I was fortunate to have traveled often as a child. This helped to develop a love of different cultures, exotic cuisine, and beautiful scenery at a young age. I believe that travel is a valuable tool for instilling a robust global awareness and cultivating an appreciation for different people and experiences.
When I was 17 an uncommon vascular deformity in my brain ruptured quite dramatically and I have since used a wheelchair to ambulate any distance of more than a few paces. I have done a fair amount of traveling since this happened. In doing so I have learned of another, perhaps more compelling, reason to travel as much as possible. That is to test my limits and just plain get out and experience the world.
Brief Travel History
I went to Europe for three weeks with 20 classmates in college. We started in Rome, then traveled by bus to Florence, Nice, Arles, and Barcelona. A few days were spent in each location and while the primary objective from the school’s point of view was an educational broadening of horizons most of us sought to broaden our horizons in other, less academic, ways. Nonetheless, the experience was one that reaffirmed my love of international travel and gave me the confidence to set out beyond my comfort zone in a wheelchair.
To celebrate both my college graduation and my oldest sister’s completion of her obstetrics residency, my entire family spent a week at a villa in Tuscany.Then, after my father, middle sister, and brother-in-law returned to work, the rest of our merry crew departed on a cruise from Rome through the Greek Isles to Istanbul and back.
In the years since graduation I have continued to travel with my mother and some old family friends, one of whom happens to be a travel agent. I’ve found that cruises are a very accessible and convenient way to see a lot in a short amount of time. The downside is that you generally only spend the day at a port of call so the cultural immersion aspect of travel that I enjoy is somewhat lacking. I’ve balanced this by taking longer 10-11 day cruises focused in locales with similar cultures. Some of the other cruises include one from Buenos Aires around Cape Horn to Santiago, Chile, and one from Barcelona around Southern Spain and Morocco. My personal favorite cruise was from Sydney to Melbourne then over to the South Island of New Zealand and on up to Auckland.
Reason for Going
When my girlfriend moved to Connecticut for graduate school in August of 2013, we casually talked about doing something fun for her spring break. Casually because we had only been dating a few months and we didn’t really want to complicate things. But by the time Christmas rolled around, we were still talking daily, so I asked if she’d like to follow through on earlier conversations and spend a week or so in Madrid.
Madrid was chosen for a couple of reasons. First, Jeannie is fluent in Spanish. She was a Spanish major in college and spent a year in Buenos Aires. Second, neither of us had been to Madrid, and Jeannie had never been to Europe. I had seen a good deal of Spain on previous trips and fell in love the people, culture, and most of all the food
Planning Our Trip
After coordinating our schedules and buying plane tickets, we were left with about two months to figure out where we wanted to stay and what we wanted to see and do. The first order of business was finding a place to stay. We opted to look on AirBNB, a vacation rental website that allows you to rent private homes and condos directly from their owners, generally cutting the cost of a hotel. For disabled travelers, one of the handy features on this site is that you can filter the results according to handicap accessibility. You do have to be a little careful, however, because the standard for ‘accessible’ can vary widely from country to country. But Jeannie corresponded with the host of the apartment we chose to make sure it was suitable.
Jeannie and I are not “museum and monument” travelers. That is to say, both of us have a passing interest in seeing art museums and historical sites but more on a quick walkthrough rather than an all-day linger. What most interests both of us is experiencing the culture and getting a general “feel” for a place by interacting with locals, wandering the streets and lingering at cafes and restaurants. So we decided to take the approach of exploring one or maybe two Madrid barrios (neighborhoods) per day.
It was just by blind luck that we chose to stay in Chamberí, but it ended up being the ideal location for a home base. In particular, a lot of fantastic restaurants were right there in the neighborhood. So after sleeping in we could rise, fix a late breakfast in the apartment and set out to explore the city all afternoon. Then return in the evening for a short rest before heading out again for a late dinner in true Madrid style.
In addition to its culinary excellence, Chamberí proved to be one of the most accessible neighborhoods in Madrid. Our apartment was located right off of the gorgeous Plaza de Olavide, a laid-back and sun-drenched park surrounded by cafes and bars. Here young couples linger over coffee, sangria, and tapas outdoors, old men play chess and smoke cigars, and children play in the playground on lazy afternoons. People in wheelchairs were regularly encountered and strollers and bikes were commonplace. Every curb was easily navigable on wheels and people were friendly and quick to offer assistance.
There were only two accessible metro stops within walking distance, which was really the only downside of accessibility in Madrid. The metro is everyone’s main mode of transport, yet only about a third of the stations have elevators and accessible ramps to board the train. That and the fact that virtually every storefront had at least one step were the main obstacles. But shopkeepers, waiters and metro employees were more than accommodating. It was also the easiest city to flag a taxi I’ve ever experienced, so we took the metro when it was convenient and flagged a cab if either one of us required it. Plaza Mayor houses a tourist info office that has free metro maps with all the accessible stops marked. I enjoyed walking the streets when possible because we had nice weather the entire trip and that’s one of the best ways to familiarize yourself with a city.
My Top Picks
The places I most enjoyed were truly madrileño in flavor and, I think, not to be missed if you visit Madrid. On our first night we ate paella con mariscos (a classic Spanish seafood and rice dish flavored with saffron and tomato) at a hole in the wall joint in Chamberí called Costa Blanca Arrocería. It was just a short walk from our place and some of the best paella I’ve ever tasted.
On the day we visited Plaza Mayor and the Palacio Real we stopped for an afternoon pick-me-up of chocolate con churros at a renowned hot chocolate café called Chocolatería de San Ginés. This is basically a cup full of melted chocolate with fried fritters for dipping. Imagine a Hershey bar melted into a cup with pieces of funnel cake to dip in it. Over-the-top and indulgent but delicious at the same time, and a Spanish tradition that is a must when traveling in Spain.
My favorite dinner came at an upscale Chamberí tortillería called Las tortillas de Gabino that puts a modern twist on the traditional Spanish omelet. I ordered a tortilla unlike anything I’ve tasted that consisted of delicate, almost runny eggs baked in a small clay casserole dish, covered in a layer of carpaccio-thin octopus slices and dusted with paprika. The place was packed and we were very fortunate to get a table without reservation.
One evening when we were not feeling too hungry we had a light meal of tapas and beer at a very old-school local bar called Bodega de la Ardosa. It was a standing only bar with no-nonsense draft beer, gruff old waiters, a fútbol game blaring on the TV and some of the best patatas bravas in town.
The following night we ventured out to a seafood restaurant in Chueca called Ribera do Miño that was pure Spain and packed with locals. Our mariscos para dos (seafood for two) required a lot of peeling and, to be honest, probably wasn’t worth the effort, but the experience and ambience was not to be missed.
On Sunday we went to the huge outdoor flea market in La Latina. Drawing an enormous weekend crowd and brimming with handicrafts and knick knacks from all over the world, this was a great place to people watch and souvenir shop. I bought two whimsical prints for my nieces and a locally made eco-friendly T-shirt with a unique design. Jeannie bought a Nepalese skirt. We only saw a tiny corner of the market but you could easily spend all morning and a good part of the afternoon there. The best part about the market is its proximity to one of the most famous culinary streets in Madrid, Calle de La Cava Baja. It’s lined with tapas bars and you really can’t go wrong here, so when you’re done perusing just find a table and enjoy.
Our most memorable souvenirs were the hand painted ceramic plates we each bought for our mothers at Antigua Casa Talavera. This beautiful little shop is located on an easy-to-miss side street near the Sol metro stop. It carries traditionally crafted pieces all made by a handful of artisan families from Toledo, Granada and north of Madrid. The bookish shopkeeper was incredibly knowledgeable and exuberant, filling our ears with more than we ever wanted to know about the history of ceramic arts in Spain.
The most enjoyable places to just linger and stroll around outside of Chamberi were the Plaza Mayor and surrounding streets, El Parque de Buen Retiro, Gran Via to Calle de Fuen Carral, and the Prado. All were easily navigable in a wheelchair, with the Prado being the easiest and el parque the most tenuous. If you stick to the main road and are just there for a stroll it’s not a problem, but we were using it to cut through and ended up at an entrance with only stairs. I can do stairs, but it’s a hassle because Jeannie had to carry the chair down. But the park itself is stunning and very enjoyable on a nice day
Getting to Toledo is very easy and fully accessible. It is just a 30 minute ride on the high-speed AVANT train from Madrid’s Renfe station. The train has a wheelchair lift and designated wheelchair seating on either end. Finding the elevator to the correct platform is a bit of a chore as it is across the street from the main entrance, but a cab can drop you off at the correct level. Buying a ticket at the station was also a pain as it took nearly an hour wait, so I would recommend getting a ticket the day before if possible.
Once we arrived in Toledo the train attendant ordered us an accessible cab to take us up the steep hill into the old city. There is also a bus, but in this case the convenience of the cab was well worth the few extra Euros. The best way to view historic Toledo in its entirety is to hop aboard one of the wheelchair accessible trolleys that take you through town, then across the river and outside the city walls for a stunning panoramic view. They leave every half hour from the Plaza de Zocodóver in the heart of the old city. Toledo is an interesting destination both for its picturesque construction atop a hill and it’s unique history of peaceful intersection of several different faiths and many different cultures.. the trolley ride gives you a panoramic perspective of the city and includes an informative recording to listen to and enjoy. The city outside of PlazaZocodóver is not super accessible, so I’d recommend making this a home base and venturing out to shops and restaurants in the immediate vicinity. There is enough to do right around that area to have an enjoyable afternoon
I found Madrid to be very accessible. The infrastructure was rarely lacking. But when it was, and it occasionally was, the people of Madrid were exceptionally friendly and quick to offer assistance. Jeannie noticed that the culture seemed to be multigenerational and inclusive and thought this may have contributed to that fact. I tend to agree, it was not uncommon to see a young man or woman walking arm in arm with an abuela that needs assistance and young children seemed to be everywhere. I can see where such things would help the able bodied population more attentive to the needs of those who might require assistance.