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Getting around Budapest on four wheels

Budapest Airport Shuttle Bus

The best time to visit Budapest is autumn – just when the summer sun has lost its heat and off-peak travellers can catch some last minute sunshine. I certainly wasn’t to be disappointed with the weather which was several degrees higher than London.

Despite all the prior warnings about poor facilities for disabled people I was still left deflated at what I found there. Several budget airlines fly to Budapest and from London the journey is around 2 hours. It’s really easy. Liszt Ferenc International Airport won’t disappoint disabled travellers. It’s got all the usual equipment such as a lifts to get you on and off the plane, WCs etc.

If you’re on a budget (who isn’t these days?) and money won’t stretch to paying for private taxis then your next best option is to use the Airport Shuttle Service which drops off at any address or hotel in the city. The Airport Shuttle can be paid for in the arrivals hall. Once you’ve got your ticket, simply wait with others who are sharing your bus, drivers appear from time to time by the door, announce their route and off you go! This only works if you’re able to transfer from your ‘chair to a minibus seat.

Our hotel, Continental Hotel Zara, an old Hungarian Bathhouse oozed chic style and tradition – just what the doctor ordered! Sadly it also boasted an enormous front entrance step that was not mentioned on the website or any hotel literature. So it was disappointing to require assistance in and out the hotel every day. Inside, as you would expect from any million dollar makeover, there were several lifts and good quality accessible bedrooms. It was a real blow not to use the rooftop garden or any swimming & spa facilities: all were not accessible to me. I can’t imagine what Hungarian building inspectors would’ve made of those enormous steps up to the pools.

The cheapest and most accessible way of getting around the Budapest is by bus (not all the buses have ramps and low floors) but the nearer you get to the city centre their numbers go up. We used a tourist “hop on and off” bus which was a great success and suited us well because we only wanted to take in the big attractions. Be warned that disability awareness is pretty low. We often needed to ask drivers to park closer to the kerb or to move their cleaning buckets away from the designated wheelchair space – although in all honesty the same can be said of bus drivers in London!

We had a first class visit to the Museum of Modern Arts, it had an amazing exhibition simply called “Being Hungarian”. Sadly access is via a side door and it is necessary to press a bell and wait outside for gallery staff to come down. We had such a good time there we had planned to go back and spend more time at the exhibitions upstairs but sadly that didn’t happen.

No trip to Budapest would be complete without a swim at the local thermal baths. Sadly the platform lift at the main entrance seems to have been taken out of use sometime ago. Thankfully there is another back entrance but it is not written into the guidebook or sign posted very well, so we wasted quite a bit of time hunting for the correct door. Once inside the baths there is a lift, accessible WCs and two accessible changing units (although there are no handrails, this is simply a changing area big enough for your wheelchair and an assistant). To help getting into the many thermal baths there is a pool hoist.

My biggest disappointment was finding that Saint Stephen’s Cathedral has not maintained or repaired its platform lift, so the many steps with poor handrails are very difficult for disabled people. Apparently the cathedral has promised to repair its lift sometime in 2012. Let’s not forget that Budapest is home to the largest synagogue in Europe, it is open most days for tours and prayers, I did not fit in a visit here because the synagogue was closed during my stay for the festival of Sukkot. However the building has recently had a multi-million dollar makeover so it’s possible that here access for disabled people is more like London or other modern cities.

How might I sum up access for disabled people in Hungary? Put simply, don’t expect to enter a building by the same door as everyone else, at best you’ll have to find a side door, which more often than not will be locked, so you could be waiting outside sometime whilst the keys are found.

Many Hungarian shops and tourist attractions have stepped entrances directly off narrow and often cobbled streets. The painful truth is many historic and treasured landmarks will not be opened up to disabled people for sometime. There are organisations of disabled people working hard to improve the environment, here’s hoping that Hungary’s membership of the European Union will allow good ideas and best practice to be shared and barriers can be removed. The National Federation of Disabled Persons’ Associations based in Budapest campaign to improve access and raise awareness of disability. It has an international officer, Éva Caesar and she welcomes emails and calls from disabled tourists. The website, very thoughtfully has pages in English.