Sicily

In July 2019 I was living in the nursing home but the sale of my flat was going through and my pension lump sum been paid to me so I had to spend some money before the council got their hands on it all. I decided they couldn’t punish me for booking a holiday.

After some research I found Limitless Travel who offer holidays for disabled people in accessible resorts with one-to-one care packages if needed (which I do). https://www.limitlesstravel.org/

  • Would I choose to go on an organised group holiday? No.
  • Would I choose to go on an organised group holiday with disabled people and carers? No.
  • Would I like to spend thousands of pounds on a holiday that would cost an able-bodied person hundreds, maybe £1000 or so? No.
  • Is that extremely unfair and out of reach for many people with disabilities? Yes.
  • Was I fortunate to be in a position to be able to afford the holiday? Yes.
  • Can I travel any other way? No. The holiday was booked.

Fast (and slow) forward through a pandemic and the flights were booked for May 2022. As the holiday approached my anxiety increased. Points one and two above were starting to become a reality. I had to keep coming back to the final point. Never go anywhere or do it this way.

Packing was a mission. I can no longer just throw a few clothes in a suitcase. I have to consider every item I need on a daily basis for my care. I began with a list of the lists I needed to write and went from there. With a great deal of help from my PAs I was ready to go.

At 4.30 a.m. I was in a taxi on my way to Heathrow Terminal 5, away from familiar surroundings and carers and finally adventuring again. It was exciting but there was no getting away from that feeling: organised…disabled…group…trip…

I won’t dwell for long on the outward journey. There were no high points. The low points were not wanting to sit in the miserable Special Assistance room so going about 10 metres away to the windows and five minutes later getting a phone call asking where I was. I’m 49, I’m right here, I’m fine! All I wanted was a little mosey around the airport, a coffee and something to eat but I was on an organised, disabled, group trip.

I am still in contact with the top people at Heathrow about the shocking lack of organisation and manual handling knowledge from the Special Assistance staff. The captain took the time during the flight to come and give me an email address to complain to. The way back was no better but that is all another story.

About 14 hours after having left home I was in bed having had my first and hopefully last ever panic attack. It had not been a good start to the holiday.

I met everyone properly at breakfast the next morning. I hadn’t eaten and had barely spoken the day before. When I left my hotel room and was welcomed by warm air, cloudless skies and sunshine the trauma began to evaporate. I had made it to Sicily.

After a cup of ginger tea (yes, I had thought to bring my own teabags) and a bowl of cereal with soya milk (yes, the wonderful chef had got the vegan memo) I began to feel myself again.

I was very conscious of my probably pretty unpleasant demeanour of the day before and having missed dinner with everyone, so was relieved to finally feel like joining the group with a smile on my face. I think they were probably relieved too that they didn’t have some miserable, stressed out woman with them for the week!

I had wondered whether I might meet another single, disabled, childless woman on the trip but actually there was only one person who talked about their children and I think everyone else was childless/childfree and it wasn’t a conversation point at all, which was really refreshing.

My travel companions were 4 men. One my age, one 10 years older than me, another 30 years older and another 40 years older. There was supposed to be a fifth but he just didn’t turn up (adding to the chaos at the airport). There were three carers, one male, two female.

It was nice to say hello properly to everyone. They were all quiet, gentle souls and we spent a pleasant week together, mostly talking at breakfast and dinner. There were no dramas and no lasting friendships. I have a photo of us on Mount Etna. I look at it and think apart from the wheelchair I don’t fit into that group at all.

I am very happy to say there was one female carer I got on with really well and her company was my saviour. I think to some extent the feeling was mutual. We may have kept in touch if we were closer geographically.

After breakfast we left the restaurant which had a large terrace beside it and once again I was in the sunshine. I turned towards the sun and realised I could see the sea in the distance. This spot would be my happy, peaceful sunbathing corner for the rest of the week.

It was then time for our first excursion. Even that word makes me cringe! However, I was looking forward to exploring a bit of south-east Sicily, where we were staying. We were off to Siracusa. This is the part where I should tell you about the history of the town, but I don’t know it. Google if you want!

We had an extremely friendly, helpful, do-anything-to-make-our-trip-comfortable-and-a-success tour manager. His family had opened the fully accessible resort. https://www.kikkivillage.net/.

We were boarded onto two minibuses and the four of us in wheelchairs anchored safely in place. We were dropped off at the port of Siracusa and wandered along the sparkling blue Mediterranean in brilliant sunshine. After the previous day it all felt slightly surreal.

I immediately separated myself from the group, choosing to be as close to the water as possible while the others followed a tree-lined path parallel to the waterfront. We came to a beautiful courtyard with huge trees, dangling vines providing shade.

I then went on ahead as the path became busier with tourists. Taking in new sights and sounds it began to sink in that I was abroad, on holiday, somewhere new.

My stress levels rose again as the group tried to find somewhere for lunch along the waterfront. A group of eight with four wheelchairs is not straightforward. Two restaurants later I had some food and told the carer on my wavelength I had to get away on my own.

The relief of leaving the group behind was wonderful. I was off! I went up and down side streets with lots of little tourist shops and stands. There was a large square full of beautiful Sicilian cream coloured buildings. It gave me a small amount of time to feel like myself again and to do what I would want to do if I were on my own. It was probably no more than 15 minutes but I needed it.

We visited the cathedral and I got in the way of a religious ritual around a relic of some sort in complete ignorance until I turned my chair around and saw a big procession going on behind me.

It was then time to start heading back towards the pick up spot. We had visited Siracusa. It was all a bit mad and I would happily have spent another couple of hours there but it was hot, sunny, picturesque and Sicilian, so definitely a change from home.

Dinner each evening was a four course meal with wine on the table. I had decided I would be vegetarian rather than vegan for the week but there was no need. The chef prepared me grilled aubergine, courgette, peppers, fresh tomatoes and salad, spinach, pasta, gratins and arancini with fruits and sorbets for dessert.

I rarely have the opportunity to drink and really enjoyed having a couple of glasses of red wine every evening. After 13 hours or so in my chair compared to my usual 4 or 5 I was always ready for bed and slept well. Another packing success was my echo dot so that I could check the time and listen to my audiobook.

The next day was supposed to be a visit to an accessible beach but it was closed. I have no idea how you close a beach but this one apparently was. We went instead to Marina di Ragusa, a long promenade along a beautiful, sandy Mediterranean beach.

Once again, I was straight off on my own and found a spot where I could get really close to the sand in my wheelchair. I sat and absorbed the view and sunshine. The group soon caught up with me and the search for somewhere for lunch began again.

I turned to carer on my wavelength and said I don’t want to do this. The joys of the one-to-one package meant I didn’t have to. We left the group and went off to a small square with restaurants and gelato shops. I had a tub of chocolate gelato with strawberry sorbet and it was amazing.

We then wandered back the way we had to come and I returned to my spot by the beach and was left alone to sunbathe for about half an hour. Bliss!

We kept wandering, stopping at tourist stalls and I bought myself some earrings. This is what being on holiday should feel like. We then left the beach area and carried on to a quiet marina full of yachts with barely a soul around. I turned my chair to face the sun and we chatted about our travels. It was just lovely.

I had another 15 minutes by the beach on my own before we left. Today had definitely been more like it. A day by the sea, on a timetable, but more like it.

The following day was, I think my highlight. We went up Mount Etna, the most active volcano in Europe. It’s extremely impressive both from a distance and close-up. I loved the huge black lava flow landscape that started in the city at the base of the volcano and grew more and more stark as we climbed the hairpin bends.

It was my fourth volcano: Lanzarote – a dark but unexciting landscape with little man-made craters with a grape vine growing in each one up the hillside. I had a terrible volcano wine hangover one day! The Azores – a lush, green caldera. Mount Fuji – seen faintly from a distance from Tokyo. And then Mount Etna.

The frequency of eruptions over the past 400 years and slow-moving lava meant the landscape was massive and black. We saw a rooftop sticking out of the lava. People don’t get killed in the eruptions as they are so slow moving.

I loved the landscape and being so close to the elemental forces. Unfortunately, we couldn’t get right to the top as the chairlift isn’t accessible. Apparently, they tend to buy cheaper chairlifts instead of investing in state-of-the-art new ones as they get destroyed! But the sights and the views from the level we reached were amazing.

There was your obligatory cluster of souvenir shops and I bought my obligatory semi-tasteful fridge magnet.

The following day was a much needed empty day. One of my wishes for the holiday was to get back in a swimming pool for the first time since 2017. However, the pool was unheated so there was no way I was getting in!

We were the only people staying at the resort that week so I was able to find quiet, sunny spots on the verandas of the accommodation that had the best sun at the time. Most of the time though I was on the terrace next to the restaurant where I could see the sea and move in and out of the shade of an olive tree and listen to the birds.

I was really able to switch off and relax during this day. I had lots of time to myself and I’m definitely cold blooded so soaking up 30°C sun and thinking my thoughts or nothing at all did me good. I could have done with a week of that!

The final excursion was to Modica, an amazing town built on two sides of a valley. It definitely doesn’t scream wheelchair accessible.

However, we stopped at the panoramic view point over the town and happily our tour manager had brought a makeshift ramp so that we could get onto the pavement to see the spectacular view. The history involves Greek, Roman, earthquake, baroque. Google will give you more.

Modica is famous for its chocolate and we went down into the town for a chocolate tasting. The chocolate is made of cacao butter, raw cacao and natural flavourings. The tasting was fabulous and I was a 49 year old in a vegan sweet shop!

It was then another stressful group lunch for which I took a table to myself with carer on my wavelength.

There was then some rather kindly but chaotic organisation by the chocolate shop owner taking us up in a lift to the cathedral. This was followed by lots of arranging of different ramps to try and get us into the cathedral. I was not able to get in, which on one hand was a shame but on the other meant I could just find a sunbathing spot and ignore the chaos going on behind me.

The whole cathedral visit took up most of the afternoon so I didn’t get to see much more of the town. Once we were down the lift again I dashed off on my own up and down a few side streets while the others had a cup of coffee. It was then time to head back.

The final day was more sunbathing at the resort, packing and a barbecue with traditional entertainment which (probably thankfully) didn’t turn up.

I would love to have had another day out where I could take my time to explore somewhere on my own at my own pace and another day of just sunbathing and relaxing.

So, there is a lot to reflect on from my experience. I made it abroad, I discovered somewhere new, I enjoyed a week of hot sunshine. Travelling on an organised, disabled, group trip is certainly necessity rather than choice. It took it out of me financially, physically and emotionally.

I feel like I skimmed the surface of immersing myself in Sicily and experiencing the full relaxation I needed from a holiday. There were definitely wonderful parts and they were more measurable in minutes at a time than hours.

I’m glad I went, I’m grateful that the experience was made accessible to me and I am resigned to rather than accepting of the fact that this is the way I can access travel experiences now. I think I will always feel like I do when I look at the group photo on Mount Etna. It was a very strong feeling of being the person inside the person in the wheelchair.

I am sure I will do it again and at least I know what to expect now. My life and travel experiences continue to grow. Grazie mille Sicilia e arrivederci.

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