A flight to the unknown

A flight to the unknown

A UCL student wins a trip of a lifetime. Here, he discusses the unforgettable experience. 

Many a student dreams of a spur of the moment, all expenses paid, getaway to an exotic beach location. Delusional? Too good to be true? Most figure that the fantasy is unfeasible. However, this summer, one intrepid UCL student achieved the impossible. He won a one of a kind competition, earning him and a fortunate friend the trip of a lifetime. The only catch: he wouldn’t know where he was going until he got there.

Recently, I had the opportunity, as Pi Media’s Travel Editor, to interview seasoned globetrotter and second year biotechnology student Jacopo Gabrielli, about his extraordinary adventure on the first ever ‘Flight to the Unknown’. The scheme was conceived by one of Europe’s fastest growing airlines, Hungarian low budget company Wizz Air, whose ‘Let’s Get Lost’ campaign is “aimed at encouraging people to embrace the unknown and live life to the fullest”.

The 90 lucky winners and their fortuitous friends received free flight tickets, two nights’ accommodation and travel insurance; all they had to finance themselves was spending money once in the destination. Before departure, all they knew was that they needed to be at London’s Luton Airport on the 2nd August, prepared to embark on a ‘Flight to the Unknown’.

Gabrielli discovered the scheme when a friend tagged him in a post on Wizz Air’s Instagram account; keen to throw his hat into the ring, his interest was instantly piqued. He told me, “A friend of mine tagged me in Wizz’s Instagram post in which they were announcing the competition, and she told me to try because I might have a chance of winning. I was interested right away.” In order to enter, contestants were judged on their own social media profiles, with the most creative, humorous, adventurous or exciting submissions earning a seat on the Flight to the Unknown.

Gabrielli tagged Wizz Air’s account in a picture from his Jailbreak experience around Europe earlier this year, during which he raised £1,000 for charity. Together with another UCL student, he had made it to Budapest in 36 hours spending no money, with 100% of all donated funds going towards PHAB and the Sickle Cell Society. Clearly no stranger to unconventional methods of travel, it is no surprise that Gabrielli’s application attracted Wizz Air’s attention.

Each of the lucky winners received two tickets, and Gabrielli, wanting to share the unforgettable experience, took a colleague he met at a laboratory where he was working at the beginning of summer. He told me, “It was definitely a surprise to find out that I’d won, and even more so for my friend who won a free trip out of the blue.” During the build-up to departure, they were given few hints about the surprise destination. They were informed that there would be an average temperature of 25-35°C, so, feeling optimistic, they packed accordingly, taking with them summery clothing and swimming attire, which Gabrielli described as a “sign of hope”.

At the airport, and for the majority of the flight, they remained clueless as to where they were going; the tickets, signposts and announcements gave little away, saying only ‘Mystery Flight’. Instead of the usual in-flight entertainment, Gabrielli and his companion spent the whole journey using a compass and an altimeter to track the flight, desperately attempting to guess their destination.

When the pilot announced that they were half an hour away from landing, the plane was turning southwest over Albania and the Adriatic. This was when they finally understood where they were heading: Gabrielli’s native Italy. When I asked him if this was a disappointment, he explained, “I wasn’t at all disappointed, because the city we visited was very far away from my town: eight hours by train. Also, I hadn’t been there in ten years, so I have no regrets.”

They disembarked in the southern city of Bari, a picturesque historic port in the region of Puglia, the largest urban area on the Adriatic. Much of Bari’s tourism comes from the Basilica di San Nicola, an important site of pilgrimage for Eastern European Catholics and Orthodox Christians. Part of the skeleton of Saint Nicholas (Father Christmas) can be found, and it is said that his bone fragments emit a liquid that possesses supernatural powers. Every year on Saint Nicholas’ feast day, the 6th December, the clergy of the Basilica collect a flask of the substance, which is available to purchase from the gift shop.

Gabrielli also told me that the trip reminded him of how much he missed Italian cuisine. Bari’s gastronomy is largely centred on its three main local products, wheat, olive oil and wine, complemented by its extensive selection of indigenous fruits and vegetables. For the travellers on the Flight to the Unknown, breakfast was included: a rich buffet that ranged from very traditional and classic southern Italian delicacies to a simple continental breakfast.

Upon arrival, they left their luggage in their hotel, a four-star establishment outside of the city centre, and took a train approximately thirty kilometres south to Polignano A Mare, a nearby coastal village, steeped in rich history, and settled atop of a 20-metre-high limestone cliff. In fact, due to the success of The Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series, Polignano A Mare is now “a regular stop for the cliff diving elite”, because its “turquoise cove creates a natural amphitheatre for the crowds who flock to watch the divers in action”. Once there, they discovered a secluded beach, and visited the Old Town, with its narrow whitewashed alleys and three panoramic terraces, each with a view of the Adriatic and its craggy ravines.

Keen to know more, I contacted Wizz Air for comment about the success of the scheme. A representative told me,“almost 5,000 people entered the competition, meaning that the flight could have been filled 26 times”. However, due to the challenging and somewhat daunting nature of the trip, only the most intrepid and outgoing of travellers applied for the experience. Because the selection process was based on social media images, all of Gabrielli’s fellow contestants were similarly interested in photography and art, as well as travel. Gabrielli explains that he met many interesting and like-minded people as a consequence, and will remain in contact with them.

Follow Gabrielli on Instagram for more insight into his global adventures. 

This article was originally published in Issue 721 of Pi Magazine