Accessible adventures in the Pais Vasco!
The adventure started at Heathrow. As previously, we stayed at the Hilton T5 and met up with my brother, this time for a fabulous meal at Mr Todiwalah’s Kitchen – the most delicious Indian food you can imagine! We’ve had the odd hassle with accessible rooms at this hotel in the past but last time and this, they’ve given us the sort of room we wanted, with a proper wet room style shower.
Some months previously, BA had contacted us to say that the flight had been put back a couple of hours, which meant that the next day we had loads of time to kill, so we had a very leisurely breakfast, packed up then did some reading until it was time to go to the airport.
A week or so earlier, we had phoned the airline, as they suggest you do, to check that there was no problem with them transporting my Powerchair (this was the first time we’d travelled with it, having previously taken my Luggie scooter with us). They assured us that this was fine, so we were slightly annoyed if not entirely surprised when we went to the Special Assistance check-in desk to find that they had no record of the details we had given over the phone and did not know much about this particular sort of battery. They even suggested we rang the manufacturers to get more details! Eventually, after two different more senior members of staff had been summoned they decided it was fine and even gave us a code to identify the battery for future journeys, which did in fact prove useful on our return. Seriously could have done without the stress though!
There was so little time between the gate being announced and boarding commencing that I didn’t get to board first, but ended up being transported past everybody who had been asked to wait. A while ago, I might have felt rather embarrassed about this; now I just tend to think that if this is how it has to be, then so be it! This was in an airport wheelchair from which I was then transferred to the on-board wheelchair which they then lift onto the aircraft, having strapped you in as if you are about to do a parachute jump! Not great, but it gets you to your seat.
Arrived at Bilbao, we then had to pick up the hire car. I have no idea why picking up a hire car has to take so long, – they were taking about 30 minutes per person so we must have waited at least an hour plus of course the time it took to deal with us. We had specifically requested an ordinary, low car and an estate because of having to lift the Powerchair in and out. Despite a member of staff when we booked saying the details of our request would be passed on, there did not appear to be any record of this but they did their best to accommodate us and at least we ended up with a low car.
Off we set, armed with our AA directions which had served us well before in Spain. However, we should have consulted a map at the same time! Lesson learned! Knowing we were fairly likely to be late, I had e-mailed the hotel, the Parador de Argómaniz, sometime before to explain and they had said to ring them if we were going to be later than 11 as that’s when the restaurant closes and they would save us some food. I rang them once we were on our way and gave them an idea of when we might arrive and they asked what food we would like them to have ready for us. This was before we went haring off on the wrong road and had to come back, eventually getting ourselves back on track and arriving at 12:20. This of course isn’t particularly late for Spain, but even so, we were quite tired by then so the omelette and huge plate of chorizo, jamón etc and of course a drink were very welcome indeed!
Our room was a decent size and comfortable, with wide doorways and a few grabrails in the bathroom, although the shower stool was just an ordinary stool and not the most supportive thing!
Breakfast was varied – eggs, cold meat, cereals, bread, fruit, yogurts, served in the restaurant on the top floor, with its amazing wooden beamed ceiling. We spent the next day mainly relaxing out on the terrace enjoying the peace and quiet and looking at the wonderful view except when it got too hot – but that’s why they invented siestas! They may be dying out but when you’re on holiday…
Dinner was also in the fabulous dining room with plenty of choices of local food and wine and pleasant staff who were quite happy to provide me with a copy of the menu to bring home to show my students!
The next day, after another great breakfast we checked out and headed for Vitoria to find a supermarket which we had previously looked up on the internet. According to Google maps it was accessed via a service road but after several fruitless steps to find this and asking directions from people who didn’t know where it was, somebody finally told us you reach it via a slip road off the main road! Then it was very easy to find, so we stocked up and headed for Getaria. This time Google maps and Streetview had been really useful as we knew exactly which road to take and which landmarks to look out for and found Epotx Etxea easily. We sat on the terrace in the shade (it was over 30°) and marvelled at the view, before the owners’ son arrived and showed us around, then it was time for a cuppa and a relax!
In the morning we were up early and there was the most stunning sunrise – I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a sunrise as red as a sunset! The plan was to do no driving that day so we simply revelled in the lovely surroundings, the amazing view and the sunshine. The most strenuous thing we needed to do was wave at the owners as they came and went in their car!
Andrés, the owner, who I had corresponded with over the booking, came and introduced himself and we chatted about the house and surroundings. There are vineyards all around, in fact, Mahastí is the local Basque word for vineyard and there was a home produced bottle of the local white wine, txacolí, in the fridge. In the gardens there is a lemon tree, an orange tree, (I thought it was a lime as the fruit was still green!) a fig and a grapefruit tree. Andrés said to help ourselves so dinner one night involved lemon juice with the smallest carbon footprint imaginable! Thunder and lightning heralded some cooler weather.
Andrés also recommended where to go to get postcards, so the next day we headed down to explore Getaria (spotted the restaurant featured in The Trip to Spain, I think!) and to buy postcards. Getaria is definitely a working port and, I have to say not the most beautiful place in parts although it does have an old town but I’m not sure how accessible that is and a lot of it is cobbled. It also has a small beach and even beach wheelchairs.
Then it was on to Zumaia where we parked and explored the riverside promenade, clearly a popular place for a stroll. During the afternoon, back at the house, Maikar, Andrés’ wife came and introduced herself – we couldn’t have asked for friendlier hosts – happy to chat and to advise when asked but not intrusive: just perfect!
The next morning it was raining again but it cleared up and we headed for Zarautz to see what it was like, post some cards and buy some more. At first I thought we’d go after lunch then I remembered that of course small shops in Spain don’t reopen until about half past four, so that’s when we went and, yes, they were just about reopening by then – quite reassuring to find out that some things don’t change! At one point, naughtily, we parked by a bus stop (not blocking anything, I hasten to add) while Pete ran into the tourist office and the police came over and nearly gave us a fine. Playing dumb and asking for some directions got them onside and they let us off!
The next day, Friday, was our final day and quite hazy and warm. We went back to Zarautz, parked in the car park near the front as recommended by the tourist information lady the previous day and went out onto a terrace overlooking the sea. From there we could see the long promenade or Malecón, so we headed there via a pedestrian street and realised that this area of the town at least is very wheelchair friendly.
The Malecón is very accessible, mainly smooth and with plenty of benches and cafés along its length. Apparently there is some sort of accessible wooden boardwalk – we didn’t manage to spot it, but there was plenty of promenade to explore anyway. We couldn’t resist having a pintxo of tortilla de patata and freshly squeezed orange juice at an outdoor café, looking at the sea and the ratón, the mouse-like promontory at Getaria.
That evening, Andrés and Maikar made a point of coming to say goodbye and explained that we were their first booking ever through Handiscover, a website of accessible properties that puts you in contact with the owner. It was useful for finding Mahastí, but if we were to go again, I’d book directly as it would be cheaper.
Saturday was check-out day. We hadn’t done very much on this holiday but that actually suited me fine! Last time we visited Spain, we stayed in five different places, but this time I didn’t fancy all the packing and unpacking and getting used to new places that that would involve as it is rather tiring.
I had investigated online an accessible nature reserve that wasn’t too far away which we might have done, but when it came to it, just exploring the local towns was quite enough. People often make the joke that you sometimes come back from holiday so tired you need another holiday, which was what I wanted to avoid and what with the airport hassles and getting lost it wasn’t quite as smooth as I had imagined, but of course you don’t remember those things afterwards. I’m mainly remembering the lovely view and the warm welcome from Andrés and Maikar.
Anyway, we packed up and drove to the airport with no problems. Dropped off the car and went to the Special Assistance desk where the code we had been given at Heathrow for the chair proved useful and we didn’t have too much of a wait to get checked in. On the way out, we had had to pay extra for one of the bags (we were so dismayed that we hadn’t realised you have to pay in advance – perhaps this was why they let us off paying for both bags!). This time, I had gone online and paid for the bags in advance which cost slightly less. It had somehow passed us by that this ruling had been brought in.
The return flight only required one wheelchair transfer, from mine to the in-flight chair and we were boarded first. Off last of course but this can’t really be helped. My brother picked us up from the airport and we all had a cuppa and cake at the hotel! Rather poor selection of cakes for a Hilton on a Saturday afternoon but you can’t have everything – the restaurant at this hotel seems to have gone upmarket since we last here and our evening meal was delicious.
When we checked out a week before we had mentioned that one of the folding grab rails in the bathroom didn’t stay upright when you wanted it to and of course they said they would get it seen to but when we were allocated the same room on our return, guess what? It hadn’t been fixed!
Drove home the next day: no problems, stopping just once at Donnington service station – very civilised indeed, much less crowded than a lot of service stations and it even has some outdoor seating at the back away from the carpark. On the way down we had stopped at Tibshelf and Northampton services, both of which were very good. I never used to remember which services were better or worse than any others but I do now. Whether that’s because I have an eye to reviewing things or simply because I notice things like easy entrances or user-friendliness more now that it is a bit more vital, I don’t know! Donnington had an M&S, so we even arrived home with milk for a cup of tea and something for dinner!
I suppose if you want to go somewhere on holiday that’s green you may get rain but on the whole I think it’s worth it. I would rather look at lush green countryside than parched, arid countryside which can be impressive but isn’t quite so pretty. Also, there’s something very relaxing about being at the seaside! I certainly recommend this area as a place to visit and definitely recommend Epotx Etxea for somewhere to stay and Mahastí if you need it to be accessible.
Accessible adventures in Scotland
Our first overnight stop was in Wark, Northumberland at the Battlesteads Inn. Actually, our very first stop was at Witton-le-Wear, County Durham,
to take a photo of the church in which my great-great-grandmother got married in 1859, then a brief loo stop at the Wentworth leisure centre (very civilised!)
Battlesteads is officially a hotel and restaurant although it’s in effect a pub with rooms and very good it is too, being accessible, eco-aware and dog-friendly. We had a ground floor room with an adapted bathroom ie it had shower seat and grabrails and the room, although pretty compact had a couple of chairs. There were very nice biscuits and a bowl of fruit and they made it clear they were happy to provide fresh milk – I can’t imagine wanting a cuppa made with ‘plastic’ UHT milk!
The whole of the ground floor was accessible – a couple of tight turns but nothing my scooter couldn’t handle. The décor was traditional pub style but with lots of great railway posters on the walls, advertising local attractions.
Dinner was tasty, not gourmet but not stuff we’d cook at home, so fine by me! Breakfast was good too, we had smoked salmon and scrambled eggs but they did the full English and various other cooked options plus some ‘continental’ choices – ham and cheese, some fruit but not a great deal else. It was served in the conservatory, which was pleasant and would normally have a view of the garden but this was mainly taken up with gazebos for their forthcoming beer festival.
The staff were mainly Eastern European and were very pleasant and efficient. When we checked out it seemed to be the owners we were dealing with – they were local anyway and very jolly and friendly too.
The next day we headed through gorgeous, rolling scenery and made our way to Peebles and Cringletie House with a brief stop at Galashiels’ Tesco for a newspaper and also via a short detour to see the famous gates of Traquair House which were closed after a visit by Bonnie Prince Charlie in 1745 to only be reopened when there is a Stuart on the throne!
Cringletie House is a baronial castle which you would not expect to be
accessible but it is! Getting to the ground floor involved a platform lift, other than that, it was all level or you used the normal lift to get to the first floor restaurant. For more details on this, see my review or look on Euan’s Guide.
The restaurant has fabulous views and the food was pretty good too – we had a late lunch then dinner later and both were good without being fabulous. The dinner included various ‘amuse-bouches’ which were actually better than the starter, but what with the jolly staff, the great view and a nice glass of wine, the whole experience was excellent!
Breakfast again was ‘good in parts’ – I ordered scrambled egg and while what I had was perfectly nice, it was much more akin to an omelette. Pete’s full breakfast was suitably filling!
The room, Traquair, a junior suite, was spacious and pleasant and we had fun playing with the ‘rise and recline’ chairs! The bathroom was spacious with a walk-in shower, grabrails etc and lovely toiletries. There seems to be a trend away from little bottles of toiletries – all the places we stayed had large bottles of very good shower gel etc that you use but leave in place – much greener than all those small plastic bottles.
The grounds look lovely – it was a bit chilly to explore but they looked good from inside!
Next day we headed for Oban to stock up before heading for our base for the next week at Benderloch. I’d already checked out that Oban had a supermarket, (with accessible loo – top marks, Tesco for your very good loos!) so we did our shop and made our way to Benderloch. We’d checked on
Streetview how to get to the place we were staying, so found the lane we needed to follow off the main road without too much hassle and there were the two wooden lodges, Port Selma Lodges, created by Jan and Willie Orr a
few years ago to accommodate both disabled and non-disabled guests in some style! They look good on the website but even better in reality – really high quality and in beautiful condition. Willie and Jan had heard the car so came to meet us – just as well as we had no ‘phone signal! – and showed us in. They told us everything we
needed to know and answered our questions about accessible things to do and made it clear they were there to help if we needed anything. There was a ‘welcome pack’ of a bottle of wine, cheese and oatcakes, local fudge, chocolates, milk in the fridge and tea and coffee supplies as well as fresh flowers!
The weather was rather drizzly at the start of the week – we looked at it as a good excuse to chill out and have a break from driving. On the Monday we ventured out to check out the local stretch of the Oban to Fort William cycle
track and as if by magic, the sun came out just as we got out of the car! From the carpark you could go in two directions for a fairly short distance before the (beautifully smooth!) track joined the road so we pootled along admiring the wild flowers then came to a viewing point with a great view of the sea. We back tracked and came upon an information board near the carpark explaining how the track was part of a disused railway line. You could follow it for miles but in places it is right next to the road or actually joins the road so we left that to the many cyclists who were following it – some complete with back packs, camping gear, the works!
We didn’t do a great deal during the week – drove around and took in the lovely scenery mainly, including the view of Castle Stalker – even in the
drizzle, it’s one of the most fabulous settings imaginable for a castle (it was used in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, apparently!) and visited Dunstaffnage Castle (the sun obligingly came out again as we arrived!) which has a terrific setting by the harbour and we also did a gorgeous drive along the side of Loch Etive. Our return from that was blocked by some stubborn cows until a lorry driver who came along advised driving at them rapidly! We let him do that and we followed him through – it worked! We got a chance to try out the lodge’s verandah one splendidly sunny afternoon and watched the swallows flying in and out to their nests above the French windows.
The week went all too fast then it was time to move on to the next adventure. We decided to take a different route to our next destination and went via Loch Lomond. The drive there via Inveraray and Loch Fyne was through absolutely beautiful scenery. Once we were at Loch Lomond, this being a sunny Saturday, you could see how it is a popular daytrip from Glasgow – the traffic going the opposite way to us was really heavy! Next it was motorways to get us around Glasgow, then we found our way to New Lanark, home of New Lanark Mill Hotel, mainly associated with Robert Owen, an enlightened factory owner in the style of Titus Salt or the Rowntrees, which is now a World Heritage Site, with a visitor centre and hotel.
There was a wedding going on when we arrived and it was sunny which
added to the atmosphere – I can imagine in rainy weather it might look a little bleak to some, but generally the effect was charming. Who could resist somewhere with an ‘Institute for the formation of character’? After checking in someone came to our room to explain the emergency evacuation procedure which was an interesting touch – never experienced that before in a hotel.
After having some lunch, we explored the site with its great views of the Falls of Clyde and later had dinner in the restaurant which has quite an imaginative menu and was jolly good.
It was really interesting how elements of the mill buildings are incorporated into the hotel and restaurant. The rooms are actually a bit bland, but the bathroom had a solid iron post, part of the original fabric, and there were iron braces in the vaulted ceiling, plus there are gorgeous photos everywhere of the mill at all times of year. It’s all easily accessible, and again, the staff were all very good about accommodating you – no fuss made, for example, when we preferred to sit at a different table to the one they directed us to a breakfast, which, as I’ve said before, is just how it should be. Here’s my full review and my Euan’s Guide review.
From there we headed back to York and were surprised it only took four hours!
Our accessible Austrian adventure …
… actually started in Germany as we flew into Munich airport. We were with BA and they looked after us well. Although at Munich airport they don’t bring your scooter/chair etc back to the aircraft door, they had a wheelchair at the ready and were very good at looking after me while we collected our baggage and my scooter was returned to us in the baggage reclaim area (it hadn’t been put on the conveyor belt: I think that would have destroyed it!). We then picked up our hire car and
after a slight contretemps with getting out of the carpark set off for Kufstein in Austria following directions we’d printed from the AA which worked well.
The hotel in Kufstein was a little unprepossessing on the outside but very nice inside and the staff were lovely. Most of the hotel was accessible and the room was specially adapted. For a full review of the hotel, click here. After two nights’ relaxation we set off for the Achensee, a beautiful lake 3000 feet up in the mountains.
We were staying at Maurach, in an apartment. It had fabulous views and although it was quite basic, it was perfectly comfortable and very clean and in excellent condition. There was a supermarket with bakery in Maurach (MPreiss) and also a bakery delivered bread to the house every day – you put your order and the money in a bag and hung it on the outside light at the front of the house and fresh bread and croissants would be delivered first thing in the morning! We spent a lot of our time scooting / walking round the lake as there is a path most of the way, suitable for bikes, rollerskates, segues, buggies, you name it: wheel-users’ heaven! It was smoothest near Pertisau, but fine near Buchau and Scholastika on the other side of the lake too. Here’s a full review of the apartment.
If you have ever read the Chalet School books, those names will sound familiar as Achensee is Elinor M. Brent-Dyer’s Tiernsee and Pertisau is Briesau. For more details, see https://tiernsee.wordpress.com/ This was the reason we came to this particular place and also because it is gorgeous; the lovely, scootable lake-path was an added bonus! The boats which ply up and down the lake were perfectly accessible and give you fabulous views all around.
After our week here, we spent two days at the Brauereigasthoff Hotel in Aying, back in Germany which was a lovely place with pleasant staff and great food. See my review here for more details. Again, accessibility was pretty good although the room, which they called accessible, was not specially adapted.
What I really liked with the places we stayed was that even though scooters did not seem to be common (I don’t think we saw another one the whole time), the staff did not bat an eyelid when they saw it but simply took it in their stride and were really helpful. This of course is how it should be but it is still refreshing when it happens.
It was an easy drive back to the airport. Handing back the hire car was chaotic but easy and we had no problems with accessing the plane, I was able to stay on the scooter to the aircraft door, although both here and on the way out, staff don’t seem quite to know how to deal with the scooter and ask all sorts of questions about size, weight, battery type etc which I had already registered when I booked the flight. This made me worried the first time we flew with the scooter, as I thought they might refuse it but of course they don’t, it is simply a question of does it go on board or in the hold, do they disconnect the battery or leave it in, bring it to the aircraft door or convey you to baggage reclaim. A member of the BA staff explained they have a ‘duty of care’ to look after you so you wouldn’t ever be left anywhere with no transport.
At Heathrow they took me by wheelchair and one of those electric mini-train things to the reclaim area where we were reunited with my scooter. After that the plan was to retrieve our car and drive off to a pub where we had booked a room and dinner. We made the mistake of getting a black cab from the airport – a bad move in two ways, one because the minimum fare is a rather steep £35, the other because black cabs are really difficult to get in and out of easily if you are not very mobile. We used to have the number of a local mini-cab firm and used them – must remember to do so in future!
Unfortunately, our car made very peculiar noises when we started to drive off, so we ended up staying at the Hilton Heathrow T5 where we had left the car, having stayed there the night before we flew. For details of the palaver that involved, see my review here. This time we had a better experience; I bet they don’t often get people requesting a particular room number! We also ate at Mr Todiwalah’s Kitchen which was fabulous: great food and staff. The pub I had chosen in High Wycombe had looked great and they had assured me it was accessible, however, before we went, I saw on their website that they were closed for a refurb, only opening shortly before our projected visit, so I e-mailed them to check we would be OK to stay and got no reply and only an answerphone when I rang to cancel, so who know? Maybe if we had turned up there we would have found we couldn’t have stayed after all. Perhaps the car issue, which was resolved by the AA that evening confirming the issue and the ATS place over the road fixing it the next morning, was actually a blessing in disguise!