I’m back from a very cold and soggy weekend in Ghent, a delightful little city in the North of Belgium, 30 minutes on the train from the Eurostar terminal in Brussels. If you want to read about why I love the Eurostar you can here.
If you book non-wheelchair seats through Eurostar you can include onward train travel around Belgium but on the website this didn’t seem to be possible for a wheelchair booking. Although I found a website to purchase tickets to Ghent online there was no disability discount and I suspected a better deal could be had in person. I was right, a weekend travel card should have been €20 but both my ‘companion’ and I got a 50% discount. This did mean that we had not booked ramp assistance, which you’re supposed to do 24 hours in advance, although thisdid not appear to be a problem from Brussels to Ghent. The trains in Europe vary quite a lot in style; some have two large steps up to separated by a pole, some have a large step down and some are the double decker style. Even those that are relatively level to the platform tend to have a very large gap so unless you want a stressful experience don’t attempt to bypass the ramp system. Of course that’s exactly what I ended up doing on the way back but more on that later!
Ghent is a very small city, although the station is over a mile from the centre once you’ve got in to the historic centre everything is very close. Thanks to a raised kerb the number 1 (red) tram was accessible (although with a fairly large gap) at the station and in the very centre but nowhere else in between. We did manage to get off at these inaccessible stops thanks to gravity and assistance from strangers but didn’t attempt to get on, as the step was so big. We were told at the station that the buses where not accessible although some of them definitely had a wheelchair symbol. Except for the ride from the station it wouldn’t have been necessary to use public transport at all. We were staying near the Citadel Park, apparently the location of the one hill in Ghent – not the first time we’ve made this mistake. Despite the hill, we were still only a 10/15 minute walk from the centre and about the same to the station.
The drop kerbs in the city are fairly abysmal, in that in a lot of places they’re non-existent. There are also a lot of paved surfaces although they weren’t as bad as I was expecting them to be, but this might have been due to the addition of my freewheel. Cars and bikes also regularly block pavements and the tram tracks are exactly the right size to get wheelchair wheels stuck in. Most places have a step up in to them and I didn’t see many ramps, but people were extremely helpful even though I had not learnt a single word of Dutch… which I do consider to be fairly rude and outrageous behaviour. In the station in Brussels no one appeared to speak English and would only communicate with us in French, which lead to an interesting situation of not knowing whether we were going to Ghent, Gent or Genk. It turns out that Ghent and Gent are the same place and Genk is in the opposite direction. We were only 90% sure we were going to the right place by the answer to the question ‘what hour it arrives?’ (#nailingFrench) matching with what we knew the answer to be. If Genk is also 30 minutes away, we may have had a problem!
Unfortunately our Airbnb was not accessible, despite being listed as ‘handicap accessible’ – unfortunately people just don’t understand what this means and despite the fact I confirmed it would be good for a wheelchair the front door of the property had a massive step up to it and then an even bigger step down with the platform not being large enough to rest a wheelchair on. This did mean that for the most part the access in to the property was on my bum, or by lobbing my body in to a chair in the doorway. With an airbnb booking I never expect the kind of accessibility you would get from a major hotel, however I do think it’s a shame that the company doesn’t provide some kind of accessibility guide to hosts to help them provide the right information to potential guests with disabilities. Other than this our studio flat was lovely however, and if you have some degree of walking mobility I would still recommend Airbnb as a great way to find affordable accommodation. If you don’t have the ability to walk short distances and a few steps I would be very hesitant to recommend an Airbnb even if it is listed as ‘handicap accessible.’
What we actually did in Ghent will be continued in a separate blog post tomorrow.
6/10 – Ghent is not a hugely accessible city. The drop kerbs are very patchy and the pavements are unevenly paved/cobbled and often blocked by bikes and vans. Most shops have steps in to them. The Public transport is not particularly accessible but also not particularly necessary. People are extremely helpful and mostly speak English. The only place I saw a disabled toilet was in the Fine Art Museum but would expect the Starbucks or McDonalds in the centre would accommodate.