The holiday season may be well and truly over for this year, but that doesn’t mean you can’t treat yourself to weekends away. In fact, now Winter is officially here and the nights are drawing in, getting away for a city break could be just the thing to lift those Winter blues.
The Lille region in Northern France, is just one and a half hours away by train from London and for the disabled traveller, it’s packed with accessible things to do and see, whether you’re a sightseeing tourist or an adventurous holidaymaker.
Thanks to the area’s specialist Nord Tourisme department which has implemented one of France’s nationwide accessibility schemes, Tourisme de Handicap, Lille and the surrounding area have over 146 accessible attractions for people of all disabilities.
It was also the area chosen by the French Paralympics squad to train for their last session before the London Paralympics.
Things to do
Musée départemental de Flandres, Cassel
The recently opened Flanders museum in Cassel which celebrates Flemish culture past and present, caters for every kind of disability and provides specially adapted tours of its exhibits. Blind and partially sighted visitors can enjoy a tactile tour of the museum, including exploring relief-produced paintings, tactile models and sculptures, whilst deaf visitors can watch a film available on audio-guide produced in sign language, although you’ll need to speak good French to understand it. Ramps, lifts and hearing loops are also available throughout the building and there are plenty of rest chairs, too.
For an even more colourful experience, theatrical tours in costume or in mime can also arranged, to bring the museum experience to life in a slightly more unusual way.
Les Dunes de Flandre, Dunkerque
Sea-loving holidaymakers will particularly enjoy the wholly accessible seaside resort which is always awash with leisure and sports activities, such as sand yachting, horse riding and kite surfing. And for those wanting to stroll along the beach, wheelchair rickshaws can be hired out for free.
The local tourist information bureau also provides a range of adapted bathing equipment such as the tiralo, an amphibious wheelchair, so wheelchair users and those with mobility difficulties can bathe in the sea.
Parachuting with Hanvol, Bondues
For the really adventurous, the HANVOL association, which offers tandem parachute jumps specifically for people with disabilities, provides a great day out for anyone who has ever wanted to sky glide. Unlike many parachuting associations, HANVOL was set up solely to allow disabled people to experience the adrenalin rush of parachuting from the air. Although you must have control of
your upper limbs in order to take part, parachuting is available for most kind of disabilities, and the experienced guides themselves who accompany you on the jump, say it’s a freeing experience for anyone who can’t walk. http://www.hanvol-asso.org/
Lille City Tour
Back on firmer ground, wheelchair-accessible coach tours of historical Lille depart more-or-less every hour from the Lille Tourist Office. Available in eight different languages, the on-bus audio tours, complete with additional footage displayed on a large screen at the front, provides cultural enthusiasts with a fascinating 50-minute tour of the city, taking in the likes of the Palais Rihour, the cobbled Main Square, the Opera House and the Notre-Dame de la Treille cathedral.
Where to eat
Au Bout des Doigts, Lille
Located in the Old Town, eating at the Au Bout de Doigts is as quite an experience. The plush décor: a quirky mish-mash of vibrant pink, gold brocade and asymmetric furniture, not to mention a couple of water fountains located at one side to wash your hands before your meal, is a real feast for the eyes – and that’s before you’ve started to eat. Their famous “finger food” menu – bite size portions perfect for sharing – includes gingerbread and fast-fried foi gras, creamy cheese with garden herbs, carpaccio of scallop marinated in blue cheese and tomato-basil tortilla with sliced chicken.
La Bonbonnière, Lille
Drag artist cabaret, anyone? Eat in true French style in one of the most eccentric and theatrical restaurants you’ll probably ever visit. Choose from either the Gentlemen or Ladies menus for exquisite French cuisine and afterwards, enjoy a glass of wine or port whilst watching the spectacular drag artist cabaret performance with costumes and acts nearly as good as at London’s West End. http://www.cabaretlabonbonniere.com/
Where to stay
Budget: “L’Escale” youth hostel, Dunkerque
The award-winning youth hostel at Dunkerque has been purpose-built for disabled visitors and is ideally suited for anyone wanting to stay near the sea. Equipped with colour-contrasting floors, braille signs and hearing loops in every room, the hostel caters for every kind of disability, from wheelchair users to those with hearing impairments. Prices start from €21.80 per person. http://www2.auberges-de-jeunesse.com
Mid-range: Hôtel Suite Novotel Lille Europe, Lille
Ideally situated close to the Lille-Europe station, the 4* hotel offers a range of fully-accessible suites and rooms, each with their own tea and coffee making facilities (including a microwave!) and unlimited Wi-Fi. Prices start from €109. http://www.accorhotels.com/gb/hotel-5240-suite-novotel-lille-europe/index.shtml
Luxury: L’Hermitage Gantois, Lille
For something truly special, the luxurious five star L’Hermitage Gantois – part museum part hotel – is a history lover’s paradise. Boasting over 70 rooms complete with Louis XV-style furnishings and marble flooring, three spectacular restaurants and its very own exhibition room which showcases different artists throughout the year, staying at the Flemish Gothic hotel is an experience in itself. Prices start from €159. http://www.hotelhermitagegantois.com
Enabling Travel’s tip
Attitudes towards disability in France are generally a lot more accepting than in the UK. Speaking to several French journalists who specialise in disability issues, one of them told Disability Magazine that the general public are very helpful towards those with disabilities. “We have been shocked when UK news talks about disability hate crime”, 39-year-old Brigette said. “Hate crime towards disabled people just does not happen in France. People just would not do it. Usually, people are more than happy to help if they see someone in a wheelchair who is struggling.”
Yet on the other hand, the UK is seen by many disabled people in France as “the best place for access”, even London.
“London is amazing for disabled people” said wheelchair user Jean-François. “I have only been there once, but I could not believe that the buses could be so accessible and all the shops and cafes in Oxford Street were wheelchair-friendly.”
Even the infamous tube system which is generally a no-go area for many people with disabilities wasn’t seen as a problem.
“The tube system in London is not so bad, and there are other methods of transport instead, like buses or taxis” Jean- François added. “France isn’t so good for access overall, but it is getting better. But Lille is one of the best places to go if you are disabled – there are so many things to see and do. In Lille, it doesn’t matter what your disability is, you are not excluded from anything.”