The Necessary Art of Travel Planning

Image shows a collection of travel books and journals on a table with a red tablecloth and some red flowers in the top left corner. On the top half of the page are DK Eyewitness books on Florence, Naples, Rome, Seville and Lisbon. In the top left corner is a colourful travel pouch with flamingos and embellishments. In the bottom half, centre, is a pale blue notebook that says "Legend Travel Planner" in gold, with a light blue pen beside it. The cover in gold depicts a hot air balloon with a dreamcatcher in the centre. To the right, a DK Eyewitness book on Lisbon. To the left, a novel, "The Book of Disquiet", by Fernando Pessoa.

An assortment of travel planning tools and books to dream into: a Light Blue Travel Planner for Lisbon, DK Eyewitness book, and chosen novel for the trip, The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa. In the background, part of a collection of DK Eyewitness books from my most recent and upcoming trips, some travel notebooks and travel pouch.

“I think hope lies in the very nature of travel. Travel entails wishful thinking. It demands a leap of faith, and of imagination, to board a plane for some faraway land, hoping, wishing, for a taste of the ineffable. Travel is one of the few activities we engage in not knowing the outcome and reveling in that uncertainty” –

Eric Weiner from “Why Travel Should be Considered an Essential Human Activity

Why You Should Let Yourself Start Travel Planning Right Now

One thing that has helped me to stay afloat and recover from burnout in these last few stressful years of festival, parade and community organising, has been travelling. Since moving out of our apartment last year, we have spent our rent money on adventures instead, and it’s a short-term choice I’ve found extremely nourishing- already looking back throughout my life, these experiences and moments stand out as stark reminders that I have lived, and lived well.

Travel is a gift and a privilege, but it also fulfils a very essential need and yearning in us. To travel is to immerse oneself in wonder, which rekindles our awareness of how strange and precious it is to be alive. It is a reminder of how big and beautiful the world is. It expands our minds in witnessing the myriad ways that humans have lived. And for disabled people, it is essential to fulfilling our need to experience freedom.

There are many ways to see the world on any kind of budget. Once I hit my thirties, I realised that if I didn’t make a start on seeing the world now, I likely never would journey to all the places I’ve always wanted to. And while travelling may not be accessible to you right now, travel planning most likely is.

A twin and often-overlooked companion to the travelling experience is travel planning. It costs little- only the price of a travel planner and guidebook, some internet access, and time. I recommend to always have a holiday you’re planning in the background- it gives you something to nourish your imagination for moments when you need an escape, and it is a joy in itself.

Why Travel Planning Beats Spontaneity Every Time

There are two kinds of travellers, as there are two kinds of writers- plotters, who love a good itinerary or plot outline before writing or travelling, and pantsers, who love to fly by the seat of their pants. And while it may work better in pure flights of the imagination, planning for travelling wins out every time. That’s because the amount of nasty surprises and extra expenses that can be thrown at you gets halved- and particularly as a disabled person, there are a whole host of extra nasties that can come up when travelling that non-disabled people don’t have to think about, including for example, if your hotel and the street it’s on is fully accessible, if the attractions you want to visit are accessible, if you can get inside the restaurants where you want to eat- I think you get the picture.

How to Travel Plan Better- Step 1. Choose Your Travel Companions Wisely

Who you travel with is just as memorable as what you do. Make sure to only travel with those you feel comfortable with, and if you are introverted, it’s ok to ask for some alone time to visit a cafe or a site by yourself.

While my partner and I may not have a perfect relationship, we truly are perfect travel companions. My love of researching for a trip and developing itineraries matches his easy-going nature, and he is always happy to go along and try something new, without being affected by any stress I might exhibit bearing the mental load, while he handles the physical load, pushing my manual wheelchair up great distances and inclines. This current trip is for his 40th birthday, and I have kept the location a surprise so he can show up to the airport not knowing where we’re going!

Step 2: Planners and Guidebooks

Once you’ve decided where you want to go from your bucket list and looked up flights and where is cheapest around the dates you’re thinking of, then the real fun begins. I like to start by ordering a DK Eyewitness Book (not sponsored!) such as their Top 10 city series, which are usually very detailed, and help to give you a sense of the areas of the city and must-see attractions. I recommend also ordering a detailed travel planner with space to record not just your experiences, but sections for your itinerary, packing, and space for lots of research including the places you want to visit and eat in, based on vicinities and neighbourhoods.

Image shows a section of my travel planning notebook with lots of space for packing, and sections you can fill in with your own research lists for attractions and restaurants, even if it’s not designed for them.

Step 2: Deciding On The Best Area to Stay In

Reading through your guidebooks will help you to get the lay of the land. Particularly for disabled travel, you will want to prioritise spending a little extra to be in the centre of things and closer to the attractions you want to see.

For our upcoming trip to Lisbon, I’ve chosen the Baixa district because it is one of the only parts of Lisbon (along with Belém) that is flat, without trams to get up the heart-stopping San Francisco-esque hills. (Lisbon, like Rome, was built on seven hills- the Baixa is flat only because it is the most modern, and was rebuilt with wider, safer streets by the Marquis of Pombal after the 1755 earthquake and tsunami combo devastated the city- and had ripple effects all the way here in Ireland, creating the Aughinish Island in Co. Clare!)

I also like to have a quick look on Happycow to see what areas the best vegan restaurants are in, and to create a food bucket list of restaurants I’d like to visit.

Step 3: Hotel and Accommodation Tips

Once you’ve decided on the area you’d like to stay in, you can look for accommodation on and Airbnb. Some tips for this:

  1. Avoid Airbnb if you can– it is contributing to housing crises across the globe, with tourists staying in apartments, and homeless people staying in hotels as emergency accommodation. As in Dublin, locals are being priced out of apartments due to housing shortages and remaining housing being used for Airbnbs. There are times though when Airbnb will be a lot cheaper, for example with significant discounts given for stays of over a month.
  2. Check the Hotel’s Website for Potential Discounts– Booking through the hotel’s website directly often saves you fees of 10% or more. We are able to afford Brown’s Central Hotel only through their website, which has huge price differences with a January discount.
  3. Benefits of Staying in More Than One Hotel– you don’t have to spend your entire trip in the one place. If you really like the look of a particular place but it’s not available for your full stay, experiment with splitting the dates. You may then be able to afford a more expensive hotel for just a few nights. Staying in multiple places during your trip can also help you get to’s Genius Level 2 or 3 for significant reductions. Make sure to book on their mobile app for further reductions. You need to complete only 5 bookings over two years for Genius Level 2, and 15 stays over two years for Genius Level 3. Just make sure to avoid changing hotels too often as the check-in and out process can eat up your travel time.
  4. Read All the Reviews– it’s important also to read the reviews carefully, and keep an eye out recurring complaints around noise levels or hygiene. Aim to go for as high a rating as you can (ideally around 9 on In the Reviews you can also find more details about stairs and accessibility which may not be clearly shown in the listing.
  5. Access Check– As well as reading the reviews and contacting the hotel directly, you should also check the street view of google maps around the hotel.
  6. Proximity to Attractions and Restaurants– As well as its centrality to attractions and public transport to reach other areas, check your hotel’s proximity to restaurants and cafes that you’d like to go to. Unless exceptional breakfast reviews are shown (such as the very best vegan hotel breakfast we ever had in Niki Athens Hotel) you are better off having a delicious fresh pastry in a cafe around the corner if you are near one.

Step 4: Fool-proof Formula for Itinerary Building: Group Attractions and Food to Create Area Groupings

My fool-proof way to start building your itinerary is to list the attractions you most want to see, then link the areas they are in with food and restaurants close-by. What you’ll end up with is a list of neighbourhoods and areas of the city with attractions and places to eat when you visit them.

This then becomes the bulk of your itinerary- you know what to do in each area, which then becomes a plan for the day.

Make sure to look up opening times and hours and especially as disabled people, check for free and reduced entry! Bring a Disabled Parking Card or a GP note if you have one for the oft-required though problematic proof of disability.

Here is an example of an Area Grouping:

Estrela Neighbourhood:

  1. Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga (free entry for disabled people and companion) (closed Mon, open till 6pm) (Bosch’ “Temptation of St. Anthony” on Level 1, Room 1)
  2. Museu da Marioneta (closed Mon, last entry 5.30pm) (Reduced 4.30e disabled and free for companion)
  3. Legumi Vegan Sushi (13 mins from Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga) (Open for Lunch Wed-Sat, 12.15-2.30pm; dinner Tues-Sat, 6.15-10pm)
  4. Clube de Journalistas (Open Lunch 12.30-3pm, Dinner 7-10.30pm) (expensive)

Step 5: Other Lists to Add to Your Area Groupings

Here are some other things to look up in the area to add to your Area Groupings:

  1. Check Viator and Airbnb Experiences: For some of the most memorable things you can add to your trip, such as cooking classes, kayaking or adventure tours, craft workshops- we decided to book a tuk-tuk ride through Alfama since this is not an area we can walk around. Although usually expensive, experiences are often the most memorable parts of a trip. Just make sure it’s not a tour you can DIY- for example, with a bit of research, I’ve decided to stay in Sintra for two nights, travel from Lisbon by train, and Uber to the various attractions slowly over a few days rather than paying over 80 euro each on a day tour of the region.
  2. Viewing Points for Sunsets and Rooftop Bars: One of the first things I look up (after the top vegan restaurants on Happycow) for a new city are the best places to go to get an overview and watch the sunset. It’s a great way to truly take in a place. In Lisbon there are multiple miradouros, however most don’t seem accessible- we will instead take public transport to attractions such as Castelo de São Jorge, and might splurge on a drink at the Rossio Gastropub rooftop bar, though there are plenty of ways to catch sunsets for
  3. Bookstores & Historic Literary Cafes: One thing I always love to look up. Top on my list of these for Lisbon are the Ler Devagar Bookshop in LX Factory, which seems to be Portugal’s Shoreditch, and A Brasiliera, which was the haunt of Pessoa and home to his statue.
  4. Traditional Dishes to Try: Your lists should also include the regional dishes you’d like to try, and where you might find veggie versions. For Lisbon, this is of course pasteis de nata, but also veganized versions of Porto’s Francesinha, Bifana and Bacalhau a Lagareiro.
  5. Opening Days and Times and Free Disabled Entry: Worth repeating in bold here, that most countries offer free entry or discounts to disabled people and/or their companions for national attractions (Ireland is now one of the worst for this!). Most of the main attractions in Lisbon are free for disabled people or at least free for a companion, but as with Italy and Greece, you must bring some kind of proof of disability (which is an issue in itself). At least in Portugal they ask you to prove that you are 60% disabled, not 100% as in Italy (which in reality you can only be if you are dead). Don’t get caught out on opening hours- in Portugal as in Italy, most attractions close one day a week, usually either Monday or Tuesday.

Step 6. Create a Flexible Itinerary

Once you have grouped the places you want to see by area, ways to spend a day focusing on each area will naturally emerge. You can see my planned example itinerary at the bottom of this page. Keep it as flexible as you can, allowing time for rest periods, and knowing that you can swap your Day in Belém with your Day Trip to Costa da Caparica via Ferry to Cacilhas around, depending on weather and energy levels on the day.

Step 7: Book Restaurants, Tours, Experiences & Attractions in Advance

If you are quite keen on any particular restaurant, I highly recommend making bookings in advance to avoid disappointment. This is especially the case in cities like Rome. Vegan restaurants usually aren’t busy enough to require bookings, but there are always exceptions, such as this authentic-looking trattoria in Lisbon which has little availability and was almost booked out three weeks before the date I wanted for us. Well-known places such as Prado also require advance bookings to avoid disappointment and time wasted travelling to it (though you now have an idea of other places you’d like to eat in the area without having to spend time searching for one through Google Maps on the day!)

Usually for disabled people where there is free entry, advance booking isn’t required for attractions, where you can usually skip the line and tickets can be picked up at the ticket booth- for non-disabled people, this is not the case, and you are much better off booking tickets for big attractions in advance to avoid nightmarish queues in places like Rome, Florence and Verona. It also means that specials such as the Lisboa Card are not really needed for disabled people and companions, but if you are travelling with other non-disabled people, definitely book in advance and purchase similar passes.

Step 8: Language Learning, Movies and Media

It’s always worth picking up just a few phrases at the very least before travelling. I quite liked this survival Portuguese tutorial from Dave in Portugal on Youtube. I recommend Babbel Live for more in-depth learning to attempt to converse in your country of choice, once you have reached A2 level.

I love to get my hands on anything I can get in relation to my chosen country- any movie set in the place, such as Night Train to Lisbon starring Jeremy Irons, and based on the based on the novel by Peter Bieri, which you could also read. You can also see great episodes about Lisbon on Channel 4’s Travel Man with Richard Ayoade, and Somebody Feed Phil on Netflix.

Last Step: Choose Your Holiday Read!

The last thing to choose is your holiday read, and what book you’d like to take with you on your trip! You can usually find great suggestions online. I used this article for Portugal, and settled on Fernando Pessoa, intrigued by his concept of “heteronyms” and multiple identities.

I also usually pick up one more book as a souvenir in the country I visit. I will be looking for one of Jose Saramago’s works while there, and if time allows, we may take a gander in either of the Foundation Museums dedicated to these writers in Lisbon. Aware of the tendency for men to be more idolised in Portugal as in many other cultures, this book focusing on female Portuguese writers also looks wonderful.

Bonus: My Flexible Itinerary

Putting all this together, here is my flexible itinerary for Lisbon. I’ll share the actual itinerary of what really happened after the trip:

Lisbon Itinerary

Mon 29th Jan

Arrive in early evening at 4.10pm, get the train from airport to Rossio Station, then check in to Brown’s Central Hotel (roughly at 6pm)

Have a nice dinner in Plant Base around 6.30/7pm (order momos dumplings)

Pop into Duque du Rua Fado Bar by the hotel to make a reservation directly for during the week or the last nights.

Walk up to Scoop n Dough for Dessert

Tues 30th Jan

Long leisurely brunch OR nata in hotel room (From Vegan Nata Chiado, or visit A Brasiliera)

Tuk Tuk Ride by Bruna (recommended through a friend) around Alfama and Praca do Comericio from 1-2pm. Drop off at Castelo Sao Jorge for vista views.

Bus back to Baixa. If time, see Santa Justa Elevator and Carmo Convent (closes 6pm)

Try Ginjinha in Ginja Sem Rival

Tram or Bus back to Chiado for dinner in Kong

Wed 31 Jan

Brunch in The Folks OR Green Beans for Sandwiches and Nata

Trip to Belem and Jeronimos Monastery

Nata for Jules in the historic Pasteis de Belem

Visit the Torre de Belem and Padrao dos Descobrimentos (decide whether we want to pay for the lift and museum inside)

Pop into Museu dos Coches, just the Royal Riding Building Arena and if time, MAAT for beautiful exhibit.

Back into town for dinner in AO26 or The Green Affair

OR if too hungry, snack/dinner in Pateo or MAAT restaurant in Belem first

Thurs 1 Feb

Breakfast in the Time Out Market

Cais do Sodre ferry to Cacilhas

Bus ride to the Costa da Caparica

Lunch in Bone Free before or after a swim

Bus Back to Almada, See Cristo Rei and Ride the Boca do Vento Elevador

Dinner at Ponto Final

Potentially visit rooftop bar in Cais do Sodre

Fri 2

Brunch or nata e.g. Fabrica de Nata

Day Trip to Sintra- train from Rossio, check into Chalet Saudade (note, no fully wheelchair accessible bathrooms)

Lunch in A Praca (closes 4pm, closed Sun)

Take the 434 Bus and/or an Uber to Pena Palace, and then to Quinta da Regalieira

Dinner in Sintra e.g. Mela Canela or Incomum if after 7pm.

Sat 3 Feb

Breakfast from Hotel in Cafe Saudade

Uber or Bus 435 to Monserrate Palace

Dinner in Flores do Cabo

Sun 4

Visit Sintra National Palace and go around Sintra town.

Try Travesseiros and/or quiejadas in Piriquita or Quiejadas da Sapa

Lunch in Mela Canela

Get the train back home

San Pietrino Trattoria in Alfama Booked for 9pm

Mon 5

A Brasiliera or Mantegiaria for Breakfast

Parque Edoardo and A Minho Avo for 12e Lunch

MAAT Gallery exhibition if didn’t get to go.

If you did, visit the Aqueduto das Aguas Livres and walk along the top via the Museu da Agua.

Dinner Ortea Vegan Collective/Botanista

Tues 6

Breakfast at Confeitaria Nacional

National Gallery of Ancient Arts beside Puppet Museum, and Big Vegan Sushi Lunch at Legumi

Enter Elevator on Ponte 25 de Abril Bridge for Views of Sunset

Visit LX Gallery and Ler Devagar Bookshop

Fancy Last Dinner in Prado at 9pm or Clube do Journalistas

Fado Music in Duque du Rua after booking it on the first day.

Wed 7

Breakfast at your Favourite Spot during the holiday

Check out at 11am. Leave Bags in Hotel.

Lunch in a place you didn’t get to visit yet

Visit the Museo Nacional do Azulejo close to the airport

Flight at 8.10pm (leave for airport at 5.45pm)

Mistakes I Made Travelling to Italy as a Disabled Person- And How to Avoid Them

At a showing of Madama Butterfly in San Carlo Theatre, Napoli, the world’s oldest Opera House. Alt text: Image shows a girl in a lavish opera house with gilded booths behind her. The camera is positioned so that the crown of one of the booths seems to be placed on her head.

Mistakes I Made Travelling to Italy as a Disabled Person- and how to avoid them

In February 2023, after short trips to Venice and Rome, my partner and I decided to spend a month living in the Eternal City. Since then, Rome is like a lover I simply can’t be parted too long from. Another opportunity arose just six months later to return, an invitation from Disability Pride Network, who run the Disability Pride Parade in Rome- and since learning more about the Grand Tours undertaken by writers like Percy and Mary Shelley, Goethe and Dickens (whose accounts of his travels are shockingly pompous but that’s a story for another day) we decided to turn this into a Grand Tour of our own, starting from Verona to Florence, then to Naples and culminating in the Disability Pride Parade in Rome. We didn’t return to Serene Lady Venice due to the inaccessibility of her bridges- because for all its unforgettable beauty and soul-reviving food, the Bel Paese also throws up many challenges for disabled people.

Below are some of the tips and advice I would give to anyone travelling to Italy, and particularly for people with mobility impairments. Don’t let any of the difficulties we encountered deter you.  The more you research before going, the less likely you will be to run into challenges. We know as disabled people that obstacles will always arise, whether at home or on holiday. No matter how upsetting things may get, you will look back and think that it really was all part of the adventure. Tranquilla; you are in the most beautiful country in the world. The next moment some magnificent wonder like the Trevi granting wishes in the moonlight, or a steaming Neapolitan pizza with its toppings sumptuously sliding off the slice as you pick it up to eat, will make it all worth it.   

  1. Don’t Go During High Season (June – September)
Sunset from Castel Sant’Angelo in February- scarves and coats weather, but clear enough for sunsets.
Alt text: Image shows the sun setting beside St. Peter’s Basilica from a window in the castle walls, and a man and woman sitting in front of it, with an Aperol Spritz and Crodino aperitivo at their table.
Beautiful carciofi, artichokes, are only in season from February to April.
Alt Text: Image shows the face of a woman with a mischievous grin popping over a large bouquet of artichokes with wilting leaves.

We didn’t realise that September is still High Season in Italy- that means high prices, temperatures and tourist numbers. We went for the Disability Pride Parade, but having spent a month in Rome in February, we saw firsthand the difference, most of all in the price of accommodation- our full month in February worked out much cheaper than our 16 days in Italy during the tail end of the high season in late September. 

The month that you absolutely must avoid is August, when the cities effectively close up shop so that Italians can go on their holidays, a phenomenon known as Ferragosto. And while July is Disability Pride Month, the founder of Disability Pride Network Italia, Carmelo, says that they cannot have their parade then as they would not survive the heat- temperatures in these months can sometimes reach over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Even in September, temperatures were often around 31 degrees celsius- it was shorts, sunglasses and thin dresses all the way. 

Personally, I love the summer heat, and travelling in February was a little colder than we expected, mostly cloudy with occasional showers, but also with many bright, sunny and crisp days (we were still able to catch some miraculous sunsets). You’ll need to dress warm, with gloves, scarves and coats. Winter in Italy is still far more pleasant than in our blustery rain-soaked Irish bog-land. On rainy days in Rome, you can make for the Pantheon to see rain falling through the oculus of the world’s largest unsupported dome. What was especially delightful was the lack of crowds. We often had Piazza Navona all to ourselves. In September however, tourist hotspots like the Trevi are utterly jammed. We knew enough to avoid the Colosseum and Vatican, which were busy even in February, and I shudder to think of the sardine cans they become in the High Season.  

All things considered, the Spring Shoulder season, March and April, is the ideal time to stay. You have the advantage of both lower prices and tourist numbers, but also sunnier and warmer weather than the Winter months. Plus, puntarelle and the glorious carciofi- artichokes- are still in season. Don’t forget to try them when in Rome alla giudia– in the crispy, deep-fried Jewish style- and alla romana– braised with garlic and olive oil.

  1. Most Italian Apartments are Historic, i.e. Not Accessible
Video shows us making our way with the wheelchair down the characterful but challenging Via Nardones, Napoli, where our apartment was located. The particular cobbled-stone streets are ubiquitous all over Italy.
Video shows an encounter with a typical Italian apartment, a near-impossible tight squeeze for wheelchair users
Image shows another typical Italian apartment building elevator, bougie with a cushioned wooden bench, but no space for a wheelchair

If you are travelling as a wheelchair user anywhere in Italy, I would only ever recommend booking reasonably modern hotels and avoiding apartments altogether.

I made the mistake of booking multiple apartments and aparthotels that, on the face of their listing description, all seemed manageably wheelchair accessible- I read that they were on the ground floor of a building or if not, had access from an elevator. But here’s the thing- many Italian apartments have one or two flights of stairs to get to the elevator. This was the case for us in Rome. Italian elevators are also notoriously tiny (except for the world’s bougiest one in the Vatican which you should definitely keep an eye out for) and you may not be able to fit yourself in it. We often had to fold up the chair and take it up separately. 

One of our rooms in Napoli was advertised on as being on the ground floor, but was in actuality, up two flights of stairs, and all the way up the steep, cobbled and characterful street of Via Nardones- so steep that Jules had to push or pull me up backwards on the chair, moving constantly out of the way of scooters and horn-blaring cars, twice a day during our 6-day stay. If I were a full-time wheelchair user, this would have been impossible. 

Always check very carefully with the hotel owner wherever you stay, and ask for pictures of any steps to get into the building and the room. 

Although we love the discount you get when you book a month-or-longer stays on Airbnb, it’s well known that Airbnbs are contributing to the housing crisis in every country, with tourists staying in houses and homeless people and refugees in hotels- so it is best to be avoided where possible anyway. 

  1. The Circumvesuviana Line to Herculaneum and Pompeii is Not Accessible
Image shows two Italian ladies helping helping us down the long staircase at the Ercolano Scavi train stop.
Image shows a close-up of a phone screen which two Italian passengers were using to tell us to “scrivere reclamo al comunte di ercolano”- write a complaint to the Municipality of Ercolano (the name of the modern town wherein the ancient site of Herculaneum is found)

We were shocked to discover that the main train line that everyone takes to Herculaneum and Pompeii is not accessible! Everything I’d seen online or in guidebooks, and everyone I’d asked advised that Herculaneum is much better for wheelchair users than Pompeii, because it is more compact, smaller and easier to get around.

Imagine our shock when we got to the Circumvesuviana train line in Napoli Centrale, the main train station, and were told it was not accessible- there is no lift, and there are two separate flights of stairs to get down to the platform. Neither was there any apology or plans to make this most central line accessible.

I am an ambulatory wheelchair user, so this was not as bad as it could have been for someone else, and I was just about able to get down the steps, with Jules lifting the chair down the two flights. When we arrived at Ercolano Scavi, the main stop in Herculaneum, it was the same thing- two more long flights of stairs, and no plans for an elevator. Two Italian passengers apologised for the disgrace and urged us to write a complaint.

The best way to get to Herculaneum for wheelchair users may be to book a private transfer or an accessible taxi for 50-60 euro, which is a lot more expensive than the 3.50 euro cost of the Circumvesuviana. You could also get a bus from Naples for most of the way, and then a taxi.

Although we didn’t visit Pompei this time, it may be the better option of the two if you are not travelling by car, as the public transport route to it is more accessible. The two train stations in the modern town of Pompei are reportedly accessible, and the Circumvesuviana line has a lift to the platform in Porta Nolana Station, very close to Napoli Centrale. There is also a new route through Pompeii archaeological site that is designed for wheelchair users, though it is still far from perfect.

There are beautifully preserved frescoes, and a manageable pathway around Herculaneum- if you can get there.
Alt text: image shows a girl with black hair, brown skin and glitter on her brown eyes in front of a beautiful fresco of Neptune and Amphitrite in vivid blues and carmine reds.
  1. Avoid the Metro and Use Buses wherever possible
Image shows Maryam looking “over it” in the Vanvitelli metro stop, where a banner where the elevator should be says that it is “under construction”.

As a general rule of thumb, when travelling in Napoli and Roma, it’s best to avoid the circle of Hell that is the underground metro stations. Most of the city centres in both these cities are not accessible, even when the little wheelchair symbol beside their name suggests they are.

In Napoli, we spent nearly two hours circling around because the station we attempted to get off at- Vanvitelli- had no working lift on one side of the platform- we had to wait for the next metro to the next stop, then go backwards to Vanvitelli to get to the other side which had a working elevator.

We were trying to see the magnificent views from Castel Sant’Elmo, and went to Vanvitelli to get the Central Funicular. On the way down, we took the wrong funicular, Montesanto, which is recommended in all the guidebooks, and is absolutely not accessible, with a very long steep flight of steps. Of Napoli’s four funiculars, only two are accessible: Chiaia and the Central Funicular; Mergellina is not. So, if you’d like to visit Castel Sant’Elmo, we would recommend not getting the Metro at all, and walking straight to the Central Funicular.

The spectacular views of the Bay of Naples from Castel Sant’Elmo made the trek worth it, though not all viewpoints from it are accessible. Video plays “Vogliatemi Bene” from the opera “Madama Butterfly”

Likewise, we encountered the same problems in Rome when trying to get to Cinecittà and the Parco degli Acquedotti a little outside the city centre. None of the stations in the Centro Storico, including the Spanish Steps or even in the main station of Roma Termini, have accessible metro platforms. So do yourself a favour and avoid them entirely!

Thankfully, all the public buses we encountered in the four cities were accessible with manual pull-out ramps, and there are often two spaces for wheelchair users on buses, unlike in Dublin where only one is for a wheelchair and the other is designated for prams. 

A bus in Rome, this one with two spaces for wheelchair users. Take note, NTA and Dublin Bus!

5. Be Prepared For Wheelchair Damage on Airlines

Yes, the all too common nightmare for disabled travellers finally caught up with me this September.

I never take my priceless electric chair on holidays with me- I have just heard too many horror stories of wheelchair damage. Although it would make our lives easier, granting me more independence instead of putting more strain on Jules and our relationship when he is forced to push me around on the much cheaper manual wheelchair I bring with me, I just don’t want to take the risk.

I was still too burnt-out after organising Ireland’s first Disability Pride Parade in July, to properly deal with the damage that was inflicted on my manual wheelchair after we arrived from our Ryanair flight to Verona. To be fair, it was so small but deadly that we didn’t at first notice it- all that is ultimately missing, is a small but crucial and near-impossible-to-replace screw. Jules conjectures that an attendant must have tried to remove the wheel, found that it was attached to the chair, and lost the screw when he forced it back in. By the end of our trip, the wheel of the chair was falling off constantly, a major pain for Jules. Although I bought the 35 euro annual Ryanair travel insurance, it was by then too late to make a claim.

Whether you are willing to take the risk of bringing along your electric chair or sticking to a cheaper manual (perhaps with one of those nifty powered attachments that some people have) make sure that you check it carefully when they give it back to you for any signs of damage and report it then and there in the airport, and within 24 hours. Make sure to check the terms and conditions of your insurance before your fly.

Bonus Tips: Three Things We Did Right That Everyone Should Know

If all of this has made you feel discouraged, this next tip may be the best consolation to make up for it.

  1. Bring A Proof of Disability for Free Entry Everywhere and Zero Queues
Jules in the disabled section at Stadio Olimpico during an AS Roma match, holding up an AS Roma scarf

Italy, like Greece and many other European countries (but not Ireland- when did we stop doing this here?) gives free entry for disabled people and a companion to all museums and main attractions, apart from a very rare few that are privately owned. The queues that go all around the Colosseum and outside the Vatican walls? Don’t worry about them- you will skip straight past them to the ticket office. The 30 euro ticket and reservation price for the Uffizi Gallery to see the Birth of Venus? It’s free for you and your companion, and no time slots need to be booked- just go straight on in at anytime you fancy. Pompeii and Herculaneum? All free. Want to catch a football match with AS Roma at the Stadio Olimpico? It’s either free or heavily reduced for you and your companion, you just need to contact their call centre (you can message or call +39 0689386000).

The catch?

You must show proof that you are 100% disabled.

I know, such a thing does not exist. On occasions in Rome where I had left my proof of disability in the hotel (in my case I use my Irish disabled parking permit, you could also use a GP or occupational therapist’s letter if you don’t have one) I’ve angrily told doubtful ticket inspectors that the only way I could be 100% disabled is if I were dead.

It seems that 100% disabled refers to whether you are ambulatory or not, but not all attractions specify needing to be 100% disabled. In Verona and Napoli, we rarely had to show proof of disability- just showing up being visibly disabled in a wheelchair was enough, and we were hurried on in. But bringing some kind of proof will prevent you from being at the mercy of the decency of others. You may find some unexpected, extra kindnesses. In Da Michele, the restaurant made famous by Eat, Pray, Love for where it was deemed Napoli’s best pizza, we were also rushed in by the waiter who didn’t want us to partake in the 20 minute queue. Which brings us to the last tip that everyone, disabled or not, needs to be aware of in Italy

2, Book Everything You Can in Advance, Including Restaurants

This applies even more to non-disabled people, who should really book every attraction possible in advance online, such as your time slot in the Uffizi, Vatican and at the Accademia to see the David in Florence- you can also get multiple passes such as the Roma Pass. Disabled people and a companion usually go straight to the ticket office of the attraction to get a free ticket to enter on the spot. The only thing you might want to get in advance are any guided tours, and I recommend getting one when you book to see the Colosseum Underground. These can all sell out over a month in advance so book as early as you can.

Of all the many places we visited, the only fee we had to pay was 5 euro for Jules as my companion at Casa di Dante, and full price for a guided tour of Palazzo Farnese (which we haven’t seen yet for this reason).

A thing which catches most tourists off-guard is not having restaurant, rooftop bar or any sit-down meal reservations, which is the norm here, even during off-peak seasons. Italians appreciate their godly food, as do the rest of the world who fly in for the same renowned restaurants- queues for most high quality places are often far out the door, so to avoid having to resort to eating in tourist traps, book your table in advance online or by phone if you can. If you are in the area for a few days, stop by to book your meal in advance- you won’t regret it. The exception here is Napoli, as many of its most famous pizzerie are takeaways or don’t take reservations (the historical Pizzeria Brandi, which has some proof of inventing the first margherita, is an exception to this exception- you had best stop by to book in advance). In these cases, you may have to wait 20 minutes to an hour or more, like all the other foodies.

Jules holding up two giant pizzas, a margherita and a marinara at Da Michele

3. Check Opening Times Everywhere for the Day That Everything Closes

In the cities we’ve been to in Italy so far, there is always one or two days in which everything closes- usually that day is Monday or Tuesday, but a particular attraction or restaurant could choose to close on Sunday or Wednesday. Restaurants traditionally open between 12-3pm for lunch then close and open again from 7-10pm for dinner, while most gelaterie stay open until midnight or later- but opening hours are variable, so before you go anywhere, check which day and times it’s open!

And there you have it- arming yourself with this information should reduce the occurrence of unpleasant surprises, so that you can concentrate on enjoying your own trip of a lifetime, and savouring each and every sweet, sensual, incandescent and transcendently beautiful moment in the Bel Paese.

A Penanggalan in Transylvania- Part 1

Part of the Wheel of the Year Series inspired by Weave by Deirdre Sullivan and Oein de Bhairduin. This story was written for Samhain.

Image shows the Samhain image for the Wheel of the Year, with the Weave book in the foreground, a Death Tarot Card, and Black Obsidian and Mookaite Jasper. In the background is a ghostly typewriter with a skeleton hand a book of spells with a glowing purple eye in the centre. Featured Image above shows Bran Castle, Transylvania, Romania.

A Penanggalan in Transylvania

29th October. Brasov, Transylvania. Left London at 10.30am, on 27th October, arriving at Bucharest late that evening; should have arrived at 5.30pm but the flight was an hour late…

I disproportionately enjoy starting my journal entry for my 35th birthday trip to Transylvania in the same format as Jonathan’s Harker’s in Dracula. I have brought it along with me on the train from Bucharest through the Carpathian mountains, now gloriously dressed in its autumnal gowns. I have never seen such colours on the trees- the gold and ochre of beech and deep carmine-red pine against forest green spruce, and every so often, the rising spire of a diaphanous silver fir. They are plucked from the shadows and glow in spotlit golden swathes like little forest fires. Deep within, bears lumber and wolves prowl, and the Carpathians, like a great, curled, sprawling beast, threaten at any moment to swallow the pretty villages like Brasov which nestle at its feet. 

I am struck by a paragraph on the first page which had never before captured my attention: 

“I read that every known superstition in the world is gathered into the horseshoe of the Carpathians, as if it were the centre of some sort of imaginative whirlpool; if so my stay may be very interesting.” I wonder if such superstitions could extend as far as my own lineage, to my mother’s side in Malaysia or my father’s in India.

I am bound for Brasov to present at a Dracula Conference coinciding with my 35th birthday.

Before leaving, I visited my parents in our family home in Dublin. My mother had been more solemn and emotional than usual. 

“In our family, Chinta, a woman’s 35th birthday is very important,” she said. “Still no man, Isha? No children on the way? What about that nice doctor you were dating?”

My last boyfriend had only a PhD in English Literature but my parents liked to fixate on the technicality of his being a doctor.

“No Ibu, we’re not seeing each other anymore, remember? We wanted different things.”

“And what is it that you want, eh, Chinta? You don’t want a family?” Every year she had grown more distressed as the prospect of my having children grew ever more distant. This year I sensed a change in her- something closer to resignation. 

“I do want a family Ibu, but it’s not my fault if it doesn’t happen for me. Is it so bad if I don’t end up having children? What about Siti Auntie? She’s happy, isn’t she?” Siti Auntie, always glamorous and windswept, would bring us trinkets from her travels around the world and enchant me with bedtime stories of fairy tales and myths she picked up on her adventures. As a teenager she showed me how to wear her signature red lip, and although I shared her silky black hair, my mother would not let me wear it as long as hers, which tumbled all the way down to her hips. 

“Hayo, always you want to be like Siti Auntie. No matter what I tell you.” We were standing alone in the kitchen after dinner, putting away the dishes. “I have something to give you, Chinta. Stay there.” She went upstairs while I stared at my reflection in the window over the kitchen sink. No crow’s feet yet. The marionette lines at the corners of my mouth were deepening. I felt a sense of finality as the axe came down on the first half of my life, and realised that I was really and truly no longer young. 

My mother returned and in her hand was an old, faded green, leather-bound journal. She handed it to me. Its thin tawny leaves were falling out and barely held together, the binding worn, the ink I glimpsed was almost translucent. 

“For over a century, this book has been handed down to the women in our family Chinta, always when they turn 35.” 

“Why wait so long?” I asked. “Isn’t 16 to 21 the usual age for passing on heirlooms and that sort of thing?”

“At 16 or 21 you are still girlish, you think you have the rest of life ahead of you. You are full of youth and beauty. At 35, all that is gone-”


“But this is when you really have become a woman. Just take it with you on your birthday trip.”

It sits in front of me now, this withered ancestral relic. My mother gave no hints of what it contains, which feels very strange for what I have grown up perceiving our family to be, a typical South and South East Asian family, emotionally open, expressive and unrepressed. There is some generational wound here, something which even my family will not touch and feels the need to push away. Delicately, I open its time-worn pages and begin to read. 

Monday August 30th, 1808. Kampung Gunung, Penang.

Yesterday I made his favourite foods in the hope that it would soften him- ikan bakar in banana leaf, ikan bilis and sago gula melaka. I spent hours making them just right, according to Ibu’s recipes- melting the gula melaka sugar to the perfect consistency on the stove, pounding the chillies for the sambal, picking the fattest fish from the market to steam- but when he came home he complained that the whole house and I were stinking of belachan and that now he would go to work tomorrow stinking of it too. 

And my shame almost swallowed me today when I met Aida, my new bidan midwife. She is young for a bidan, and so she does not have much of a reputation, but she is all I can afford. She is kind and beautiful with dark, clever eyes. She found some of the bruises and wounds that I am normally able to hide as he is careful enough to make sure these are on the private areas of my body. 

She told me that if he continues like this I will lose the baby. I don’t know what to do. 

I wish I could run away to the tops of the mountains. 

Friday September 3rd, 1808 

Allah have mercy on my soul for I have lost my mind! I cannot describe or believe what has happened. It cannot have happened. I must write it down. Perhaps I can make sense of it if I write it down. 

There was so much blood, blood all over the bed. When he saw what was happening he left me and the baby there to die, in agony. I could see the moon through the window and hear the breeze and then through the smell of blood and sweat, the stench of vinegar. I thought I heard a baby crying. When I looked at the window there was a face staring back at me, a woman’s face as white as the moon with long dark hair and eyes rimmed with black. And where her body should have been, there were slick, glistening, bloody organs, a beating heart, two throbbing lungs, tubes of intestines, exposed dangling viscera. 

The next moment she was in the room, her face and her long hair leaning over me. “You will be saved,” she said. 

When I woke up the next morning, all the blood was gone. My nightdress and the bed were clean, white and damp only from sweat. 

I found enough strength to prepare dinner for him, just in case, but he never came. I sat alone at the table and despite everything, for a moment, I enjoyed the warming laksa soup, and slurped my noodles like a schoolgirl. 

That evening I went back to Aida’s house, which like ours was a rumah panggung on stilts, though hers was closer to the wild mountains on the outskirts of the kampung village. The water around the house was still and glittered in the moonlight. Drawing closer, I heard the growling of a tiger or a black bear coming from the forested hills. The lights in the neighbouring stilt-huts were out. 

“Aida,” I called after climbing the steps to her porch. “It’s Maeena. Please let me in.”

She opened the door in her nightdress. Her clever eyes were lit with both concern and curiosity. “Of course Maeena, come in.”

She sat me down on a wooden chair in the corner of the room and brought me a glass of kopi cham. The mild stimulant helped soothe my nerves, but there was something about the house that was making me uneasy. 

“Aida, I think I may have lost my baby.”

“Yes, Maeena. You have.”

I began to wail. “But my cantik,” she said. “You have also gained life.” 

“What do you mean?” 

“Your husband has left you, yes? He has run back to his mother’s village to torment the next woman. And you are still alive.” 

“Yes,” I said looking up at her. “But what if he comes back? What if he doesn’t? I don’t know which is worse. I won’t survive without him- I will starve.” 

“No you won’t, my cantik. I know a way for you to survive, and be happy, and free. Freedom- that is what you want more than anything, isn’t it?”

I nodded. 

“And you shall have it. I will teach you the ways and rites. But I must warn you- this path is not without its own pain.”

I listened carefully. “I am sure it is no more painful than the life that awaits me otherwise.”

She nodded. “I know. It is why I have wanted to show you since the moment I met you. Follow me.” 

I followed her into a back room, through an archway with a curtain of finely painted beads. Before us within the wooden framework was a bathtub surrounded with candles. And that was when I realised what had made me uneasy. It was the smell of vinegar. Under her frangipani perfume, Aida reeked of it. In front of us, the bathtub was full to the brim with it…

“Isha, we’re nearly here, this next stop is for Brasov.” One of my colleagues who was travelling with me was standing in the aisle with his bags, leaning over my shoulder. “Wow, how old is that book?” 

“About two hundred years old,” I said, shutting it and getting my belongings together. 

“What’s it about?”

“It’s an old family heirloom.” I thought back to the stories my aunt had told to me when I was a child. “I think it’s about an old Malaysian myth. Kind of like our version of a vampire. It’s called a Penanggalan.”

2023 Retrospective on Longing for Sunflowers

Image shows a hand holding a brass-gold sunflower locket on a chain in the sun. In the background you can see a beach, blue sky and blue sea

It has been 10 years since I first started a blog, Longing for Sunflowers, as a recent graduate of 24- today, I am 34 years old.

It is fascinating to look back at this time capsule and see how much life has changed- in one post from 2018 I was excited about the potential of a film few had yet heard of called Black Panther– most of the beloved late night cafes that formed an important part of our youth, including Accents, have since closed.

I can see, looking back, the pressure I put on myself to be happy, and to be always “in the light”-something that afflicts us more when we are young. It was a time before Inside Out showed us how unrealistic this pursuit is and the importance of sadness, when mental health was just beginning to be publicly discussed and accepted, and when opening up about it was seen as genuinely courageous at best, or weak, oversharing or attention-seeking at worst. There was no concept of taking “a mental health day,” or the little such things that have now gratefully seeped into our culture.

Some of the posts are hard for me to read, particularly “My Story” and “My Tumultuous Relationship with Public Toilets-” both of which delve into the decade of my youth, from 13 to 23, which was largely lost to major depressive disorder. It is a shock to remember how I used to feel on a daily basis, how much mental energy I used in fighting to stay alive. I have healed so much since those days to the point where I no longer recognise that suffering young girl, and feel nothing but compassion for her. To have come from a place where “I would cry as I pulled at my miserable limbs, throwing my “useless”, disabled body around in anger, ripping up shreds of newspaper in an attempt to calm myself down,” every day when I came home from school, to the woman I am now, so comfortable in my body and proud to be disabled that I am organising and leading Ireland’s first Disability Pride and Power Parade- see here– is hard to believe. The teenager who wrote “Soon you will be free” on the walls of the toilet in secondary school where she used to hide to eat her lunch and cry is indeed free at last, and has lived such a beautiful life since.

Clarissa Pinkola Estés’ feminist classic Women Who Run With the Wolves, offers Jungian interpretations and retellings of myths and folktales. One of these, the Mexican ghost story La Llorona, is reinterpreted to symbolise pollution of the creative stream or flow. La Llorona, the ghost woman of the weeping willow, trails her tendrils and drags her withered knuckles through the waters, wailing for her lost children. Estés’ interprets this as a cautionary tale inviting us to recover from the stream our own lost children, the creative brain-children and dreams which we tossed aside and let drown. Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way calls these aborted brain-children our “creative U-turns.”

Longing for Sunflowers is one of my lost creative brain-children. I abandoned this child in the stormy waters of 2017, the year I went to study veterinary nursing, only going back to post two more articles in 2018 during my Journalism MA, and nothing in the six years that followed. Part of the reason was that I no longer wanted to be associated with that pain and my old suffering self, to have a constant reminder of the years I had lost, and how much catching up I had to do because of it. I created a new writer’s website here which reflects my growth in other areas.

But recently a friend changed my mind- in the writing group we started with my dear friends from college, including the same Liz who featured in “My Tumultuous Relationship with Public Toilets,” it was our friend Nuala who told me how much she had loved Longing for Sunflowers. She lives in London now, but the last time she visited me in Ireland in our favourite place, Chester Beatty, she gave me the beautiful sunflower pendant you see in the image above. Knowing that someone had deeply connected to it made me return to my neglected creative self, the old wounds, and to see that I had abandoned what was a very raw and worthy piece of my soul.

Estés wrote:

“If we were to abuse our children, Social Services would show up at our doors. If we were to abuse our pets, the Humane Society would come to take us away. But there is no Creativity Patrol or Soul Police to intervene if we insist on starving our own souls.”

And making the necessary time for our creative lives is indeed a soul-saving act. I am learning to say, as Estes says we must: “I love my creative life more than I love cooperating with my own oppression.”

So I have decided to return to water the sunflowers, alongside the pieces of me and my activism that are now flourishing because, alongside aid from the universe and the people who show up along the way, I consistently dedicated thousands of hours to nurturing them.

What creative brain-children have you abused and neglected? Is there a chance for you to save them and in doing so, recover and tend to a lost part of your soul?

Surya Namaskar

Image shows a close-up of praying feet, with brown skin, on a pink yoga mat with a dreamcatcher motif in black

This piece was chosen for the Irish Writer’s Centre’s Breaking Ground Programme and performed in the IWC.

The photo above, “Praying Feet”, shows my own feet and yoga mat

I unfurl the yoga mat for the first time that day. It is soft and spongy and the deep burgundy-pink of beetroot stains. To me it smells faintly of jasmine and petroleum. I lay my hands flat on its slightly sticky surface, fingers widely spaced, and move into cat–cow, Marjaryasana Bidalasana, stretching my neck out high on the cat. Air moves into my lungs, into my very bronchioles, and I feel the muscles of my chest begin to stretch out like the wings of a bird. 

I stumble on the low lunge. I always do. High Lunge, Tree Pose, Vrikshasana, Dancer, Natarajasana –and most of the Standing Warriors – are off-limits to me. But whether alone or on the beach, it does not bother me.

The only times it did were in classes, in Yogahub or the Yoga Studio in Phibsboro. I remember the women with their Lululemon tank tops, the tiny smiles on their faces whenever they saw me stumble, a survival-of-the-fittest pride in themselves as they held their contorted limbs out behind them, wilfully suppressing the alien body’s tremors. These were the same women who could be seen waiting outside for the early morning hot yoga classes, carrying their Chilly’s water bottles, ready to break into a sweat and learn poses to re-enact on the beach the next month in Bali – alongside photos of plant-based smoothie bowls for Insta leverage. 

I struggle to accept that this heavily diluted, white-hybrid thing that has emerged in the West is, in fact, just like me – appreciated by white people for its exoticized appeal, divorced entirely from its root.

So much of myself and my body is uninhabitable, contested territory. On the yoga mat, I am just a soul, muscle, bone and breath.

There are so few spaces in which I can safely exist, away from the transfiguring stares of society. The pain of such compounded Otherness is overwhelming.

I know no language but that of the Coloniser.

Even though I am a singer, I do not have the vocal flexibility to hum my father’s favourite song, ‘Khabi Khabi’, nor any of the songs of my heritage. I cannot evoke an oral historical tradition like the sean-nós singers of Ireland. I have no history.

I have never seen anyone who looks like me, all of me, on television.


When I was a child, I refused to wear my splints. I wouldn’t do any of the leg exercises I was told to do by the nice lady at Cerebral Palsy Ireland. I didn’t want to be seen as anything but ‘normal’.

While the other children were doing PE outside in the playground, I preferred to stay alone in the classroom, finding solace in books. In them, I did not have to confront the limitations of clumsy, clunky flesh that would not work to my will. I did not have to face the disappointment of never being able to soar like the wind just by using my legs, to jump or climb a mountain.

I felt that my body was broken, an unfit vehicle for the size of my spirit. It could not possibly carry me through life, so I found my wings within a life of thoughts, rather than of sensations.

And then that, too, failed me. Through adolescence and young adulthood, it was all-too easy to access a fragmented universe of suffering.

Broken body, broken mind, broken spirit, dislocated from existence.


Perhaps the thing that started me back to wholeness, to reclaiming my body-being, was the sea.

I approached it first like a timid lover, wary of being annihilated by the power of the Other, swept up and lost in its depths or crushed to powdery shell. It took a while to learn to catch my breath after the shock of slamming into ice but, once immersed, I felt like a new-born baby: weightless, buoyant and effortlessly free. Here, in the water, my body could do whatever I wanted it to; I could walk; I could jump; I could almost run.

After the sea, it was sex. Raw, all-embracing sex that made me feel that my body could indeed climb mountains and fall from the precipice of them, floating back down to the land, thrumming with electricity.

And after sex, it was singing and the voice – roaring myself into being, roaring myself free – whether at protests with disabled and non-disabled comrades; or with my multicultural choir, singing in forty different languages, not truly understanding the words, but understanding everything that mattered.

My body was just a body like all others, unique in form and functionality.

And I practised being one with it every day, every morning, on the yoga mat.


Surya namaskar.

She does not understand the word

Will never know its origin

But right now, in this moment,

She is the word,

The whole word

Stretching to heaven