During my healthier periods, or sometimes to recuperate from bad patches, I travel to the Continent. As one might imagine, my experiences as a disabled traveller have been mixed. Over the coming months I shall endeavour to recount trips to some of these European destinations.
A couple of Autumns back, my best friend decided to take me to Stockholm for some light-treatment. Why, one may ask, am I writing about somewhere I visited some time ago? Well, the honest answer is that some of my experiences there still rankle. It is the place where I have had my worst travel experiences, though not only so. Read on...
[Image description: map of Sockholm. An interactive version is available here]
Flying with perfectly professional SAS (Scandinavian Airlines) was an efficient and comfortable journey. The only minor oversight was that my pre-requested meal was not aboard. Compared to British Airways or Austrian Airlines, in my opinion, SAS were superior; but oddly not as good as Monarch Airlines, a middle-cost flier.
Arlanda Airport & Express
At Arlanda Airport (Stockholm-Arlanda Airport) I was met, as pre-arranged, by disability assistance. They were fantastic: personable, humorous and efficient. They whizzed me through all checks and baggage-reclaim and down to the Arlanda Express (Arlanda Express) platform to Stockholm Central Station (Stockholm Central Station). They even offered to put me aboard the train. Unusually, from my experience in Europe, my two helpers refused any gratuity. Wonderful service!
The express train-service to the city-centre was fast, comfortable, spacious, clean and plenty of room for baggage and wheelchairs. (I found trains in Amsterdam to be similar.) No significant gaps between carriages and platforms at either end of the route meant no embarrassing or painful wheel-sticking. The express was bang on time almost to the second - no exaggeration and top marks!
Nordic Light Hotel
From the train-station (the Arlanda Express has its own mini-station connected to the main Central Station) to our hotel, the Nordic Light (Nordic Light), was less than thirty metres and over a very smooth paved area - no trip-hazards. Nordic Light is an office-block converted into an über-chic boutique hotel. The corridors, common-rooms and lifts are all spacious and accessible and moreover so was the room. The sound-proofing was to be marvelled at: no extraneous noise could disturb. Bliss: the best hotel room I have ever had!
I bet you are beginning to wonder where the bad bits are. Well, they're coming...
Tourist Information Office
According to our guidebook the tourist information office was situated in the main part of the train-station a little further up the road. We attempted to pay a visit only to determine that it had been relocated to the central shopping district. Using maps (yes, I'm old-fashioned!) we navigated to the relevant building. My jaw dropped! The office was in the basement, down two flights of stairs. No lift (elevator) nor stair-lift access. No button, buzzer, bell or 'phone to call for assistance. Thus no-one with mobility impairment(s) could make use of its services. Downright disability discrimination!
Stockholm retails some of the most beautiful products in the world - clothing, furniture, fabrics, objets d'art, etc. Alas, it is not as much fun shopping there as in other European capitals. Service - well I hesitate to use the word - is almost non-existent no matter how much money you have to spend nor how disabled you are. Shop assistants will always give priority to their conversations or tasks with which they are already involved. Customers come well down the list of things-to-do. Even in my favourite Svenskt Tenn (Svenskt Tenn) the service is cursory and that was the best shop-assistance I received my whole time there.
Paradoxically, the service in cafés and restaurants was excellent. And boy did we drink a lot of cups of coffee! The Swedes prepare delicious coffee: every cup was savoured; as were the cakes & pastries. Chirpy chaps served us every time.
The restaurants treated us regally. We did determine that, despite what the guides state to the contrary, gratuities are gratefully accepted by all waiters. Meals with drinks cost comparably the same as a night out in Manchester city-centre and a heck of a lot less than in London. The cuisine was varied and delicious (- not a rollmop in sight!). We even tried an alfresco luncheon with a glass of bubbly one fine, sunny day. Fabulous! Not all restaurants are accessible. One we used had an almost stile entrance into a bar area and then I had to crawl up a few steps to reach the dining-room. It was worth it though: the reindeer and vodka were delicious.
The historic district of Gamla Stan (Old Town) is a maze of cobbled streets. It was murder to walk on even with assistance and two walking-sticks. It would have been hell in a wheelchair without decent suspension! Probably best for wheelies to stick to the outer rim with the fabulous views over the Riddarfjardan.
In other areas I found there were plenty of benches, great for pausing and catching one's breath as well as taking in sights and panoramas.
We did take a cruise on Mälaren (Mälaren) a brackish lake. The boat we caught was definitely not wheelchair-accessible; but it is possible others may be. There was, however, a big burly sailor on hand to assist (unsolicited) entry and egress for the mobility-impaired. Bless him! This was much appreciated.
We went to the dance-theatre to see a piece by an English troupe that included disabled performers. At the end of the performance showers of sweets were thrown on stage and there was a loud and prolonged standing ovation. No access issues here.
Going to a music concert was not quite so straight-forward. We wanted to see a performance at the Konserthuset (Stockholm Concert Hall). It started well: there was a ramp leading to the booking-office. Unfortunately the door at the top was too heavy to open single-handedly. There was no means of calling for assistance and no electronically operated system. Another wheelchair-user arrived, a Swedish lady and her friend. Between us all we managed to open the door and enter. Tickets were purchased and then the four of us queued for the lift to take us into the theatre. And we waited...
Suddenly, a ticket-seller leaned over the counter and shouted at us that the lift was out of order. We had to go over to sort out what to do. But why did he not tell us when we were buying the tickets that we could not enter the concert-hall? Could he not have walked across the ticket-hall and quietly explained the situation? I really felt like a second-class citizen. Eventually we had to exit the hall and go round the back of the building and go up in the service lift along with a couple of old dears. It did not end there though. Next we discovered that the concert-hall itself was not accessible due to steps. Another obstacle. Someone did go off and returned some minutes later with a very wobbly mobile ramp to place over the steps. Finally we accessed the hall in time to enjoy the concert. British theatres and concert-halls are far, far better.
Now the part that I doubt very much I shall ever forget. I arrived at check-in at Arlanda Airport with my two sticks and just about ready to collapse, having pushed myself too far. A helpful assistant came over and directed me to a customer-service (misnomer!) desk and there I was to request my wheelchair. The 'customer-service' assistant advised me that I could not have my chair until I had checked-in. Eventually, after some argy-bargy and help from the original assistant, I was given the wheelchair. This time with no disability assistance. So I wheeled myself. We did not have to queue for very long as a check-in clerk beckoned me over to him with a hand gesture and lovely, friendly smile.
Worse was to come. We headed for passport control. I was wheeling myself at my speed (slow as I was tired; but we had plenty of time, so no rush) as it is relatively easy for me to do so on smooth surfaces. I could not reach the passport-controller as there was nowhere for me to tuck the wheelchair under her counter. I had to make a multiple-point manœuvre so as to get the chair sideways on. In order to do so, I placed my passport in my mouth - I have to take similar actions a lot and so am used to not salivating over whatever object is in there. The controller went ballistic. Odd that given I was wheeling the chair, my hands were likely covered in all the crud covering the floor.
Stockholm is beautiful and surely romantic. It is full of history, art and culture; but much is inaccessible. The shopping is excellent product-wise, poor service-wise. Service in our hotel and all the eateries we used was excellent and amiable. Service in theatres was mixed. Service at the airport was mixed. Disablism is rife and overt. I felt very uncomfortable, never knowing how I might be treated next. If one is able-bodied, Stockholm is a must-see; not so for the mobility-impaired and wheelies.