Germany On Wheels
"Disney himself couldn’t have drawn it better."
Just how friendly is Germany? Well, for starters, I gate-crashed a wedding and received a near-royal welcome, so it can’t be too frosty. But – is it accessible? In the big cities, it’s as good as London (which is very good) but it’s in the smaller towns and villages (the German equivalents of, say, Thame, Didcot and Witney) that it is surprisingly advanced. Indeed, this is where the land of schnitzels, dirndls and stollen has truly excelled itself, with even the smallest of its ‘bergs’ boasting mobility initiatives that are, frankly, world class.
On a personal note, this six-day getaway represented more than just a week’s vacation; it was a watershed moment. Before my accident, I travelled abroad regularly, but this was my first trip abroad on wheels (quite literally), and I was understandably anxious. Bearing this in mind, then, I find it close to a miracle that I have returned feeling refreshed. No apparent ‘post travelling stress syndrome’ triggered by lost luggage and emotional bruising (a regular side effect of feeling physically helpless), but instead, a finger-snapping sense of frisky freedom.
As a travel destination, Germany is committed to providing ‘Barrier Free’ access, and disabled visitors certainly seem to be able to reap the rewards of this initiative. Indeed, some hotels, out in the sticks, have been purpose-built, without sacrifice to either style or quality, to specifically appeal to disabled tourists. And one, the hugely popular ART hotel in Kempten, even employs staff with disabilities to provide everything from spa treatments to silver service.
And no, this is not some kind of gimmick. Or clinic, for that matter (god forbid). This is a proper hotel: a smart, swish, swanky establishment that easily matches any of Oxford’s classier hostelries, proving just as popular among young, savvy travellers as it does among slightly older funseekers like me.
Just over a two hour drive from Munich (which is itself a 90-minute flight from Heathrow), Kempten is a charming little town with premium accessibility pretty much everywhere, and is also just 30 minutes’ drive from Oberstdorf , one of Europe’s most stunning ski resorts and hiking destinations. Oberstdorf too has made a point of delivering a disability-friendly welcome. In fact, the only thing I think a disabled traveller needs be wary of (and this stands true for anyone) is Germany’s seemingly unquenchable appetite for ye olde traditional costumes, complete with tucked-in waistlines and spilling busts (no matter how old the waitress).
At this point, it may be worth reminding you too that Germans in Bavaria take their national costume very seriously, so try your hardest not to point or giggle. Although personally, I think it looks very, shall we say, ‘comely’. However, no matter how fit or disabled you may be, German food can single-handedly take its toll on your wellbeing, with all its pork, beef and uranium heavy sauces. But, the gastronomic-Teutonic tour is definitely becoming more cosmopolitan, with many restaurants now serving innovative twists on traditional fayre. Having said that, beware that during April and May asparagus is in, which means that menus seem specifically designed to taint your urine with a less than seductive bouquet.
But back to the simple issue of mobility, when it comes to messing about on the water – normally a decidedly unsteady affair for disabled people – the Germans have once again pulled out the stops. Boats, it seems, can be modified to allow wheelchair users the pleasure of sailing off to different shores, which may come as a surprise to some of you.
Now, I’m sure this isn’t true of every firm operating pleasure cruises across Germany, but certainly the one I sailed with (the MS Brombachsee on Lake Altmuhlsee) came stylishly equipped, and indeed, this is the point: Germany, like Britain, still has a long way to go to ensure accessibility across all destinations, but there is no question that the country is at the forefront of identifying, removing and rectifying – with some flair I might add – the very tiniest of mobility obstacles. So why should something clearly beneficial for the disabled community be just as good for everyone else? Or more succinctly, why should a travel article written by a wheelchair user be just as pertinent to a reader who isn’t?
It’s simple, really. For young families (of which there are many), and older travellers (of which there are hordes), ease of travel is a routine issue. This is true whether here at home, catching the bus back from Sainsbury’s or abroad negotiating a multi-levelled hotel lobby. Something as simple as a ramp conveniently placed or a restaurant with tables spaced just that little wider apart (for wheelchairs AND prams) can profoundly reduce stress levels. Which means that the small investment in time and money required to allow access to everybody can also reap significant financial rewards, while those failing to recognise this obvious unique selling point deservedly risk losing out on this newly identified windfall. Heck, I even visited one hostelry that was able to provide facilities for those on dialysis, and to no great surprise, it was solidly booked up.
Moving on towards Nuremberg is Rothenburg, a town so chocolate-box perfect Disney himself couldn’t have drawn it better. As an Oxford resident, it’s not often that I’m left speechless by the beauty of a town, but this astonishing confectionery of brick and cobble simply takes the breath away. And if ever you wish to sweep your other half away, this is about as romantic and authentic as it’s ever going to get (think ‘Beauty and The Beast’, then multiply by 437). However, the cobblestones which lend Rothenburg so much of its magical charm can be brutally hard on the feet and wheels, so do take someone with you.
My final part of the trip, after gate-crashing the wedding at the beer museum in Spalt (it seemed like an inspired idea at the time) was a two-day stay over in Nuremberg. Helluva city. Helluva past. And from what I could see, a helluva future. I even travelled on its underground system (all stations have elevators) and strangely, perhaps, considered this the highlight of my trip. Just boarding the train by myself (although be warned, carriages are raised a few inches above the platform), I was able to simply wallow in the hustle and bustle of Nuremberg’s early morning human traffic.
So would I return? In a shot. It really was that much of an eye-opener. True, the trip wasn’t without its hiccups, but seen as part of a bigger picture, the entire experience left me energised and profoundly optimistic for the future of disabled travel. I just wish I had insisted on modelling some lederhosen...
Lufthansa. Smart, very hands-on assistance with typical German efficiency.
For all further information visit the website of the German National Tourist Office.
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