Traveling has always been a big part of my life. So it is no wonder, that after leaving the hospital in February 2012 I started thinking about it almost straight away. How would I travel now using a wheelchair? After checking all the technical issues of traveling with a wheelchair and accomplishing my first flight to visit my family, it was time to plan an actual trip. Countries and islands of the Mediterranean Sea have always been one of my favorite destination for a trip. There are many islands to explore and one of them is the Italian island of Sicily with its active volcano Etna.
This first year after leaving National Rehabilitation Hospital in 2012 was a year of preparing myself and planning for several days in Sicily. I quickly realized that there were far fewer choices for places to stay and of course, it took much more time to book a room. The priority is to make sure that the accommodation is adapted to my physical needs. A couple of months before the trip the flights and all the hotels were booked. In most guides’ books quite often it is mentioned that Sicily is not wheelchair friendly. Old cities with streets and sidewalks are made of cobblestones and historic places are often located on a hill, but not all of them. I wanted to experience Sicily for myself.
Unfortunately, it was not possible to rent a car with hand-controls, which is still a major problem in Europe. Only some places have them but I have not tried those, yet. Lucky me, I was not on my own and the duty of being a driver was my wife’s while I was her pilot; and she needed one as the route I planned ran across the whole island of Sicily from Catania on the west side to Trapani on the east side.
Parking Spaces? Forget them in Sicily. Sure, there are parking spaces for disabled drivers but… usually occupied or very narrow. Driving on this island is a crazy experience. Drivers there don’t care about minor rules on the streets. Once we were honked at because we stopped at the red light (!!??) in front of a tunnel entrance. We found out why when we got green and entered the tunnel. We met a few cars facing us from the other side of the tunnel they entered already on a red light and it was a one-way road only… yeah, I knew then why we were honked at. Funny experience driving in Sicily. Don’t do it if your nerves are weak.
Our first target was the volcano Etna and its surroundings. On the slopes of Mount Etna is a nice guesthouse to stay at. You need a car if you use a wheelchair and want to stay at Agriturismo Biologico dell’Etna as it is quite far away from the nearest shops or restaurants and the surroundings are not too wheelchair friendly. If you have a car and want to use this place to only sleep then this place might be just fine. Otherwise, I would not recommend it.
During the summer, breakfast is served outside and to get there you need to go through old paving tiles, grass, and a small slope (about 10 meters total). The kitchen is a little tight. In the bedroom, you might ask to move the bed to the side if there is not enough room to get in. All these drawbacks are of no significance if all you need is a 100% accessible bathroom (there is just about a 2cm high threshold around the shower). All in all, the guesthouse was very nice and quiet. I would get back there, especially for those breakfasts under the kiwi trees.
A cable car takes tourists from 1900m above sea level to 2500m above sea level where people can transfer to the 4×4 cars and go even higher. Tourist can also drive their vehicles up to the 1900m mark. The cable car is very small and narrow, meaning not accessible. As a mountain lover, my main reason for traveling to Sicily was to explore Mount Etna and I was prepared for the cable car not being accessible. I bought a cross-country hand-cycle and trained as much as I could as I knew I would be cycling up the curved trails of Mount Etna. There is one that leads the cyclists almost all the way up to the main crater. It was really hard because of the volcanic dust and steepness. The front, powering wheel simply kept getting stuck and spinning in one place. Then I needed a push (big thanks to my wife and some German guy who was also cycling up the Etna). I made it just past the place where the cable car stops. At that point, we decided to turn back as it was about 4 pm and we still had about 3 hour drive to our next stop in Castlebueno near the famous city Cefalu.
We arrived at the Ypsigro Hotel at about 9 pm and parked on the side of the road as the hotel does not have a car park. Ypsigro is a nice hotel with ramps an elevator and general accessibility, but I had some little issues with access to the room and bathroom. It was not possible to get to the bed from the side as there was not enough space between the bed and the wall. The only way was the foot of the bed. The bigger problem was the bathroom. The roll-in shower did not have any grab rails and did not have a mounted stable chair-only a very unstable plastic one. I would not recommend this hotel if you travel alone.
Castlebueno is an old town located on the slopes of the Madonie Mountains with some hilly streets (paving stones). If this is not a problem for you I would recommend visiting its center and strolling around.
The next town to visit was Agrigento on the other side of the island. On the way there, we stopped at Cefalu for a short beach break and to see the Villa Romana del Casale in the middle of Sicily. The Villa Romana del Casale is a villa built by the Romans in the first quarter of the 4th century that contains the richest, largest, and most complex collection of Roman mosaics in the world. There is a wheelchair path and you can see most of the mosaics but not all of them.
This time we arrived at our hotel Antica Foresta Catalana quite early but that fact did not solve the parking issues. The Hotel is located in the very center of Agrigento which means driving through very narrow streets. The receptionist or possibly the owner was kind enough to move two motorbikes beside the hotel entrance so we could unload and then somehow squeezed our car into a space he created and repeated the process the following morning. Apart from parking challenges (at this point, we knew it was just the charm of this island), the wheelchair accessibility in the hotel was of top quality.
Ramps were in a place where needed and the room as well as the bathroom were spacious and included a roll-in shower and toilet with handrails. Like all the destinations leading up to this, Agrigento is also an old and hilly town. The central location of the hotel made it super convenient though. The only thing you have to struggle with is a steep street down from the hotel to the main promenade that’s about 100 meters long and of course, made of cobblestones.
While in Agrigento, we were surprised by a week-long Festival of San Calogero, the “Black Saint,” so we enjoyed street performances, parades, and many other shows, like this one.
Finally, the Sicilian Capital of Palermo! Since it is the main city, we had a positive attitude regarding wheelchair access. Parking was still difficult but the Centrale Palace Hotel has private parking but for an extra fee. There is a small 1-2 inch step at the hotel entrance but after you pass it everything is just superb, including a large bedroom and a bathroom with a roll-in shower and handrails where needed. Everything is accessible.
We had the plan to visit the Catacumbas of Palermo and I found on the internet that it was supposed to be partially accessible, but upon arrival, we were told it wasn’t and did not explain why. Maybe a broken elevator? I suggest contacting Catacumbas of Palermo directly if you want to try and visit.
After a visit to Palermos Cathedral and a nice festive weekend in Palermo, La Festa di Santa Rosalia, it was time to hit the road again to our last hotel near the Trapani airport. But before we got there we made a little detour as there was time for some laziness on the most beautiful beach of San Vito Lo Capo. I bought a cheap, inflatable mattress just for single use. The plan was to somehow push/pull me on it into the sea but what a great surprise I had there! A 100% wheelchair friendly beach with a super nice team that had a beach wheelchair! It was an amazing feeling to play in the seawater again! For the first time since on the wheelchair.
And finally, our last hotel stop was Villa Speransa in the really small village of Marausa. The villa is a small B&B and is great for wheelchair users who have connecting flights at the airport in Trapani because it’s only a few minutes away. The disabled facilities have been designed with high standards and, shockingly, free parking! Plus, there is a nice garden beside and a restaurant with lovely food. We did not leave the premises of Villa Speransa so I can’t say anything about the village itself.
Airport Note: The airport in Trapani is like most small airports. However, after checking in, disabled people are asked to wait in a disabled-friendly room as they need to be guided to the gate using a completely different route than the rest of the passengers, so forget the duty-free shopping. Furthermore, I had no troubles taking my handcycle on the airplane—but dismantled it for the crew.