Travelling with Srprs.me
I’d decided around Easter time that I wanted to go away for a city break in Europe on my own some time soon. I’d been doing a lot of introspective thinking/searching/pondering, while and after reading Beth Kempton’s Freedom Seeker (highly recommend it, by the way). And I’d realised that I’d never gone on holiday on my own. Not that I’ve been on holiday loads of times, really. I’d travelled on my own, but not for holidays as such, or to meet up with/stay with someone at the other end of the journey. Mostly, in recent years, I’d only been on holiday with Chris and the girls (and, in fact, a few times with Chris’s parents, which has a lot of benefits!).
I’ve always thought of myself as a traveller and a soaker up of other cultures and languages – we lived in Spain for just over a year when I was 10, which was an amazing experience, my mum and I travelled a fair bit in Europe going to Esperanto congresses before that and I did some hitch-hiking round France with my then boyfriend just before starting uni, and then spent a year living in France as part of my degree. I also visited a friend in Madrid a few times and Chris and I honeymooned in Paris and spent a week in Copenhagen. Since the kids, understandably (money, time, complexities of travelling with small children, and the added complication of not driving which makes it more of a hassle to get to airports, and impossible to drive ourselves), we’ve not managed masses of travel, but have done a few week-long trips to France with Chris’s parents (all of which have been brilliant).
Anyway, one of the things that kept coming up when I was reading through Freedom Seeker, was the fact that I felt I missed travel, but especially spontaneous travel, where I just go with the flow, rather than plan everything. (Chris is a planner, so this isn’t the kind of travelling he embraces.) Since I’d not done this kind of travelling in decades, I realised that it might just be a case of searching back into the past for some kind of happiness that I wasn’t getting now and not necessarily something that would still appeal to me, so I needed to try it out, just once.
Only, I couldn’t settle on where to go! I looked at all the cheap flights from Bristol and Birmingham (the easiest airports for me to get to) and then I looked up hotel rooms in some of those cities and I’d settle on one and then read a bit more about it and find a reason to not go there (Perpignan sounded perfect but apparently is a hotbed of the Front National – almost certainly wouldn’t have affected me, but caused me concerns; Greece looked great but was it a positive or a negative thing to be going there as a tourist at the moment – I couldn’t quite be sure; Eastern Europe looked interesting, but would I be able to eat?).
Then I read this article in the Guardian and BAM! I had my answer. You can just pick your dates and say what type of holiday you want (city break or back-packing; hotel or hostel; with a few other small parameters) and they would book it for you. You find out where you’re going at the airport, and just get a weather report a week before and a time to arrive. (You do actually get a package with a scratchcard and an envelope in, the latter of which contains your boarding passes, so you could look before the airport.) I’d booked mine within a few weeks of reading the article. And then had about a month to wait to see where I would go.
I shared with friends and family on Facebook (and in person) that I was doing this and had an overwhelming positive response with many of them seemingly almost as excited as me! A few people didn’t understand my desire to go alone, which I get. It turns out that actually most people haven’t gone on holiday on their own and many thought it was a brave thing (and some a crazy thing) to do, but especially alone into the unknown. Oddly, I didn’t feel especially brave – though I did feel proud at making the decision to do it. It felt like something I really really needed to do, and therefore that negated the bravery element for me.
The weather report came and showed it would be pretty warm (low of 22°C and high of 33°C, and either sunny or cloudy), so I was able to pack very light. I wore one dress and packed another, plus underwear and a nightie (tip – if you’re going somewhere hot, pack twice as much underwear, if you don’t want to be washing it in the hotel sink!) and wore canvas shoes (another tip – sandals would be much better for hot weather) and a cardigan. I took an umbrella in case of rain and didn’t bother with a coat or jacket – which was right, though when I stepped off the plane on the way home I might have appreciated a jacket). I took one book, two small sketchbooks, my pencil case and travel watercolour set. And I took my Surface, as it doesn’t weight too much (probably didn’t need that, but it was handy for doing a bit of writing on, checking into an art class I’m currently doing that I can’t access from my phone, and watching Netflix when I got fed up of dubbed American sitcoms). All in a medium-sized rucksack that would fit in the overhead lockers on the plane and avoid waiting for (and paying extra for) a suitcase.
On the train I chatted to a lady I was sat next to about what I was doing and she also said she thought it was very brave (somewhat a consensus there, so maybe I’ll be persuaded that it was!). I was starting to get more excited, but I wasn’t going to feel it properly until I knew my destination.
I waited until I was at the airport to rub off the scratch card and find out where I was going (and I have to admit to hiding in the loos to do so, which is a bit ridiculous and I won’t do that next time!). When I found out where I was going a laughed out loud. I would never in a million years have booked it myself, though I love the country (I’m not mentioning where it was in this bit, because Srprs.me like to keep the destinations secret, to avoid too much guessing on the part of future travellers – you can scroll down and find out if you really want to). It’s in an area that I associate with the kind of British holidayer (and expat) that I disassociate myself with (the ones who spend lots of time not attempting to speak the language and eating in restaurants run by other Brits so they don’t have to eat the local food, and drinking in pubs run by other Brits, so they can get proper pints and who care mostly about the sun). To be honest I’m almost certainly jumping to far too many negative conclusions there, but that’s why I would never have booked a holiday in that area.
But then I looked it up a bit before I had to go into airplane mode and it looked perfect for me! Lots of museums and art galleries. An amazing historical section with lots and lots of teeny tiny streets (my absolute favourite thing to do in cities is to wander in those kinds of streets). And the sea for an added bonus. Plus, it had the benefit of being somewhere where I’m reasonably comfortable speaking the language (because I hate just going in with English first and acting superior enough to assume that everyone will of course speak English – I had a phrase book my mum leant me with multiple European languages in, and had downloaded the Translator app on my phone, ready to download a language as soon as I knew where I was going (and hoping there would be wifi in the airport), but I didn’t need it.
The flight was somewhat delayed so I didn’t get out of the airport until the early evening. Getting into town was easy enough – walked out of the airport to find a bus going into the city (and made the driver grumpy by giving him a 20 Euro note). My mobile service provider (GiffGaff) has total roaming parity in the EU (hmm, guessing that might not last), so I could use my data, minutes and texts (and calls and texts to Chris and Rosemary are free as they’re on GiffGaff too) and so I used the map app to make sure I was going the right way and manage to get off the bus almost exactly next to my hotel (on a parallel street). (Turns out there was also a train and the train station was about 2 minutes’ walk from the hotel, so I used that on the way back, but it was nice to get the bus in as you see different things that way.)
The hotel was great. It was a very big hotel, with a good sized (double) room and great bathroom, large TV, desk and table. Srprs.me had booked me in for breakfast as a special extra, which I think was probably a good thing, given the issues I had with finding food I could eat. The young lady (who I think was in training) who booked me in had the same name as me and we had a little chat about whether it was an English name, Spanish name or Russian name – it’s clearly a Russian name, but then she thought I spoke Russian, which I don’t. There were no issues whatsoever booking in (Srprs.me had emailed the hotel voucher as soon as I entered my scratchcard code) and everything worked brilliantly. Couldn’t fault it at all.
And now I’m going to leave this for another three blog posts about the whole journey, focusing on different elements – holidaying solo, visiting [the city where I went – Srprs.me like to keep this secret, so don’t read that post if you want to retain this secrecy] and travelling while vegetarian.