My wonderful house elf organised and planned a week in Sorrento on the Amalfi Coast which, as a disabled traveller, was exciting but incredibly daunting. For those who don’t already know me, I have Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, arthritis, fibromyalgia, Reynauds, Sjogrens, with limited mobility through weakness and fatigue and high pain levels. I use a mobility scooter for any distance walking and a stick when my hands allow it. So, armed with Google Translate and a sturdy house elf, we set off for our Italian adventure and, I have to say, pretty much nailed the Amalfi experience.
Here’s my quick(ish) guide to holidaying in Sorrento, disabled style.
Initially daunting and terrifying but once you work out that everyone is trying to avoid each other, and that they actually expect and are prepared for you to pull out on you, then it’s fairly straightforward. The roads are chaotic at the best of times manic for the rest and you need eyes in the back of your head (well my house elf did) but it’s all very calm. We didn’t once see anyone getting irate, tooting their horn in anger, shouting or waving their arms around. Tooting the horn generally seems to be for letting you know they are there, and may overtake, or you are a chuffing big bus coming round a blind bend (which is very handy)! Seat belts appear optional, particularly for the elderly generation and on the back seats. Car seats for kids range from a decent type, to granny’s lap! Scooters are everywhere and can carry up to four people and/or a dog or two! You can also use your mobile phone, smoke and ride alongside your pals for a catch up and a gossip. Helmets are worn, although often aren’t strapped on and we even witnessed one driver having theirs held behind the head, you know, just in case? The smallest of children don’t have helmets, but if they survive and get big enough, they are given one.
Oh my goodness, the locals are so friendly! They must deal with hundreds and thousands of people every summer, it’s hot and most people don’t speak their language, but they are polite, respectful, helpful and have a great sense of humour! We only came across one grumpy shop owner the whole time! They love it when you try and speak their language and are happy (and thrilled) to help you get it right if you ask. Try hard enough and you will earn yourself a complimentary lemoncello at the end of your meal! Talking of lemoncello, do make sure you try it and if you don’t come home with 3kg of sherbet lemons then… well you are made of stronger stuff than he!
Flora and Fauna
Loved the new plants we spotted, particularly blue plumbago and angel’s trumpet. Loved watching the carpenter bees each morning and also (finally) spotted a humming bird moth! We didn’t see anything bigger than a lizard or mouse and, like Malta, very few birds, other than crows and seagulls. Lots of cats and dogs though! The scenery is stunning, particularly along the Amalfi Coast road and the loop road past Ravello. Every twist and turn gives you another dramatic cliff drop or hidden valley, with the Mediterranean constantly sparkling before you. With steep mountains, deep valleys, impressive coastline and, of course, the ever present Vesuvius to look at, you will never be short of something to photograph. Oops, I may have forgotten to mention the lemons! You may come across a lemon tree, or thousand, they are, after all, what the area is famous for!
One of the first thing we noticed in Napoli was the bags and bags of rubbish piled up in the streets. It looked like the third week of a binmen strike, but it turns out they collect all the rubbish most nights, including in the smaller towns. However, littering is definitely an issue that’s ruining the beauty of the region and, along the same lines as the N500 and Skye, it would appear tourists are the main culprits. Whoever feels they need to chuck their water bottle over the side of Vesuvius seriously needs a talking to, but many, many must do it. Like the N500, most lay-bys are filled with discarded baby wipes, plastic bottles and food wrapping. The shoreline around Capri was littered and I definitely freaked out when my arm pushed through a plastic bag when I was swimming. Please, don’t be THAT tourist. Show Italy the same respect you would expect guests in your garden to give you. Take your litter back to your hotel/campsite/B&B, you managed to carry it there full, so taking empty wrappers and bottles back should be a doddle – and just don’t use wipes, ever!
Obviously the most important part of a holiday and my expanded waistline tells its own story!
When it comes to eating out, most places either took my scooter inside or I would park it outside and the person on the door would watch it. The staff would happily move tables around and fit me in, after all, they don’t want you going to their rivals next door! As a majority of the eating is outside anyway, it was rarely an issue.
The pizzas there are obviously amazing and even our one disappointment (from a local carry out) was still better than most I have had in the UK! I am also addicted to their donuts (hence my waistline). They taste how I remember ours being, whereas now they seem dry and the crust is always crispy and very greasy. I will admit to squirreling one away to bring home! Their pasta dishes were as varied as they were delicious and we even ate in the home of cannelloni in Sorrento. As a nation, I now realise we have a lot to learn about our ‘so called’ paninis and I cringe to think of Italians coming to our country and ordering them! As a vegetarian, I am always dreading the menus, but most places offer vegetarian options with mozzarella, tomatoes, basil, sun dried tomatoes, artichokes, courgettes (zucchini) and aubergines being the standard alternatives. I made the decision to give up pursuing the vegan option, but we did notice some vegan dishes on the menus. Failing that, there were always chips, vegetables and salad on the menu and gnocchi in tomato sauce is delicious! Keep an eye out for the cover charge (coperto) and if it’s not included, they expect a tip and often deserve it too, especially if they make you a ‘yours and theirs’ pizza!
Having read the Amalfi guide book and seeing that disabled travel around Sorrento, Naples and the Amalfi Coast was practically impossible, I had contented myself with the fact I would be spending a lot of time gazing longingly up and down stepped streets filled with tempting shops. Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of no go areas, but if you have a good sturdy wheelchair, or mobility scooter and a willing pair of hands in support, then you can see plenty. A lot of the beaches have lifts down, which are free for disabled users and whilst I do worry they ship their own disabled people off to more accessible towns, they are incredibly respectful of wheelchair users. Their pavements are generally ‘cobbled’, so make sure dentures are secured and bladders are emptied before each trip out, however, once you work out that all motorists will avoid hitting you, the road is your friend. Lowered kerbs are few and far between and even then there’s no guarantee a car, scooter (or both) aren’t parked on top of it. There are disabled parking spaces, but they aren’t easy to find and there doesn’t seem to be any policing of them, so they are often full. It was easier for me to scoot from our B&B into town than drive. If you have limited mobility or are unsteady on your feet, my recommendation would be to hire yourself some wheels and take some muscle with you to help you up and down kerbs! The streets are busy and uneven and your experience will be far more enjoyable if you aren’t trying to negotiate a smooth path. In all, I found the whole area far easier to get around than London, as long as I was patient and prepared for some no go areas.
Even Herculaneum has made adjustments for wheelchairs, with metal ramps placed between the narrow pavements. However, the paths are bumpy, kerbs are steep and the ‘roads’ are paved with slabs. If you had limited or no mobility, then there’s a lot you will miss out on, but you can still get a sense of the city and it won’t cost you a euro. If, like me, you have some independent mobility, you can park up and go into the houses, but even then, some are still too tricky or out of reach.
Vesuvius has disabled parking at the first checkpoint and they have 4×4 Fiat Pandas that nip between the stations, so you can combine a walk with a few lifts. The path is bumpy and very gravelly, so getting even the thickest of tyres to grip would be tricky I think. Batteries and motors would probably fry at the sight of some of the inclines, plus the heat, so a good off-road chair and several strong travelling companions would be the best way, if you wanted to avoid the 4x4s. The view from all the checkpoints is stunning, so even if you make it to the first, you will be blown away, potentially quite literally as it can get pretty blowy up there. Once again, disabled visitors (and a carer) are free, so other than the €5 parking fee, you have nothing to lose! Top tip: if you are parking at the top carpark, stop and get your ticket on the way up, otherwise you’ll need to go back down for it – you can learn from our mistake!
If the Infinity Terrace at Villa Cimbrone, Ravello is on your ‘must see’ list then don’t be put off by anyone telling you it’s not possible. If it’s not on your list, add it now! It’s a long walk to the Villa from the square, so less mobile people definitely need wheels, but if you have a blue badge, you can park on the street for free. There’s a smart hotel right up the top, so they have made the narrow paths accessible for their luggage carts, which means it’s good for us less mobile types too!
A word of caution though – it is very, very steep. My scooter tripped it’s circuit breaker several times and you would need pretty strong muscles to push yourself up the steep ramps and slopes but, if you take your time and have a strong helping hand, the view will reward you tenfold. The last hurdle though is a set of about eight steps into Villa itself. This is actually where a lot of people stop anyway as it’s €7 euros each to go into the gardens and onto the terrace (no discount). We dismantled (and by we I mean my ever patient house elf) my scooter, carried it up and reassembled. There was somewhere for me to perch and wait each time so, with strong friends and a steady nerve, you could potentially be lifted up the steps. Other visitors were always stopping to offer help when it looked like we were struggling, so don’t be put off if there’s only two of you.
Finally, a boat trip to Capri. We chose to leave from Sorrento and spend the day on the boat. There was no space for my scooter and getting around the boat was difficult, but doable for me. A preparatory phone call could well secure wheelchair support, but I definitely wouldn’t just turn up as there would definitely need to be a degree of management and/or adaptation. That being said, once they realised my issues, I didn’t have to walk back to the bus at the end of the trip and they dropped us off outside our hotel, which was very much needed!
The boat parks up so you can go for a swim, but getting on and off the boat is very hard work and I needed a lot of help. They will happily lend you a life jacket or life bouy as a swimming aid if you aren’t confident, which I would highly recommend for a less stressful bob around in the Med!
We had four hours on Capri. We shopped, ate lunch and took the furnicular up to Ana Capri. Again, get your ticket before you queue! There’s a disabled ramp to get you on and off and lots of places to get around at the top. We were very much limited by my low mobility and the heat and then made the mistake of joining the standard queue for the return journey. Don’t be like us – ask to use the lift!
The alternative method is to get the ferry from Sorrento to Capri and a boat trip from there, giving you the option of having your wheelchair/scooter on the island at least. I saw several scooter and wheelchair users up at the top of Ana Capri too!
Their special assistance is fantastic, but a bit of a hidden secret, particularly airside. Going through security was a doddle, even for an anxious traveller like me! To save you wandering around aimlessly like us, for Special assistance airside, head to Gate A1 and it’s just as you come out of the lift on your right hand side. They’res still food and shops down there, although less choice, but there is a lego shop.
I have left the most important holiday deal-breaker to last! Toilets. As with the UK, toilets can be a hit and miss, particularly the disabled facilities. Restaurants etc tend to keep theirs very clean, although toilet seats are not always included, irrespective of where you are. Even the disabled toilets at Napoli Airport don’t have seats, which does make things difficult and hardwork, especially if you have balance issues and short legs, like me! Also as with the UK, I would recommend carrying hand sanitiser and water (and a spare toilet seat if you have the space).
All in all? I saw a lot more than I expected and loved the whole experience. Not sure I will be using any of my new-found skills around my home town, but they will stand me in good stead for my next adventure! Ciao!