There’s nothing easy about trying to make mass public transportation accessible in older European countries. There’s no American Disability Act that ensures all vehicles of public transport be made accessible, which leaves a wheelchair-using tourist like myself feeling a little lost. That split-second feeling of entitlement (“What do you mean you didn’t make this train car specifically for someone like me?”) that comes from only ever knowing the accessibility laws of the United States was soon to be hushed from one encounter after another of inaccessible transportation (I’m looking at you, Italy). But what was so surprising and so reassuring was how the people of every country, every public transportation worker in each city, went to extreme lengths for me and my party so we could get to our destination. Old lifts were dug out of hidden corners of train stations, strangers carried my wheelchair up flights of stairs while Dusty carried me and workers continually took time to escort us through alternate routes when an aufzug (German word for elevator) was broken. Thank you, people throughout Europe, for affirming a belief in humanity that people will help.
Thank you Europe, for teaching me there are so many different ways key cards can fail to turn on unfamiliar light switches.
Thank you Europe, for showing me such colorful styles of driving, swerving stopping and speeding on all your autobahns, side streets, coasts and bridges.
Thank you Europe, for making sure I’m always aware when I don’t have my Passport to fill out a form at the bank or pay for a travel ticket.
Thank you Europe, for teaching me how to say “backed up tummy” in six different languages.
Thank you Europe, for all your delicious, bitter, full, sweet and sometimes noxious ways to consume alcohol, where it’s for a festival, dinner, breakfast, after dinner, before heading out in the snow, coming in from the snow, going out to the beach, at the beach, meeting a new person, traveling in (x) city, coming from church, at a farm, at a lake, when it’s Monday, when it’s Friday…
Thank you Europe, for closing every grocery store, shop, gas station and restaurant to remind me it’s Sunday.
Thank you Europe, for phone services that go into international “roaming” mode when traveling just a few hours away.
Thank you Europe, for schedules that close businesses in the middle of the day, but only on certain days of the week and those days change week to week and sometimes just close for a week altogether.
Thank you Europe, for trains, buses and planes that allow me to meet all sorts of colorful characters who each have very interesting smells.
Thank you Europe, for the shared bathrooms in hostels to make sure standards stay flexible when it comes to cleanliness and personal space.
Thank you Europe, for all the interesting ways to cook and sometimes not cook sausage and potatoes.
Thank you Europe, for wine. Nothing more to be said.
Thank you Europe, for each country that boasts having the BEST chocolate, wine, beer, dancing, cheese, leather, nightlife, parks, meat dishes, shoes, pasta…
And now the real thanks
Thank you Europe, for showing me more sides of humanity that I could have known, that people respect, accept and welcome a girl in a wheelchair no matter the country, language or cultural differences. Thank you Europe, for showing me that love is the true universal language and is accepted everywhere. Thank you Europe, for the travel and learning that has allowed me to grow from a disabled girl learning how to live in an able bodied world to a disabled woman, proud and capable of conquering life no matter where.
One of the most common challenges in traveling, for anyone, is overcoming a language barrier. Not hearing people speak your native language is difficult, but it can be overwhelming when you’re lost and you don’t even know the alphabet of the words on the street signs. So when we returned to the United Kingdom to attend the Scotland Highland Games in Aberdeen, I was excited to be traveling in an English-based environment.
I was totally wrong.
We began traveling from the Edinburgh airport to follow in the footsteps of William Wallace, being true cheesy Braveheart tourists. So we drive to Stirling (an exciting trip, as Dusty was driving stick on the left hand side of the road for the first time) and stayed in a surprisingly handicapped accessible B&B. When we went to the William Wallace pub for dinner, I was finally able to stop and pay attention to the conversations of the more rural Scottish men and women around me. And I couldn’t understand a word of it.
“Aye, lass, wood jay be wuhntin anudder glass uh dat?”
“Um, yes. I mean, no. I mean, It’s just a coke. What?”
Dusty would then have to cut in and save me, as he for some reason could translate Scottish.
At the Highland Games in Aberdeen, it’s such a low-key atmosphere that we had the privilege of talking with some of the young men competing in the caper toss and hammer throw events after they were finished. I asked one burly fellow how he felt about his toss (he had come in second and had been expected to come last). How he replied to my question sounded something like this:
” Aye ain’t nerva threwn aye toss so fah, aye mustav bin doe-in suhmthin roight!”
We saw Scotland as the beautiful, heartwarming and fiercely patriotic half of the United Kingdom. Scots are a proud people of their heritage and history and are quick to tell you. As unabashed Braveheart fans, we toured the southern roads of Scotland chasing William Wallace history and then make our way through the Scottish Highlands to Loch Ness and Aberdeen for the Highland Games. Similar to a state fair, the Highland Games are a series of competitions that were traditionally between families over feats of strength and dance. Today the competition is just as fierce, but the music is loud, the drinks are cold and there’s more fun than anything else. See the Itinerary for accessible options where to stay and where we liked- See the World Scotland Highland Games
The only accessible way to do Scotland without a group is to rent a car. There’s a good deal of driving involved to see the sights and we made a wide circle along the coast of the entire county. We left Scotland wanting to stay another month- there’s simply no limit on beauty to see! View our pictures here!
Edinburgh is a beautiful mix of Scottish tradition and modernization. Unfortunately, it is also a very hilly city and we chose to drive around the city rather than walk. Because of the local university, Edinburgh has been modified to be very accessible in other areas and I was able to have access to bathrooms and entryways independently. However, beware of cobblestones!
Edinburgh Castle has a beautiful view of the city and the grounds of the castle. It was been renovated to be accessible and I did not have any problems.
Morning: The Kelpies of Falkirk
The giant horse heads of the Kelpies are hard to miss when driving on the highway leaving Edinburgh. They’re a completely accessible outdoor attraction and have a fun ice creamery attached. There are guides and tours available as well, but it’s a relaxing stop on the way in or out of Edinburgh
Afternoon: Stirling and the William Wallace Monument
Sir William Wallace, the guardian of Scotland, still watches over the town of Stirling from the William Wallace Monument overlooking the city. His famous blade is on display once you climb the steep tower and you can trace his history all the way to the top. This is not an accessible attraction, it’s all steps and stairs, but the café at the bottom where I waited is very accessible.
Morning: Ben Nevis Peak
This peak was used for the filming of Braveheart, which unfortunately was majorly filmed in Ireland. This is not an accessible hike, but the drive to the trail head is beautiful and offers one of the best views of the unencumbered highland hills that we had seen. Dusty went ahead and hiked the trail, of course taking along with him the infamous speech to say at the at the top in memory of William Wallace. This blog has some great pics of the peak
Wallace: Sons of Scotland, I am William Wallace.
Young soldier: William Wallace is 7 feet tall.
Wallace: Yes, I’ve heard. Kills men by the hundreds, and if he were here he’d consume the English with fireballs from his eyes and bolts of lightning from his arse. I AM William Wallace. And I see a whole army of my countrymen here in defiance of tyranny. You have come to fight as free men, and free men you are. What would you do without freedom? Will you fight?
Veteran soldier: Fight? Against that? No, we will run; and we will live.
Wallace: Aye, fight and you may die. Run and you’ll live — at least a while. And dying in your beds many years from now, would you be willing to trade all the days from this day to that for one chance, just one chance to come back here and tell our enemies that they may take our lives, but they’ll never take our freedom!!!
Wallace and Soldiers: Alba gu bra! (Scotland forever!)
Evening: Loch Ness
The infamous Loch Ness was a must for our Scottish adventure. The Loch itself can get very foggy, so don’t get frustrated if you can’t see the Loch Ness monster, Nessie. There are several parking lots around the Loch (Scottish for lake), including a steeper one near the castle at Loch Ness. From the parking lots, you can walk around the lake on paved sidewalks next to the road. We walked for a bit and then drove around the perimeter of the loch looking for Nessie.
There is a Loch Ness Center & Exhibition, which is right next to the Drumnadrochit Hotel where we stayed. Very accessible hotel for Scotland standards and even packed us a lunch to go for the next day!
ALL DAY: Aberdeen Highland Games
The Highland Games are essentially a “state fair” held in each city or area of Scotland during different times of the year, but you pay a ticket to attend the games. Scotsmen and women local to that area compete in the different games, including folk dancing, hammer throw, caper toss and bagpipes. There’s also a very intense tug-o-war match. The Games are generally held in an open farm field and there won’t be any paved sidewalks or road in between the areas of different events. There were handicapped accessible port-o-johns and everyone allowed me to move ahead of them in the crowd to get a closer view of the events.
Make sure to try Scottish fair food! Lots of roasted meat and samples of whiskey, as well as fried, sugary pastries!
London is just freakin’ cool. Every corner is a statue of some hero who conquered some part of the world and each sight (Parliament, Westminster Abbey, Tower of London) is teeming with so much history and incredible events that the stones themselves ooze an overwhelming importance. London is the city that sips tea and says, “and you don’t know who I am?” in a way that leaves you feeling like an uncultured Neanderthal.
The people are very friendly, despite what our first underground worker told us. They were willing to help and were more than accommodating, but otherwise didn’t stare and left us alone. It was nice to see and hear English, especially when reading signs or asking for directions. The crowds of tourists, however, are extremely obnoxious and are found at each London hotspot no matter the time of day.
Despite how London is advertised, the city is not accessible for independent tourists like myself. The underground is frustrating; there are only lifts in the stations near the tourist destinations, but not in the rest of the city, and we found each lift to be under construction in some way or another. The city streets are as cobblestoned as every other city in Europe and the only true accommodations we found were the main tourist destinations, like the London Eye, are modified for accessibility. It’s my recommendation to use a disability travel service and book a guide to London; we spent too much of our time trying to figure out how to see the sights in my chair and not enough time enjoying the sights in my chair.