‘He’s picked out restaurants for us already – even knows what he’s going to order.” My friend was talking about an upcoming city break meticulously planned by her husband, and while I could see how poring over restaurant websites might enhance his anticipation of a much-needed holiday, it seemed to kill any idea of exploration, of coming upon something thrilling or unexpected.
So when I saw that Dutch company srprs.me, founded in 2014 in Amsterdam, was launching its “surprise” holiday concept in the UK last month, I was intrigued. The idea is that you choose a type of holiday – city break or backpacking trip – the dates and budget, and srprs.me picks the destination and books flights and accommodation. All you get beforehand is a weather forecast and what time to be at the airport.
I may not be as bad my mate’s chap, but, like many of us, I find it hard not to over-research holidays, using airline sites, Google maps, Tripadvisor and myriad other time-gobbling internet tools. Could going with the flow turn me into a more laid-back traveller?
Well, no. Once I had rough timings and the weather forecast, I couldn’t resist going online to try and second-guess srprs.me. I know that’s not really in the spirit of it, but I bet I’m not the only one. There was a thrill, though, in setting out for the unknown (well, Stansted) and, once there, using a scratchcard to reveal our destination. So we were going to … Porto, Portugal. Which was exciting, even though I had half-guessed it. Then the ping of a smartphone as our hotel voucher arrived. Ooh, looks nice.
It was weirdly disconcerting to be heading off armed not even with an outdated Lonely Planet guide, but hey, we had a place to stay, the forecast was sunny: how bad could it be?
Turned out it was very good indeed. Porto has more than its share of must-see attractions, but this unusual formula seemed to free us of any obligation to tick them off. Instead, we embraced spontaneity, staying away from travel websites, online reviews, even the Guardian’s own city guide to Porto.
This bright, breezy, hilly city certainly rewards the aimless wanderer. We developed a simple strategy: just make for the narrowest, darkest-looking alleyway. This always led us to something worth seeing: atmospherically crumbling tiled houses and churches, a brushmaker’s workshop, a corner bar seemingly unchanged since the 1950s …
So we didn’t make it to the Serralves art museum – the most-visited gallery in Portugal. But we enjoyed striking street art on many an ancient wall, and a fascinating contemporary craft emporium, Arte e Alma, in a street behind the Sé cathedral.
We didn’t take in a concert at Rem Koolhaas’s distinctive white concrete Casa da Música, but we enjoyed some great Brazilian buskers and stumbled on a Sunday afternoon fado session in a cellar bar near São João National Theatre, where a blowsy waitress brought us ice-cold Super Bock beers and locals took turns to stand up and sing to virtuoso guitar and mandolin accompaniment.
We set off for the beach, but never made it, getting waylaid at the fishing village of São Pedro da Afurada, on the south bank of the Douro, where low-key fish restaurants shared pavements with families barbecuing their own Sunday lunches. A bowl of octopus in olive oil with onion and herbs was so delicious – and generous – that we just ordered more beers and settled in.
We didn’t eat at any of Porto’s new wave of fine-dining restaurants, such as the feted Pedro Lemos. Our wanders yielded such a wealth of alluring bars – such as Base, on the roof of the Passeio dos Clérigos shopping centre – and hidden diners that there were not enough mealtimes to try them all. We particularly liked a Mozambican restaurant smelling of coconut and coriander, and a narrow bare-brick tasca with sumptuous wild boar stew, but I wouldn’t want to spoil anyone’s fun by trying to describe where they are.
With its warm sunshine tempered by Atlantic breezes – making walking a pleasure – and its low prices, Porto is well-suited to a seat-of-the-pants break. I did wonder how pleased we might have been with a weekend in a wetter, colder, more expensive city. But, as with this trip, maybe I would be pleasantly srprsed.
• The trip was provided by srprs.me, its three-night city breaks start at £130pp