly behind the Pantheon that is flat and paved with typical Roman St. Peter’s stones.
- Baths of Diocletian (2012): See Santa Maria degli Angeli/Baths of Diocletian in Section 9 – Churches, above.
- Case Romane del Celio (2012): This complex of ancient Roman houses is underneath the church of SS Giovanni e Paolo, on a steep street on the Celian Hill. We were there after closing time, so didn’t try to enter. The entrance appears to be accessible. Even if not all of the rooms are accessible, a visit would be worthwhile.
- Castel Sant’Angelo (2003): We don’t remember the details and didn’t take good notes, but Howard was able to access much of this ancient mausoleum and fortress without difficulty, including the top level. Understandably, parts of it are inaccessible.
- Villa Celimontana (2012): On the way back from the church of SS Giovanni e Paolo we stumbled upon this lovely park and villa on the Celian Hill, perhaps a five-minute stroll from the church. The paths we saw are wide and moderately sloped; wheelchair access was easy. Although we explored only part of the park, our impression was that access is good throughout. We didn’t go into the villa. We were surprised by how green and quiet this place is.
- Colosseum (2012): The entrance is on the side facing the Arch of Constantine. Since our last visit, the surrounding piazza had been paved with much smoother stones than previously, making for a mostly smooth ride in a wheelchair. There is a large, modern Plexiglas elevator from the ground floor to the upper level, and the walkway around the perimeter at that level is flat, smooth, and completely accessible. Some fascinating, well-designed, and well-documented exhibits were added to the upper level since our last visit, featuring everything from renderings of Nero’s Golden House (Domus Aurea) (Nero’s private lake, which was part of the Golden House complex, occupied the site on which the Colosseum was built), to demonstrations of the rigging for the sails that protected Colosseum spectators from the sun. Since our last visit, restroom access had improved. In past visits the restrooms were outside the Colosseum; there is now an accessible restroom at ground level near the ticket counter. Although it is up a somewhat steep ramp and is not as large as many accessible restrooms in Rome, it is adequate.
- Column of Marcus Aurelius (2014): Unlike that of Trajan’s Column, the base of the Column of Marcus Aurelius is at street level. The column is in Piazza Colonna, which is gradually sloped.
- Forum (Roman Forum) (2014): The ticket booth and entrance to the Roman Forum are entered via dei Fori Imperiali. Wheelchair users and one companion are admitted for free. From the ticket booth, a series of gradual ramps with railings on both sides and smooth pavement lead down to a large elevator. The elevator has a capacity of 800 kg (1,760 pounds) and is easily large enough for a person in a wheelchair and two able-bodied people. The elevator goes down to the level of the forum, and from there, a series of gradual ramps with smooth pavement and, in some areas, railings, lead to Basilica Aemelia and the Curia. Some other parts of the forum are paved in smooth concrete and smooth stone, while others have large, bumpy, irregular stones with big gaps between them, and still others have a combination of compacted dirt and gravel. Much of the terrain in the forum is flat, although there are some moderately steep slopes. But the main challenge is the uneven surfaces, not the slope. In most places, navigating uneven surfaces isn’t very difficult for power wheelchair and scooter users; manual wheelchair users would need someone to push them. The elevator, railings, and smooth pavements are part of a long-term project to improve access to the forum, not only for visitors with mobility disabilities but for the general public. The project is ongoing and one can expect continued improvement over time. Truly impressive progress has been made since our first visit, in 2003.
- Forum (Imperial Fori) (2014): The Forum of Caesar and Forum of Augustus are at least partially accessible; the situation changes depending on the state of the excavations. Even when it is impossible to go down into the excavation sites, they can be seen from via dei Fori Imperiali. See below for information about Trajan’s Forum, Column, and Market.
- Janiculum (Monte Gianicolo) (2014): We tried to get to the top of the Janiculum Hill by way of via Garibaldi. Just below Piazza San Pietro in Montorio (where Bramante’s acclaimed Tempietto is located), the street slopes steeply and curves sharply uphill. A flight of stairs leads up to the Tempietto. We didn’t continue via Garibaldi because Howard would have had to remain in the street on extremely uneven terrain and in the face of heavy oncoming automobile traffic. Drivers would have been unable to see him, and vice versa.
- Largo di Torre Argentina/Area Sacra (2014): The antiquities are below street level and are viewed from above. The streets and sidewalks surrounding the site, and the pedestrian-only viewing area above the excavations, are fairly smooth.
- Mamertine-Tullian Prison (2009): The piazza where the entrance to this notorious ancient Roman dungeon is located is accessed by a short, moderately steep path off via dei Fori Imperiali, past the entrance to the Vittoriano Museum. The prison and San Giuseppe dei Falegnami, the church above it, are inaccessible – there is a flight of stairs down to the church and another flight from there down to the prison. The piazza itself is flat and affords a sweeping yet close view of the Roman Forum, including a very close view of the Arch of Septimius Severus.
- Mausoleum of Augustus (2014): This site, located across the street from the Ara Pacis, is viewed from the outside. There are no major access obstacles. Excavation and reconstruction of the site are ongoing, so how close the public can get is subject to change.
- Pantheon (2014): Piazza della Rotonda, the piazza in front of the building, is sloped downhill and there are cross slopes at the edges, so it’s best to approach the Pantheon from the center. There is a moderately sloped semi-permanent ramp with railings and a nonskid surface at the front of the porch, toward the left side. From the porch, the Pantheon entrance is level.
- Theater of Marcellus (2014) and Portico of Octavia (2014): Restoration work is ongoing at these evocative, important sites and along via di Portico Ottavia in the Jewish Ghetto, with impressive progress having been made over the years. There is a flat observation area at the end of via di Portico Ottavia. There is a relatively gradual permanent ramp, with railings on both sides, leading from via di Portico Ottavia down to the excavations around the Theater of Marcellus. The interior of the theater isn’t open to the public; the site is viewed from the outside. (There are privately owned apartments on the upper floor of the theater.) The ground around the theater is essentially flat but is filled with large, irregular stones with large gaps between them. Depending on the conditions at any particular time, it may or may not be possible for people in wheelchairs to go around the excavation site. Access is likely to be better for someone in a manual wheelchair with assistance than for someone in a power chair or scooter. Regardless, a good view of the Theater of Marcellus can be had from via di Portico Ottavia, above, and from the sidewalk on the other side.
- Trajan’s Market/Museum of the Imperial Fora (2014) and Trajan’s Forum/Trajan’s Column (2006): Trajan’s Market is huge and complex, and most of it is accessible. The entrance to Trajan’s Market and the museum is at the intersection of Largo Magnanapoli, via IV November and via Nazionale, several stories above the level of Trajan’s Forum. From the street to the museum entrance there is a moderately steep ramp with a railing leading down to the museum’s Great Hall. Wheelchair users and one companion are admitted for free. The galleries on both sides of the Great Hall are easily accessed by wide, moderately sloped ramps. A medium size elevator, large enough for someone in a power wheelchair and another person, goes to the top floor. From the top floor, one can go out to the roof terrace, but the surface is composed of large, uneven, bumpy stones with big gaps between them. On the roof, there are several observation areas, some of which are accessed by moderately sloped ramps with smooth surfaces and railings on both sides. However, some of the paths leading from one observation area to another are paved with large, uneven, bumpy stones with big gaps. From the outside area, another elevator goes back down to the entrance level. Back inside the Great Hall, another elevator appears to lead down to the level of Trajan’s Forum; we didn’t take it or go to the lowest level because the employee was concerned that Howard’s wheelchair would be too heavy. We don’t know the weight capacity of the elevator. As of 2006 there also was an entrance to Trajan’s Forum via dei Fori Imperiali, next to Trajan’s Column. This is a long, steep, downhill walk from the museum entrance described above, even though the two places are close together on a map. A flight of stairs leads down to Trajan’s Forum, including the remains of the massive Basilica Ulpia, which are below street level. There is an enclosed platform lift, similar to an elevator but without a full shaft. The doorway and interior width were ample for Howard’s lightweight Quickie power wheelchair but the interior isn’t deep – Howard fit lengthwise only with his footrests in the completely lowered position, and even then his shoes scraped the edge. For a larger power wheelchair such as a Permobil, or a scooter, the fit would be quite tight. The lift is operated by an employee and the ticket office is downstairs, so an able-bodied person must go downstairs and get an employee. Trajan’s Forum is fairly flat but the ground is rocky and bumpy. Howard was able to navigate it fairly easily in his power wheelchair; a manual wheelchair user would need assistance and would have a bumpy ride. There is a tunnel with a smooth, flat metal surface leading from the Basilica Ulpia to the entrance to the lowest level of Trajan’s Market. Most of the market is up a long flight of stairs from the forum and, hence, is inaccessible from there; to see it one must enter from the Museum of the Imperial Fora, described above. The sidewalk around Trajan’s Column lacks curb ramps, so someone in a wheelchair can’t get very close. www.capitolium.org www.mercatiditraiano.it
12 – EUR (ESPOSIZIONE UNIVERSALE di ROMA) (2012)
EUR is a residential and business district in the city of Rome, far from the historic center. It was planned and begun by Mussolini in the 1930s as a World’s Fair to showcase the accomplishments of Fascism, abandoned during the war, and mostly completed during the 50s and 60s. It’s a highly planned area, monumental in scale, with Fascist and “rational” architecture and monuments.
Howard and Jason went there on a Saturday on a Context tour (see Section 14 – Walking Tours – Context Travel and Katie Parla, below). EUR is car-oriented and unfriendly to pedestrians in general, let alone those with mobility disabilities. The streets are wide, traffic signals are timed to favor cars, and most of the sidewalks lack curb ramps, making it necessary to roll in the street much of the time. This was not a problem because it was a Saturday and traffic was very light, but the going is likely to be more difficult on weekdays.
All or most of the buildings were closed on Saturday. We viewed the buildings from the outside, so cannot report on their accessibility. One can learn and appreciate a lot by viewing the buildings, sculptures, murals, and friezes from outside; our visit was worthwhile.
Getting to EUR was a challenge. We started at the Piramide Metro station, so named because it is near the Pyramid of Gaius Cestius, a late first-century BC tomb. Buses go there from the historic center but the availability of wheelchair accessible buses is hit or miss. We waited for the bus, but the first two that arrived were not accessible, so we walked from Ponte Sisto to Piramide by way of Trastevere and via Marmorata in Testaccio, which required rolling in the street much of the time because many of the sidewalks in the southern part of Trastevere and in Testaccio lack curb ramps. This was difficult even on a Saturday and would have been more so on weekdays when traffic is heavier.
The street and piazza in front of Piramide station were busy, there were no curb ramps at the key crosswalks, and in order to get to the station it was necessary to roll in the street with heavy traffic. From the Piramide station, we walked a short distance to look at the Ostiense train (not Metro) station, an important example of Fascist architecture, walked back to Piramide and took the Metro. It is only one block from Piramide to Ostiense station, but there are few curb ramps and people in wheelchairs must roll in the street. Ostiense station is up a fairly high curb; there is an access ramp at the far left of the main entrance, in the parking lot. The ramp is somewhat difficult to find, especially when the parking lot is full of cars.
We took the Metro to EUR Magliana, the closest of the three Metro stations in EUR. We walked the length of EUR and took EUR Fermi, the furthest of the EUR stations, back to the historic center of Rome, exiting at Cavour. Piramide station has a medium size elevator down to the train level; it worked fine. The boarding platforms at EUR Magliana, EUR Fermi, and Cavour are at street level; no elevator is needed. While Magliana and Cavour have gradually sloped ramps from the station to the street, there is no curb ramp at Fermi and it was necessary to go all around the piazza to find the lowest curb, which was still several inches high, to access the station. At Magliana and Fermi, one must go up or down medium-sloped hills to get to/from the stations, many of the nearby sidewalks lack curb ramps, and the streets leading to the stations would have heavy traffic on weekdays.
There is no vertical gap between the boarding platforms and the Metro trains, and the horizontal gap is a few inches. The horizontal gap is a bit wider than at BART in the San Francisco Bay Area but was not difficult for Howard to traverse with a running start. His Permobil is front-wheel-drive; getting over the gap would be more difficult for rear-wheel-drive power chairs and scooters. Most people in manual wheelchairs would need help. Even so, Metro access was much better than we had expected.
From Magliana station there is a medium steep hill up to EUR, but EUR itself is fairly flat.
Don’t be discouraged by these obstacles. EUR, and even Testaccio, are not on most people’s itineraries for their first or second trip to Rome. After several trips where we remained within the historic center and focused on the “don’t miss” sites, Howard ventured outside the center to Testaccio and EUR. The extra time and challenge of getting there were well worthwhile, but might not be on one’s first or second trip except for those who are particularly interested in Fascist architecture and urban planning.
One of the most iconic buildings in EUR, featured in many films, is the Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana (Palace of Italian Civilization), familiarly known as the Square Colosseum. After being closed to the public for many years, in 2015 the city of Rome leased it to the Fendi fashion house. Recently renovated, it now serves as Fendi’s headquarters. There is a building at Wilshire Boulevard and McCarty Drive in Beverly Hills, California that is a direct imitation of the Square Colosseum.
13 – OUTSIDE ROME
Hadrian’s Villa – Tivoli (2003)
This huge site is in Tivoli, around an hour’s drive from Rome. We were unable to find accessible public transportation so we hired an accessible van with a driver. As at Ostia Antica (see below), 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 used here with its original meaning, namely a large estate including many separate buildings, not merely a single building surrounded by gardens. The site appears similar in size to Ostia Antica; it’s enlightening to consider that the villa complex for an emperor, his family, 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 sloped. 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 isn’t strong.
We didn’t go to the gardens of nearby Villa d’Este, also in Tivoli, so can’t report on the state of access there based on first-hand knowledge. In response to our email inquiry in 2012, we were informed that the gardens are accessible.
Ostia Antica (2003)
What follows is from our visit in 2003. Although that was over 10 years ago, we include it to give you some basic information and to encourage you to go there. It’s imperative to check transportation and site access before visiting. Getting there was the most difficult part, and transportation may well have improved since 2003. Even back then, access to the archaeological site was reasonably good considering the terrain, size, and conditions. Wheelchair access is likely to have improved since then as more of this huge site has been excavated, renovated, and improved.
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 worthwhile because this ancient Roman port town is well-preserved, well-documented, beautiful, architecturally fascinating, and historically important.
Go to Porta San Paolo train station, which is near Piramide Metro line B station in Testaccio. It is a long but doable stroll from the center of Rome. Or take a local Roman bus or the Metro, depending on where you’re coming from. The train station is next to the Metro station, across the street from the ancient Pyramid of Caius Cestius.
Take the train (not the Metro) outbound toward Ostia. Trains depart frequently. 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 of inches higher and have a larger gap.
As of 2003, the only egress from the outbound platform at Ostia Antica was down a long flight of stairs to a tunnel under the platform, and from there to the outside. 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 there was no accessible path of travel from the platform to outside the station, and waited for the next outbound train. We got off 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, renovated around 2003, has a large, modern elevator; we took it up to the walkway above the tracks, crossed the elevated walkway, and took another elevator down to the Rome-bound platform. (Lido Nord also has a textured surface for blind people along the platform.) We then took the train back toward Rome with one-stop, exiting at Ostia Antica. The platform on this side of the track leads directly to the station exit. However, there was a medium-height stair down 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 even more 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 where the divided highway meets some smaller 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 the late morning and on our return in the late afternoon, and he helped us cross. There is one large step from the pathway into the street, which Howard was able to navigate in his lightweight power wheelchair with help from Michele. 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.
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 site, there is a level, asphalt service road parallel to the Decumanus (the ancient Roman main street, which is paved with large, irregular stones) going from the main park entrance to the museum and café. 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 café are accessible. The café 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 café/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 remarkably well-preserved floor mosaics installed by traders and merchants to advertise their specialties, merchandise, and trading regions. 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 Via di Diana and the large Capitolium Temple in the Forum. Howard proceeded along 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 if it were wet or muddy.
We were at the site for 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 (we were there in May). 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 and includes the ancient synagogue, but the service road ends before that area and the Decumanus gets bumpier and more uneven, essentially becoming impassable in a wheelchair.
Allow a full day to see this evocative, beautiful site. Bring some stamina, plenty of water, extra tire tubes just in case, and your imagination.
Official website of the Roman archaeological superintendent; includes information about many archaeological sites in and around Rome.
14 – WALKING TOURS – CONTEXT TRAVEL and KATIE PARLA
A good guide can enrich and enliven travel anywhere. This is especially true in Rome because of its complexity, multiplicity of physical and historical layers, vast temporal scale, extraordinary richness, and sometimes nearly overwhelming density. There is a lot to absorb. The walking tours we took with Context Travel and Katie Parla have been among the highlights of our trips.
Context operates in-depth small groups (six people maximum) and private walking tours (Context prefers the term “itineraries”) of three to four hours led by English-speaking docents who live in Rome and have advanced degrees in art history, architecture, archaeology, history, or urban planning. The docents aren’t conventional, full-time tour guides – they are specialists sharing their expertise and passion for their subjects while also practicing their professions. The tours are thematic. Context began in Rome and now operates in other major cities in Italy, Europe, Asia, and the United States.
Over the years we’ve taken many Context tours in Rome. Fascinating, in-depth, and interactive, these walks have added a rich dimension to our knowledge and appreciation of Rome. We’ve also taken Context tours in Naples, Florence, and Paris, which likewise were superb. The docents’ knowledge and insights were deep and broad, their passion for their subjects energizing and the pacing perfect. They were historically imaginative in evoking the times. The high quality of the docents, the small size of the groups, the large amount of time devoted to a particular theme, and the interactive nature of the tours make a Context walk a true learning experience, as well as enjoyable. What you see and learn is likely to leave a lasting impression.
Context views disability access as a challenge, a learning opportunity, and an endeavor consistent with its commitment to social responsibility and sustainability. Several times the docents rearranged our tour to make it more accessible. In recent years Context has developed its Mobility Program, which aims to identify the degree of accessibility of its itineraries for wheelchair users and slow walkers, to design accessible itineraries, and to systematize the information. Howard is proud to be part of an advisory panel that helps Context with this initiative. On our 2014 and 2012 trips to Italy and our 2013 trip to Paris, we took several Context tours, surveyed their accessibility, and suggested ways to improve access.
Context offers a large variety of itineraries with varying degrees of access. Given the age, terrain, buildings, and site conditions in Rome, it is unavoidable and understandable that not all of the itineraries are accessible, some are only partially accessible and some are completely inaccessible, but Context is trying to do as much as is feasible. When signing up, provide detailed information about your mobility limitations and capabilities.
If you are in Florence, we highly recommend a tour with Context docent Cornelia Danielson, who is not only an architectural historian specializing in Italian Renaissance architecture but an access expert and a tireless and effective advocate for disability rights in Florence, Tuscany, and beyond.
Katie Parla, formerly a docent for Context, gives private tours of Rome and southern Italy and writes passionately and insightfully about Italian art, antiquities, architecture, food, and wine. In 2009 she took us on a superb tour of Via Appia Antica (the Appian Way) which was one of the highlights of our trip. Her knowledge of Rome is broad and deep, and her enthusiasm is infectious. She’s very aware of and conscientious about disability access. She’s also a sommelier and food expert. Her food blog is Parla Food. She recently wrote a Rome cookbook – see Section 16, Information, below.
15 – THE GREAT COURSES LECTURES
The Great Courses (formerly The Teaching Company) produces lectures on a variety of subjects by award-winning college professors. We’ve enjoyed the following series, which are in-depth, visually rich, well produced, and have added immeasurably to our knowledge and appreciation of Rome and Italy.
- Aeneid of Virgil by Professor Elizabeth Vandiver (available only in audio)
- Classical Archaeology of Ancient Greece and Rome by Professor John Hale
- The Everyday Guide to Wines of Italy by Jennifer Simonetti-Bryan
- Experiencing Rome: A Visual Exploration of Antiquity’s Greatest Empire by Professor Steven Tuck
- Famous Romans by Professor Rufus Fears
- Genius of Michelangelo by Professor William Wallace
- Great Artists of the Italian Renaissance by Professor William Kloss
- Great Battles of the Ancient World by Professor Garrett Fagan
- Greece and Rome: An Integrated History of the Ancient Mediterranean by Professor Robert Garland
- The Guide to Essential Italy by Professor Kenneth Bartlett
- History of Ancient Rome by Professor Garrett Fagan
- Italian Renaissance by Professor Kenneth Bartlett
- Pompeii: Daily Life in an Ancient Roman City by Professor Steven Tuck
- Understanding Greek and Roman Technology: From Catapult to the Pantheon by Professor Stephen Ressler
- Understanding the World’s Greatest Structures: Science and Innovation from Antiquity to Modernity by Professor Stephen Ressler
16 – INFORMATION
Books About Rome
- Caesar: Life of a Colossus. By Adrian Goldsworthy. A superb biography of Caesar by a British military historian. Includes much about the times, the politics, and the Romans’ conception of themselves.
- City Secrets: Rome. Edited by Robert Kahn. One of a series of books about various cities. It contains short blurbs from prominent architects, art historians, archaeologists, and artists with their impressions and insights about buildings, artworks, sites, and antiquities. It is small and easy to bring on your trip.
- The Colosseum. By Keith Hopkins and Mary Beard. One of an excellent series of short books on major buildings. Written by historians and classicists, rather than architectural critics, this series emphasizes the historical and cultural importance of the buildings. Brilliantly written. Mary Beard recently wrote SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome, which gets good reviews. We haven’t had a chance to read it yet.
- Rome. By Robert Hughes, the late Australian art critic. A chronological history of Rome, it’s a fairly good summary, although Hughes is not a historian and, given his background and the 2500+ years covered, he necessarily oversimplifies. The reason to read it is his knowledgeable, idiosyncratic, highly opinionated, personal observations on art, architecture, and culture. Be aware that he is cynical about the Catholic Church.
- Tasting Rome: Fresh Flavors and Forgotten Recipes from an Ancient City. By Katie Parla and Kristina Gill. A well-written, delectably photographed, enticing cookbook with fascinating cultural and historical information about each recipe.
Streetwise Rome. Part of the Streetwise Maps series of maps of major cities. These maps have clear, user-friendly graphics, the right level of detail, easy-to-follow navigation, and good indexes. They are laminated and they fold only in one direction, making them durable, water-resistant, and easy to use for someone with limited manual dexterity.
- Handy Turismo is the official accessible tourism website of the Comune of Rome. Some pages are now in English. The website is clunky, but it’s a useful starting point. The tourism office answers inquiries about access in Rome from Monday through Friday from 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM and by email. Their information isn’t always up to date, so it’s advisable to confirm information with the source to which they refer you.
- Comune of Rome – Disability Services (Ufficio Mobilita Disabili del V Dipartmento). Phone: +39-06-6710-5387 or +39-06-6710-5393 or, only when calling from Italy, 800-015-510. Address: viale Manzoni, 16.
- Presidio del Lazio. Lazio is the region where Rome is located. The regional government operates an information service for disabled people. Toll-free phone number from within Italy: 800-271-027.
17 – ITALIAN DISABILITY AND MEDICAL ORGANIZATIONS
The organizations listed below include disease-specific medical nonprofits, disability rights groups, and independent living organizations. In addition to advocacy and medical research, some Italian disease-specific nonprofits provide services such as transportation, referrals to service providers, and other services that are often provided by independent living centers in the US. Many of these organizations have semi-autonomous local branches, some of which maintain their websites. The local branches are more likely to assist disabled travelers than the national organizations. To find the websites of local branches, go to the parent organization’s website.
- AISM – Associazione Italiana Sclerosi Multipla
- ANIEP – Associazione Nazionale per la Promozione e la Difesa dei Diritti Civili e Sociali degli Handicappati
- ANMIC – Associazione Nazionale Mutilati ed Invalidi Civili
- AP – Associazione Paraplegici di Roma e del Lazio – Onlus
- AVI – Associazione Vita Indipendente Onlus Independent living organization based in Rome.
- Cittadinanzattiva Onlus – Disability rights organization focusing on barrier removal in Rome.
- CO.IN – Cooperative Integrate Onlus Roman disability rights organization that has some accessible tourism projects.
- DPI Italia – Disabled Persons International Italia
- FAIP – Federazione Associazioni Italiane Para-tetraplegici
- UILDM – Unione Italiana Lotta alla Distrofia Muscolare
Hotel Wheelchair Access Questionnaire
My [ ] and I will arrive in [ ] on [ ] and depart on [ ]. We will stay for [ ] nights.
I use an electric wheelchair that is [[ ] centimeters ([ ] inches)] wide. I am unable to walk at all. My wife is not disabled. We would like a non-smoking room with one large bed. We have the following questions about your hotel:
- Do you have any specially equipped (adapted) wheelchair accessible guest rooms? If not, please disregard the other questions. Thank you and we would appreciate a recommendation of the hotel in the area that does have specially equipped (adapted) wheelchair accessible guest rooms.
If you do have specially equipped (adapted) wheelchair accessible guest rooms, we have the following questions. Please answer even if you are fully booked for the requested time because we are interested in your hotel for the future.
- Is it necessary to go up or down any stairs in order to get from the street entrance to the guest room? Does the building have an elevator? If so, how wide is the elevator door and what are the interior dimensions of the elevator?
- In the bathroom, is there space for a [ ] cm wide wheelchair on one side of the toilet? What is the width of the doorway into the bathroom? What is the height of the toilet? What is the size of the shower? Can a wheelchair roll into the shower? Are there grab bars near the toilet and shower?
- Are all the doorways in the room at least 75 cm wide?
- What is the size of the room? Does this include the bathroom?
- Was the building renovated recently?
Also, could you email some photos of the bathroom.
Please quote a rate.
Thank you very much. We appreciate any help you can provide.
Very Truly Yours
Metric Conversion Guide
- One inch = 2.54 centimeters.
- One centimeter = 0.3937 inches
- One meter = 39.4 inches
- One square meter = 10.76 square feet
- One kilometer = 0.62 miles
- One mile = 1.61 kilometers
- One kilogram = 2.2 pounds
- One hundred grams = just under ¼ pound (3 ½ ounces)
- One pound = 0.454 kilograms (454 grams)
- One liter = 0.264 gallons = 1.056 quarts
- One gallon = 3.785 liters
English-To-Italian Dictionary Of Disability Access Words And Phrases © Barrier Free Travel 2003, 2006
(Included by permission of, and with thanks to, Cornelia Danielson of Barrier-Free Travel)
- “disabled” – DISABLE or HANDICAPPATO
- “I am disabled” – SONO UNA PERSONA DISABILE
- “wheelchair” – SEDIA A ROTELLE or CARROZZINA or CARROZZELLA
- “I use a wheelchair” – SONO IN CARROZZINA
- “I use an electric wheelchair” – USO UNA CARROZZINA ELETTRICA
- “wheel” – RUOTA
- “battery” – BATTERIA
- “tire” – GOMMA
- “tire tube” – CAMERA D’ARIA
- “My wheelchair needs to be repaired” – LA MIA CARROZZINA HA BISOGNO DI ESSERE RIPARATA
- “transfer board” – TAVOLETTA DI TRASFERIMENTO
- “I am unable to walk” – NON CAMMINO
- “ramp” –RAMPA or SCIVOLO or PEDANA
- “is there a ramp?” – C’E’ UNA RAMPA?
- “stairs” –SCALE
- “Are there stairs?” CI SONO DELLE SCALE?
- “How many steps are there?” – QUANTI GRADINI SONO?
- “elevator” – ASCENSORE
- “is there an elevator?” – C’E’ UN ASCENSORE?
- “Is it necessary to climb any steps to get to the elevator?” – CI SONO DEI GRADINI PER ARRIVARE ALL’ASCENSORE?
- “What are the elevator’s dimensions?”- QUALI SONO LE DIMENSIONI DELL’ASCENSORE?
- “What is the width of the doorway?” – QUAL’ E’ LA LARGEZZA DELLA PORTA?
- “What is the height of the bed?” – QUAL’E’ L’ALTEZZA DEL LETTO?
- “up” – SU
- “down” – GIU’
- “roll-in shower” – DOCCIA A PAVIMENTO
- “accessible bathroom” – BAGNO ACCESSIBILE or SERVIZIO IGENICO ACCESSIBILE
- “grab bars” – MANIGLIONI or CORRIMANI (handrails)
- “Is the bathroom wheelchair accessible?” – IL BAGNO E’ ACCESSIBILE ALLE CARROZZINE?
- “Does the bathroom have a roll-in shower?” – IL BAGNO E’ CON DOCCIA A PAVIMENTO?
- “Are there grab bars in the bathroom?” – CI SONO DEI MANIGLIONI NEL BAGNO?
- “Is the bus wheelchair accessible?” – L’AUTOBUS E’ ACCESSIBILE ALLE CARROZZINE?
- “Is the train wheelchair accessible?” – IL TRENO E’ ACCESSIBILE ALLE CARROZZINE?
- “Is the van/minivan wheelchair accessible?” – IL PULMINO E’ ACCESSIBILE ALLE CARROZZINE?
- “Does the van/minivan have a ramp?” – IL PULMINO HA UNA RAMPA?
- “Does the van/minivan have a lift?” – IL PULMINO HA UN SOLLEVATORE?
- “The elevator/ramp/lift is broken” – L’ASCENSORE/ LA RAMPA/ IL SOLLEVATORE E’ ROTTO (or “ROTTA” depending on the gender of the noun)
- “How far is it from [ ] to [ ]?” – QUANTO DISTA DA [ ] A [ ]?
- “blind” – NON VEDENTE or CIECO
- “I am blind” – SONO CIECO or SONO UN NON VEDENTE
- “Braille” – the same word is used, pronounced “brile” (with a long “i” and silent “e” like “bile”)
- “guide dog” –CANE GUIDA
- “deaf” – NON UDENTE or SORDO
- “I am deaf” – SONO SORDO or SONO UN NON UDENTE
- “hearing impaired” – IPOUDENTE
- “I am hearing impaired” – SONO QUASI SORDO
- “sign language” – LINGUAGGIO DEI SORDOMUTI
- “sign language interpreter” – UN INTERPRETE DEL LINGUAGGIO DEI SORDOMUTI
Every letter (vowel and consonant) is pronounced in Italian. There is no silent “e” for example as there is in English
A is always a short “a” (as in “adopt”)
E sounds like a long “a” (as in “ate”)
It sounds like a long “e” (as in “eat”)
O sounds like a long “o” (as in “oats”)
U sounds like “ou” (as in “you”)
C has a hard sound like “k” before “o” and “a” (carrozzina) BUT BEFORE
OTHER VOWELS it sounds like the “ch” in “chair” (doccia)