Motoring to the Med – with MND

A special French beach station with hoists, sea-going wheelchairs and helpers transforms the holiday

Kevin Dawson with his wife, Brianóg, on holiday in the Loire Valley, France.

Kevin Dawson with his wife, Brianóg, on holiday in the Loire Valley, France.

 

At the foot of an aircraft in Carcassonne in July 2014, awaiting the special chair that would pull me up the steps, I said goodbye to France.

My wife, Brianóg, and I had made many trips since the mid-1980s and three more since my diagnosis with Motor Neuron disease (MND) in summer 2011. Now, while my illness was slow, I could barely walk or stand, even with crutches. By another summer I would be weaker still. A progressive illness schools you in the act of letting go. So, not à bientôt then. Goodbye.

Dwelling on the loss of summer holidays amid illness may seem a frivolity. It isn’t. Staying sane and steady puts a premium on precious moments, on both planting positives on the path ahead and enjoying them to the full as they come.

The travel door seemed closed for good in 2014. Yet in the spring of 2015 we decided to give it one more go. I still felt able – just about.

It required a lot more logistical planning, and no flying. We would need our own vehicle: a VW Caddy with multiple adaptations including rear-ramp entry and hand controls. The car can be driven from the driver’s seat or from a powered wheelchair, steered up the ramp and locked in the driver’s place. I use a mechanised driver seat which brings me back into the centre of the car and then turns. Then I slide onto my small scooter – a nimble little thing that gives great range and freedom.

July came. We hadn’t taken the ferry in nearly 20 years, since the kids were small but Rosslare to Cherbourg proves a good experience for us. Irish Ferries’ staff had been ultra-helpful on pre-travel inquiries and are great on board when it comes to parking and lift access. Restaurants are accessible, as is the outside deck via a portable ramp. The accessible cabin also works, though handgrips around the fold-down bed would be an asset.

Suitable hotels

We could reach Provence in one overnight but opt for a gentler meander. Finding suitable hotels was hard work. In a country as organised as France, one might expect a core website detailing every properly-equipped hotel. It was a lengthier trawl.

TripAdvisor proved helpful with searches filtered for reduced mobility room, not just wheelchair access. Even then, it’s wise to contact hotels to ask more specific questions: turning room, height of bed or toilet seat – both crucial if transferring from a scooter seat with no leg power. On-site parking is important.

At Honfleur in Normandy there are several good options. We settled on L’Absinthe close to the quay; old French charm with good modern mobility features. Then two nights in the Loire. There are modern hotels like the Ibis Comfort in Tours, but we went for old charm again at Biencourt in Azay-le-Rideau. It’s our most elegant mobility-adapted hotel room.

Then came two longer drives, first southeast to Lyon and the basic but pleasant Hotel Lyon-Sud near the A7, facing south.

The final stage south is a crawl through French holiday traffic, with some nervous anticipation. Even more than the hotel search, trying to find a well-adapted house in a nice setting is a needle-in-haystack job. We tried filtered searches on the main accommodation sites, direct conversations with a few specialists, and plain old Google searches using keywords for features I need.

We found an English couple, with a pretty-looking mobility-adapted bungalow in the village of Lorgues, inland from the coast at Fréjus.

There’s a pool, though without a ramp or hoist. However, I’ve invested in a special buoyant pool wheelchair, convinced that this may allow me to take cooling dips.

Mixed results

On arrival, the picture is mixed. House and garden are lovely. There are two fig trees laden with fruit. However, several of the owners’ own mobility fittings don’t quite suit me. Worse, it quickly becomes clear that the buoyant (and costly) pool wheelchair will not work safely for us. It’s 38 degrees and I can only stare at the blue water. After all the planning, careful choices and long drives, our Provençal stay looks like being hot, sticky and frustrating.

Then the picture changes. A visit to the mobility store in nearby Draguignan, where I’ve rented a powered wheelchair to augment the scooter, produces a few simple pieces of kit that solve the in-house problems. France is dotted with such stores and the range for hire or sale is extensive. But there’s also information of a beach facility nearby and it transforms our holiday.

And so, 50 minutes away at Fréjus, we encounter the Handi-Plage. It is a special beach station with hoists, big buoyant seagoing wheelchairs, a ramp across the sand, and a small team of trained lifeguards whose mission is to get you safely in and out of the water, whatever your condition.

They have me in the Mediterranean within minutes. It’s my first time in the sea in three years and is an immensely liberating experience. There’s a freshwater shower and iced drinks. It’s all free, and is replicated at numerous resorts all round the coast. So French and so wonderful.

The Handi-Plage unlocks our holiday. We are in the sea every second day, lunching afterward in Fréjus port or back at base. With all this flows the sense of deeper reward: of having given it a go. What a wonderful thing it is to have done the research and attempted the journey, and now to be able to look up from our Kindles in the morning shade and say: “Will we head into Nice for lunch?”

This year? Like last year, it’s another country. But where there’s a will and a little time and (above all) a supportive and able partner, there can still be a way. Goodbye, la belle France? Maybe – just maybe – it’s à bientôt.

The Irish Motor Neurone Disease Association: http:// imnda.ie/

A map of the French beaches with facilities described is available at: http://www. handiplage.fr/spip.php?rubrique1

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