by Emma Thomson, The Telegraph, March 22, 2018
We’ve all fantasised about it – turning up at the airport and sliding our passport, James Bond-style, across the desk and announcing: “Put me on the next plane out of here.” Dutch newcomer srprs.me (aka Surprise Me) now makes it a reality.
Provide them with some dates, a preferred departure airport, and accommodation budget, and they’ll book you a city break to a mystery European destination – and soon worldwide trips too. If you want to exercise a little more control, you can pick the general direction – eastern, western, northern or southern Europe – and add-ons such as a transfer for an extra fee.
It’s a concept that’ll have some travellers grabbing their passport with glee; it’ll send others into a tailspin. Why? Because time off work is precious, so we put added pressure on ourselves to make holidays perfect. Using the likes of TripAdvisor, guidebooks, our collection of tagged Instagram photos – and, of course, telegraph.co.uk/travel – we plan every meal, museum and minute detail in an effort to squeeze maximum joy into a trip. But where’s the sense in that if the stress diminishes the sheen? We’re always told unplanned moments make for the best memories. So I’d signed up to see if the adage was true.
A week before I was due to leave, a weather forecast was posted on my personal srprs.me webpage, so I knew what to pack – whether to switch the swimming costume for snow boots. Next, I received in the mail a hand-written Post-it note telling me what time I needed to be at the airport and – for the moment I wanted the surprise to be revealed – a scratch card with a unique code that when entered online would reveal my mystery destination.
A few days later, as instructed, I arrived at the terminal bright and early. Faces clenched with purpose swarmed around me; their two-wheeled suitcases trailing behind them like well-trained dogs. I, on the other hand, was shouldering only a carry-on backpack and still didn’t have a clue where I was going. The spontaneity was exhilarating. Instinctively, I scanned the departures board, scrolling through the list – Copenhagen, Porto, Barcelona, Geneva, Budapest, Prague – and teasing myself with the possibilities.
The time had come. I scratched off the silver on my card to reveal four digits, flipped open my iPad and tapped in the code. “You’re going to…” read the webpage, pausing dramatically, “Madrid, Spain!” Confetti jettisoned across the screen in celebration. An email followed that directed me to the correct check-in desk and included details of my hotel. The strangeness didn’t hit me until I landed. My driver, Diego, bundled me into his taxi and I found myself fumbling for Spanish phrases.
The transition from one country to another was so seamless and quick that it felt surreal. Diego deposited me outside boutique hotel Barceló Torre de Madrid, right in the centre of the city. Housed in an iconic white tower – once the world’s tallest – it’s a sleek mishmash of chrome and candy pink wallpaper conceived by Spanish designer Jaime Hayon. In the lobby towered a zebra-striped bear wearing a top hat. I stepped out onto my balcony and surveyed the rush of the city below and made the decision to continue the “surprise” theme by seeking out the city’s lesser-known sites.
“Where do you like to eat at weekends?” I asked Sonia, the hotel PR manager. “Avoid the tourist-pleasing tapas restaurants along Gran Via. Go here,” she said, pointing to a square on the map. “The rooftop gin-and-tonic bar has great views of Madrid.” So I ducked into the backstreets to find Mercado de San Antón – a three-tiered covered market in the gay Chueca district. The whiff of cured meats wrinkled my nose. Around a dozen stalls were plating up palate-tempting morsels of Serrano ham, Manchego cheese, and curly octopus.
It was too early for gin, so I hoisted myself on to a stool propped beside a fish bar. “Seis ostras (oysters), por favour.” I slurped them down and followed up with a few slices of baguette layered with chorizo paste and fresh tomatoes. I asked the vendor for any recommendations for something unusual to see. He rubbed his hands on his apron. “Instead of Catedral de la Almudena, go see San Antonio de los Alemanes,” he replied.
A few streets over, I located the 17th-century church dedicated to St Anthony of Padua, devotee to the sick and poor. It sat on a quiet corner, surrounded by greengrocers. The plain brick exterior looked unpromising, but inside was a frenzy of frescoes rising all the way up to an oval ceiling of blue sky crowded with cherubs.
I sat on one of the outer wooden pews and craned my head back, taking in the sumptuous folds of red and blue cloth against Padua’s modest brown hessian robes. An old woman entered the quiet, bobbed in deference, crossed herself and joined me on the pew. This was far more authentic than the pomp and might of the cathedral.
Heading south, I stopped by CaixaForum, a cultural centre inside a once-abandoned electricity station. But I was feeling too stingy to pay to see the Warhol exhibit so wandered on. Down a side street, I noticed a plaque on the wall: Casa Museo Lope de Vega, it read. I stepped over the threshold to find a spectacled, suited man sitting quietly behind a glass panel. He beckoned for me to enter via the door. “Just wondering how much a tour is?” I asked. “You’re in luck, they’re free and there’s one starting in 10 minutes,” he beamed.
Félix Lope de Vega was a Baroque superstar novelist, second only to Cervantes. “A serial seducer who became a priest,” explained our guide, Alex, “he lived in this house for the last 25 years of his life.” The time-warped wooden stairs creaked as we ascended to the second floor.
“Back then, this was not the centre of Madrid but a bohemian theatre area and at the end of the street was Basilica de Nuestro Padre Jesús de Medinaceli, a Roman Catholic Church,” he continued. “Actresses used to go to mass there, and the men went to see the women,” he laughed. We enter the library where modest rows of moth-eaten tombs lean against each other behind a heavy wooden desk.
“These are just a fraction of the 1,500 books de Vega owned. And these paintings are on loan from the Prado Museum.” On the desk rested a quill in an inkwell, poised as if he’d just left the room. On the third floor was the nursery. “De Vega had 17 children; 11 died before they reached the age of six,” said Alex, letting the sadness of the statement sink in. Spread out on the faded sheets of the cot was a blue-ribbon belt strung with amulets. “They would tie it around the child’s waist to keep them safe – bells to ward off bad spirits, a badger’s paw to avoid curses, the fang of a deer and rare red coral for luck.”
After dinner, I needed to keep pace with the Madrid nightlife. “Want to see some really good flamenco?” asked Sonia back at the hotel. I winced. “It’s not cliché, trust me,” she replied. So I found myself outside the lantern-lit entrance of Corral de la Moreria. This wasn’t off the beaten track, but I was encouraged by the modest arrangement of tables and chairs around a small wooden stage. The lights dimmed. A man clad in high-waisted trousers took to the boards, his hair slicked back, his brow furrowed with passion. Two guitarists, their instruments resting on their crossed legs, struck a few chords and the dancer’s feet began to stomp.
A trio of black-shirted singers standing behind him clapped their hands, goading the man to go faster. His stamping feet raced quick as a heartbeat. Beads of sweat jewelled on his forehead. With each complex footstep, he drew cries of “Ole!” from the crowd. Then, with a flirtatious glint in his eye, he undid his hair-tie and let his shoulder-length grey tresses, slick with sweat, fly, drawing his feet to a sudden stop and rounds of applause from the audience. My heart was pounding.
A woman seated next to me leaned over. “Is this your first time seeing flamenco?” I nodded. “You’re very lucky. That’s Antonio Canales, one of the world’s most famous dancers. A real maestro! He rarely dances here,” she smiled, pointing to the man bowing on stage.
It turns out that leaving things to chance can yield greater rewards than a holiday planned to the hilt. Relinquishing control removes the pressure of making a wrong choice regarding hotel or destination and that, in turn, hands out a refreshing dose of freedom. I’d been worried that by throwing convention out of the window and arriving without a list of things to see and do I would wander aimlessly, but the enforced spontaneity opened up experiences I might not otherwise have tried. Planning things on the hoof had been invigorating. Would I do it again? Without a doubt.
Emma Thomson travelled with srprs.me (srprs.me), which offers surprise city breaks at budget level from £80pp, or luxury level from £500pp for three nights. The luxury theme is bookable from April 11 2018.