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Seeing France From a Wheelchair

March 29, 1987|SUSAN P. O'HARA | O'Hara is a Berkeley, Calif., free-lance writer.

BAYEUX, France — Travel in my electric wheelchair on a medieval path through northern France, with its bumpy cobblestones, tall cathedrals, narrow streets and ancient churches was surprisingly possible.

All that is needed is a passion for the architecture and life of the Middle Ages, planning a rented van, two lightweight, collapsible ramps and a few friends who think nothing of bumping the chair up a curb. A little patience also comes in handy when confronting the remaining barriers for tourists in wheelchairs.

The rest is already there: restaurants and hotels with ready access, walled cities, Gothic cathedrals, Romanesque churches, incipient programs to install curb ramps (called bateaux in French) in many cities, and unbeatable cheese, bread and fruit for picnics in the shade of abbey ruins.

Two collapsible ramps were invaluable. Not only did I use them for getting in and out of the van but also to span two or three steps of a building.

They are six inches wide, 80 inches at full length and weigh 12 pounds. Dividing into four 20-inch sections that fit into each other, they are packaged in a vinyl case made to hang from the back handles of a wheelchair. One section can be used on both sides of a medieval "step-over" door sill.

The ramps are available for $375 at Mobility Systems, 2849 San Pablo Ave., Berkeley, Calif. 94702, phone (415) 540-0295.

For Architecture Lovers

Enthusiasts of 11th-Century Romanesque architecture can visit some of the best examples of the genre in Normandy, even if using a wheelchair. We started our exploration of Romanesque Normandy in Bayeux in the land of medieval monks, Norsemen and William the Conqueror.

The famous Bayeux Tapestry sets the stage. The 231-foot work depicts the conquest of England in 1066 by William, Duke of Normandy. Along its borders are scenes of 11th-Century life complete with thick-set farmers and flirtatious couples.

First we viewed the explanation of the tapestry and a slide show projected on the "sails" of William's ships, accompanied by Viking-inspired music. The tapestry is housed in a former bishopric, recently remodeled and entirely wheelchair-accessible.

Nearby, the family-oriented Hotel le Bayeux with 23 rooms on a quiet street is a good base for side trips. One particularly spacious room with an electric bed and a gigantic bathroom was designed for a disabled relative of the original owner.

The resident managers advertise this room with pride and were most gracious to us, eagerly answering our request for coffee when we arrived at 10:30 p.m. and even more enthusiastically showing me the room. Service is excellent and the price reasonable ($35 double; 9 Rue Tardif, 14400 Bayeux, France).

A 10-mile side trip through the Cerisy Forest of oak and birch ends with a perfect lesson in medieval architecture, the abbey church at Cerisy-la-Foret. Its thick walls, small windows and groined vaults typify the Norman Romanesque style. The church has a six-inch, step-over door sill, easily managed with a 20-inch section of ramp on either side.

An hour east is Caen, William the Conqueror's favorite city. Bombed almost to the ground in 1944 and now rebuilt, Caen treasures its miraculously spared Romanesque masterpieces, Abbaye aux Hommes and Abbaye aux Dames.

Tall masculine towers above a sheer facade distinguish the men's abbey, built by William. His tomb lies before the main altar. Entrance to the church is level.

William's wife Matilde, said to have spurned his first proposal with, "I'd rather take the veil than marry a bastard," commissioned the abbey for women across town and is buried there. The church has three steps, easily spanned by the portable ramps.

Other Area Specialties

The drive east toward two more abbeys on the Seine River offers opportunities for savoring other kinds of regional specialties: Chicken in velvety sauce Normande made from local cream; Calvados, a cider spirit made from the apples grown along the highway, and true Normandy Camembert, Livarot and Pont l'Eveque cheeses.

On the way we paused at Honfleur, the fishing port made famous by Impressionist painters.

The Seine, crossed at the Tancarville Bridge (named for William's chamberlain) winds south past white cliffs of granite and leads to two major Benedictine monasteries of 7th-Century origin, Saint Wandrille and Jumieges. Saint Wandrille Abbey, whose 9th-Century abbot Eginhard was Charlemagne's secretary, is still a working monastery. A kindly monk leads tours and affectionately calls attention to "Jean-Jacques," the bell that tolls for vespers.

The abbey has no stairs to enter the grounds, the chapel or the gift shop, but loose stone paths are hard to manage in a wheelchair for a full tour, even though the kindly monk urged all hands to give a push. The 14th-Century cloister can be glimpsed through a doorway even if one chooses not to descend the two steps.

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