Vilnius – June 2019

Day 7 – 24 Hours in Minsk

We arrived at our Minsk hotel, Hampton by Hilton late yesterday evening where luxurious rooms (well compared to the Ibis) awaited us! The rooms are much more spacious along with all the usual accessibility features i.e. shower seats. However, the pinnacle of this is that my room overlooks the main train station meaning that trains are arriving/departing as I type!

As today was our only day in the city, we headed out to search for the centre passing Soviet built structures along the way…

The centre itself isn’t overly big in size meaning that you can see the majority of landmarks in a matter of hours such as Victory Square…

When walking around the city, I noted that the majority of shops and restaurants have steps at some stage (indoors even when a ramp is outside). Another thing to note is that the main avenues adopt a similar underpass system as China complete with steps meaning that you may end up walking quite a while to reach an over ground crossing point!

Our plan after lunch was to simply have a wander back along Prospekt Nezavisimosti (the main street/avenue in Minsk) back to the hotel via an observation tower when we were pleasantly diverted. Whilst attempting to figure which tower was the correct one, we were approached by a guy in a wheelchair plus a ‘social worker’ (who had apparently seen us wandering around earlier) asking the PAs if they were volunteers for a Belarusian charity who provides summer camps for the disabled. After chatting for a while, they invited us to hop onto the metro with them (at an inaccessible station but it was clear that they were pros at the steps business!) out of the centre to a ‘hipster’ neighborhood complete with street art and quirky cafés/restaurants. It is probable that we would never have found it without them..

Regarding the Minsk metro accessibility, once you are down on to platform level, the gap between the edge and the train is minimal (Superbunny would of definitely cleared it). At our destination station, there was a series of ‘platform lifts’ to street level.

Tomorrow, we head back out to Minsk Airport to catch our flight back to the UK hence concluding this trip! Watch out for the itinerary of my next adventure to Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan in September…

Day 6 – The Vilnius Airport Experience

Our strategy for today was simple, GET INTO BELARUS! As our flight wasn’t until the evening, we had plenty of time to visit the Old Town one last time. After spending 5 days in Vilnius, I think we came to know the lay of the land far too well!

Our short Uber experience out to the airport was rather…unhelpful? The best bet if you are a wheelchair user is to contact the ‘Maltieciai’ service (who we transferred with when we arrived in Lithuania) as it is unknown what size vehicle to expect (even for a manual wheelchair!).

Now, when I think of airports i.e. Bristol or Heathrow, I envisage them being surrounded by hotels, car parks etc, not an airfield literally around the back of a conventional industrial estate, oh, and an IKEA to peruse whilst waiting for check-in! Vilnius airport with its Soviet styled exterior isn’t the biggest airport in the world but it has all you need plus a number of disabled toilets!

We flew to Minsk National Airport (or airfield as the hostess put it!) with Belavia (a Belarusian airline) and had a flight time of just 35 minutes. As a result, our plane wasn’t the biggest and I have noted that small aircraft and wind do not mix thus the PAs had a very exciting flight…or perhaps not!

Seeing the airport from the air did confirm my expectations of it being an ‘end of the motorway’ structure surrounded by fields and trees…the air quality was pleasantly nice stepping out from the marble and pristine terminal! As I mentioned originally, there are no publicly known wheelchair taxi services in Belarus so your opinions are to catch an accessible bus OR to catch a conventional taxi. We opted for the latter taking 40 minutes and costing a mere 150 Belarusian Rubles!

Tomorrow is our only day in Minsk so let’s see how that goes…

Day 5 – Oh Visas, Visas, Visas

Well it wouldn’t be a trip without a hiccup would it now? When planning this trip originally, I was going to fly from Vilnius to Minsk rather than catching the train but soon opted for the latter simply for ease. During the train booking, I completely forgot (until this morning when I was checking everything) that in order to enter Belarus without a visa, you must fly in and out of Minsk National Airport. If you wish to travel over the international borders via any other means, you still need to obtain a visa prior to your trip otherwise face deportation, little contradictory to the word ‘visa free’, don’t you think?

Annoyingly, I discovered this a hour or two after todays flight to Minsk had departed (it had to be the day that the flight departure time was 09:25am instead of 6:40pm) hence we have another night in Vilnius before catching a 35 MINUTE FLIGHT tomorrow evening simply to cross the Belarusian ‘checkpoint’! One positive of this situation is that tomorrows flight cost less than £190 for all 4 of us!

As a result, we only have 1 day to explore Minsk so a strategic plan has been devised to make the most of it hence you may not hear from muggins for a while (well until I return to the UK and sort my life out!) but we will still be Instagramming/Tweeting until home time on Wednesday…

(Definite lesson learnt here that if a country says it is ‘visa free’, it may not mean that you can travel over any old section of the border!)

Day 4 – The Neris River Trek

Before I start blabbing on about todays happenings, I completely forgot to mention the escort service we experienced yesterday at the Vilnius TV Tower. As we approached the structure, signs began to appear showing a wheelchair and a Lithuanian phone number. We presumed that you could phone that number if you required assistance, however, we chugged on our own. The reason for the phone number became apparent when the signs began directing us towards a flight of steps (for which PAs decided to lift me up!). Once inside, we were approached by a member of staff (who talked little English) who basically told us that there is in fact an accessible entrance around the back but fenced off (hence the phone number being displayed) which we got to experience when exiting the building.

Anyway, back to today, it was always going to be a ‘make it up as you go’ day. Whilst wandering around Vilnius these past few days, it seems that the ‘in thing’ with regards to transportation is by electric scooters (basically conventional scooters fitted with a battery and a speed control). Of course, PAs were itching to have a go hence we walked down to the huge square beside Vilnius Cathedral to do so, not bad, 50 cent hire charge and then 10 cents per minute!

The Neris River runs through the heart of the city and then meanders through the various parks/forests leading out into the suburbs. Like many rivers, a level cycle path (well that is if you know the correct roads leading to it!) runs beside it. Despite having roads either side, it was rather peaceful as we walked/rolled along it, a nice change from the noise of the city! The thought of food directed off the path and into a rather run down suburb, however, the highlight of this area was most definitely UNO Park, if you know of Go Ape in the UK, it’s exactly that but mostly free (not accessible at all but hey!)…

As we approached the restaurant that Google Maps directed us to, the realisation dawned upon us that this may just be a conventional supermarket! Fear not though as another restaurant was bolted onto the side providing the best service thus far (the usual wait for food in Vilnius seems to be between 45 – 60 minutes)…it’s the unusual places that are the best!

Tomorrow afternoon, we head down to Vilnius railway station (which YouTube has kindly shown has minimal facilities) to catch the train to Minsk in Belarus. Now, according to YouTube, the train is fitted with lifts, whether it works is another story…

Day 3 – Vilnius TV Tower and Public Transportation

Today was the first of two tower experiences on this trip (the other one being in Minsk on Monday) thus headed to the Vilnius TV Tower. Now, an able bodied would have two walking options to reach this landmark, the easiest being through the lush green forests (Vingio Parkas) that seems to be of plenty in the city, the other one being to follow various dual carriageways. You can immediately guess which option muggins had to take…don’t be stupid, of course the forest walk isn’t going to be accessible! It is with this that we set off on our quest coincidentally straight through the financial district…

Like many European cities, as soon as you step out of the city centre, the pavements aren’t exactly…smooth? It’s not all doom and gloom though, instead of having steep ramps to access underpasses, many have various elevators down akin to a metro station…

One of the reasons why I wanted to visit the TV Tower (bar it having an observation deck/restaurant) was due to its tragic role that it played in the opposition to the Soviet military seizure in 1991 where many were injured for which there is a museum in commemoration.

The plan was also to visit the restaurant strangely named the ‘Milky Way’ which, unbeknown to me consists of a rotating dining area providing a 360 degree view of Vilnius as you eat (very cheap too!)…

I think we were all in agreement that the bus would be the best option to get back to the hotel afterwards. The majority of buses in Vilnius are low floor with a conventional pull out ramp (as 95% of the bus stops don’t have ‘humps’).

Tomorrow is our last full day in Vilnius before catching the train down to Minsk on Sunday afternoon. On our short walk on Wednesday evening, we discovered that a footpath runs for miles along the River Neris out of the city (which isn’t too far anyway) so the plan is just to see where we end up…

Day 2 – Vilnius Old Town and Gediminas Castle Tower

The weather forecast wasn’t wrong, today the city was not only much cooler than yesterday but was also being drenched by torrential downpours. For us, this meant running for cover from time to time in the most unusual of places…

Anyway apart from sheltering from downpours, our aim for today was to explore The Gediminas Castle Tower followed by a wander around the Old Town. Now, The Gediminas Castle Tower is perched on top of a rather steep hill, however, luckily for us, a funicular railway has been erected providing a hassle free passage.

I was rather intrigued to see its accessibility given the one in Prague which is completely inaccessible to even a manual wheelchair, however, was pleasantly surprised to discover that this one is fully equipped and free for wheelchair users! The best way to describe the railway car is that to an elevator. Essentially, the car comes flush to the door and then a large space presents itself and some majestic views can be seen when riding…

It is a completely different story once at the top, large cobble stones (as you would expect from a Castle Tower) makes it impossible for even a manual wheelchair to roll about, at least you receive a free panoramic view of Vilnius!

As you roll around the city, you are constantly reminded of its past but also how it has rebuilt itself since the dissolution of the Soviet Union…

Vilnius Old Town reminded me a little of Tallinn in Estonia in terms of its cobbled streets and buildings. Like Tallinn, the majority of shops and restaurants have multiple steps…even McDonald’s (We were searching for a level entry disabled toilet at this point) hence an electric wheelchair may take quite a while to navigate this area! The traditional food here is rather interesting also…honey and fruit atop of a crispy dough base!

Another interesting event that we seemed to stumble upon on the way back to the hotel was some kind of university graduation ceremony…if only mine was introduced by an instrumental orchestra playing Bruno Mars!

The weather forecast for tomorrow looks slightly better than today (still windy though!) as we enlist the assistance of Google Maps to direct us towards the TV tower…see how that goes…todays directions were a mixed bag 🙂

Day 1 – The London City Airport Experience

It has been a staggering 32C today in Vilnius, a little warmer than the UK, however a heatwave is sweeping across Europe currently so temperatures are high in rather a few countries!

We started our 6am day with yet another Uber to transport us to City Airport…soon muggins will be a pro at this app! After a short trip through the renowned London traffic and the taxi driver disobeying the temporary one way system, there it was, THE AIRPORT! Now, at the time of writing, London City Airport is undergoing a major refurbishment, the centrepiece being a new terminal. The probable reason for this became clear as you enter the existing terminal, it’s just too small for todays demands! Despite this, the staff are probably one of the friendly that I have come across…either that or a shift change had occurred meaning that everyone was happy and jolly (even security were smiling!). The only downside of the existing terminal is the lack of disabled toilets…there is only one in the main concourse!

Anyway, due to the size of the airport, jet bridges were replaced by conventional stairs up to the aircraft and the usual scissor lifts were nowhere to be seen. This meant not only were we escorted down on to the airfield but a chair was needed for me to navigate the stairs element…quite a fun experience!

The flight of just 2 hours and 10 minutes (albeit we were delayed somewhat leaving LCY) soon touched down in Vilnius Airport, one of the places that I have been looking forward too. Almost immediately, you could see a stark contrast to our airports in the UK; bar the obvious Soviet styled buildings, the airport is also used for light aircraft and flying schools for which people were simply standing around chatting like it was this small airport in addition to staff relaxing on grass a few hundred metres away…clearly the definition of health and safety differs here! As I mentioned, we enlisted the assistance of the ‘Maltieciai’ service (the only publicly known wheelchair accessible taxi service in Vilnius) to transport us to our Ibis hotel in the centre of the city. Two very friendly guys met us outside the airport and escorted to a minivan kitted out with the usual ramp and wheelchair restraints. Now, an accessible taxi from the airport usually costs between 50 – 100 euros, this service costs 9 euro (the charity is of course funded elsewhere)!

What to say about the hotel then? Well, it’s just your standard Ibis really, the ‘special’ room is a little small but at least it has a shower with a seat!

After a short walk to gain our bearings, tomorrow we head down to the Old Town to see what that has to offer. Oh and the temperature is supposed to drop with rain forecast…typical! 🙂

Day 0 – Where’s Superbunny?

The answer is in its hutch back in Bristol! Why you may ask yourself? Well, it turns out LOT Airlines (who we are flying to Vilnius with) has suddenly decided to deny Superbunny passage due to the dimensions being ‘too big’ (even when they stated that it would on the phone!), does that sound familiar to you? The one thing that I have learnt thus far on this trip is how cheeky ‘budget’ airlines can be, ahh well, life goes on, it’s a manual wheelchair job for 9 days! The issue is that countries like Lithuania and Belarus are only served by these low cost airlines from the UK by small aircraft hence you are screwed whatever you do (apart from getting the train across Europe which could take a few days!).

Anyway, London, the prospect dawned upon us last week that our strategy was missing a trick! Instead of faffing about with someone else driving the van from City to Gatwick airport, we could simply drive to the latter, park and then catch the Gatwick Express into the capital and then Uber it to the hotel, genius!

… and it is this that we did! Surprisingly, it all went to plan despite the complication with Superbunny. Albeit it was a little strange arriving at London Gatwick with all our luggage but not actually going anywhere. The train station at Gatwick is basically like any other station so I felt right at home! The one thing that humoured me was the fact that as you get closer to London the railway’s technology becomes so much more advanced, I wonder when that will reach Bristol Parkway… a hundred years?

During my times in London over the last few years (which is more time than you could count), I have travelled through London Bridge underground but never wandered around the majestic new station that sits on top of it! The one thing that really excited me at the new station was that platform humps are installed on every platform making the platform and the trains the same height… if only the staff knew where to send people. Now, I have never used Uber before in my life, primarily due to the fact that it is difficult to order wheelchair accessible taxis, but today was the day! It’s surprisingly easy, yet rather creepy watching the little car sliding along the screen making its way to the pick-up point!

It’s an early start tomorrow (well 6am…could be a lot worse!) to hop over to London City for our 3 hour flight to Vilnius in Lithuania…see you on the other side 🙂

A Rather Complex Vilnius and Minsk Itinerary

The challenge of how the hell to navigate Superbunny around, let’s say, two of the lesser accessible countries was a big draw when planning this adventure! Before I start blabbing on about the logistics of everything, it seems that, from watching numerous vlogs on YouTube (as you do), Google Maps has become a prominent navigation tool amongst travellers alike making me feeling more at ease in the knowledge that we are amongst the common using said app!

Anyway, this strategy is rather complicated due to various reasons but all should be dandy (in theory!). As I mentioned in the previous post, the ‘complications’ actually start here on the ground in the UK! The majority of flights to Vilnius in Lithuania are operated by Ryanair. Now, Ryanair, the ‘low cost’ airline that they are refuses to carry Superbunny as its dimensions are ‘too big’ for their aircraft which I know for a fact is a load of crap. Come on, Superbunny has travelled on a twin propeller plane for god sake! Long story short, we are now having to stay in central London for the night (which ain’t cheap) simply so we can fly with a different airline out of London City, all because Ryanair wishes to keep its costs to a minimum. That’s enough ranting for one post!

Now, Lithuania, during the planning process, we soon discovered that there is no such thing as a wheelchair accessible taxi company (or if there is, it’s very well hidden). Luckily for us, we are staying in its capital within which a service called ‘Maltieciai’ operates which, in essence, transports people around the city. The only downfall to this service is that it only operates on weekdays which, theoretically, means that if you are in a wheelchair, haven’t access to a wheelchair accessible vehicle or unable to use public transportation, you are basically screwed on weekends. Now, muggins here decided that it would be a great idea to travel to Minsk on a Sunday thus posing another obstacle!

The original plan was to take a flight between Vilnius and Minsk but, upon further research, this method posed a whole array of issues, the primary one being that I am unsure how well equipped Vilnius and Minsk airport are for transporting electric wheelchairs given the taxi situation. The other one being that Minsk airport is located in practically the middle of nowhere (43km out of the centre) and with Belarus having no accessible taxis to my knowledge, I would rather not arrive in the country plonked at the end of a motorway with little civilisation to ask for help! Instead, we are traveling down via train costing approx. 60 euros for 4 people. The benefit of this is that we depart and arrive in the centre of both cities (actually a stones throw away from our hotel in Minsk) with civilisation to assist if necessary. The one thing to note, however, is that Lithuanian Railways aren’t the best when it comes to booking assistance, no one ever seems to be at the call centre or responding to emails! Luckily, they do say that you can book at the actual station 48 hours prior to departure, you can now guess what the plan is for the first day in Vilnius! The station is conveniently located the opposite side of the city to our hotel, however, you do pass through the Old Town hence killing two birds with one stone. This day will definitely be a manual wheelchair job as the Old Town seems to be similar to Tallinn in Estonia in terms of steps into the majority of shops!

We are staying in the good old Ibis whilst in Vilnius (hopefully without any screeching trams in the dead of night this time!) which is situated in which area you may ask? Of course it had to be in short proximity to the financial district! Lessons learnt from Prague is that shopping centres are a good shout for tea every night and, guess what, the financial district has one.

I think the second and third day will be a ‘make it up as you go’ thing, see what happens there!

On the fourth day, we have the pleasure of traveling 3 hours down to Minsk. When booking the train, I had the option of 7am or 4pm, no guesses as to which I booked, 4pm of course! The theory behind this (bar not having to get up stupidly early) is that we are able to arrive at the station in plenty of time (after a 40 minute walk from the hotel because, remember, the wheelchair transportation doesn’t operate at weekends) to eliminate any potential issues. Another good thing about all of this is that the actual train has a lift (like many European trains) so it should be fairly straightforward…providing it works!

We are staying in the Hampton whilst in Minsk, posh I know…only because it is one of the few accessible hotels! As we only have two days in the city, an actual plan seems a good idea! It was pretty easy to devise really as Minsk has the Svislach River dividing it, one day one side (including a TOWER!) and then catching the metro (renounced for its Soviet architecture) to the other exploring The National Library of The Republic of Belarus and then having a wander down Prospekt Nezavisimosti (basically the main street) to Victory Square. The latter will definitely be a manual wheelchair day as, although a handful of stations have lifts, the step from the platform to the train is way too high for Superbunny (although low floor trains are being introduced shortly).

You may now be wondering how are we going to get back to the end of motorway airport? Ahh now, brace yourself, Minsk may not have publicly known accessible taxis but they do have ACCESSIBLE BUSES TO THE AIRPORT! One last complication, however, you can only fly into London Gatwick from Minsk rather than City meaning the van has to be transported across London.

Certainly will be an adventure…

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