Paris is a city which I have visited regularly the last couple of years – including the four months I stayed here while writing my thesis in 2012.
I’ve always found it slightly messy and smelly and, though romantic in parts, it is difficult to get through the streets thanks to the cars and scooters everywhere. Parisians have yet to know what the red of the traffic light indicates and the old buildings, narrow pavement and many outdoor serving areas makes it difficult to walk around comfortably. Add to this the more than 15 million tourists who visit the city each year, and Paris can be overwhelming and difficult to navigate.
But despite all this we decided to invite my mother in law to Paris, planning a trip which allowed the use of a wheelchair.
I must admit that Paris has proven itself an amazing city to visit with a wheelchair user.
There are accessible public toilets all over the city and online it is possible to find a map of their locations.
While the metro system is well developed the stations are complex even for the hardy with loads of stairs and stains. But the bus system in Paris is even better and offers an amazing sightseeing option. No. 95 is my favourite bus as it travels from Montmartre through Louvre to Montparnasse.
While I always favoured the Parisian buses, I never appreciated them as much as doing this visit. All buses have easy wheelchair access apart from at a few stops clearly indicated by a yellow triangle.
And yes, even Monmartre is accessible now after the Montmartrobus, which crosses le butte on its way from Pigalle to Jules Joffrin, has been updated in late 2015.
We were rather concerned the first time we had to use the buses, but it was easy-peasy and now we are using it with great pleasure. An automatic ramp comes out from the centre door offering an almost straight entrance to the bus. And if the driver closes the door in front of you do not worry. The ramp can only come down with closed doors.
Access to Sainte-Chapelle and Notre Dame
While nearby Notre Dame draws the large crowds, the smaller and older Sainte-Chapelle is in my eye the true beauty of Île de Cité.
It is the chapel of the early royal residence of the French monarchs dating from 1248. Since handicap access was not really a priority in the middle ages, I did not think we would be able to get in with a wheelchair.
The narrow stone chairs to the beautiful upper floor do not seem fit for those with limited mobility. But as the upper floor used to be the main entrance from the medieval royal palace there remains a port which opens up to a landing connecting with Palais de Justice which has elevator access.
Not only did we get in to both floors, but out of the three of us only I had to pay the ticket. It is gratuit for handicapped and their assistant.
After our visit to Sainte-Chapelle we were treated a royal welcome at the corner bistro across from Palais de Justice called Les Deux Palais.
I’d feared that the general prejudice of arrogant French waiters would be a hindrance for us in Paris, but it seems that any arrogance I might have encountered on previous visits or heard tales about from others vanishes when a wheelchair is involved.
We had a lovely brunch before heading in the direction of Notre Dame, where we bypassed a 200 meter line by accessing the church through the exit. Moreover, neither of us paid the entrance fee this time around.
It was Sunday and inside the church tourists could enjoy the spectacle of a Catholic Sunday mass. While the faithful sat on the many rows of the huge cathedral, tourists walked up and down the long corridors to each side, photographing the mass. Off course if you are a believer, you can always take part no matter if you are local or foreign. But as an atheist, I’ve never felt comfortable pretending.
But this time around, a professional and sweet woman from the church offered us access to the church and saying yes, we ended up being guided to the front row of the mass, where I had to pretend I knew what was going on.
All the prayers and hymns were in French, and I had no idea when to get up or when to say amen and sit down. Fortunately, an extremely well-dressed middle-aged black man sat beside me. Not only could he sing along and say the prayers, but it also sounded fantastic. So for the next 45 minutes, I listened to him and made my lips sync so that it looked like I knew what I was doing.
At the end we were all supposed to shake hands and claim something about Jesus. And so I heartily shook the hands of those around me and muttered Jesus a few times before donating 20 EUR to the basket going around.
Leaving the mass, I had a great wish to re-watch The Hunchback of Notre Dame. It is surprising how well Disney copied the real mass of Notre Dame for their film.
We spent the rest of the day walking around Marais and shopping till we dropped before taking the bus home.
After our long weekend in Paris, I feel as if my relationship with this city of light has been renewed and I have come to appreciate a completely different side to the French capital.