We were hurtling down the Grand Canal to the Westin Europa & Regina hotel in a water taxi with its small flag of Italy whipping in the wind. I wondered if the driver can go any faster because it’s well past noon, lunch was awaiting, and travel has a way of stirring up my appetite. As we breezed past the Doge’s Palace, romantic in its light pink marble and white limestone walls, and the Santa Maria della Salute loomed closer it finally sank in: Venice! My initial priorities were misplaced, forget speeding up, everything needed to slow in pace so we, my travelmates and I, could take in this old, inimitable floating city.
In two days we crossed countless bridges (of which in total there are 400 of them) and wove through tight alleyways, in rain and shine, to seek out the whispered secrets of Venice. Visits to 19th century private gardens tucked behind canals, the sight of abundant laundry fluttering on clotheslines that connected buildings in the narrow Castello streets and treading on elevated pathways diligently set out for aqua alto (high tide) were just some of what we experienced. Already it’s a different adventure to my last visit to Venice, just how much more to the city is there?
I was on a press trip hosted by Westin Europa & Regina to experience two tours they offer hotel guests: personal food shopper & secret gardens tour. Joined by Edd Kimber, Giulia Mule and Kit Lee we peeked into a more intimate side to Venice.
Where to eat in venice
Venice is not generally known for its cuisine. In reputation cicchetti is more like the poor cousin to Spanish tapas, both served bite sized on top of a small piece of bread. But when guided by those in the know one can eat happily and heartily, we certainly did! 1. Osteria Bancogiro, Campo San Giacometto, 122, 30125 Rialto
We were drying off from the intermittent rain during the Westin food shopper tour in this small restaurant/bar situated in the square that once was the financial center of Venice in the 1500s. Our local guide led us to the small selection of cicchetti lined in a glass case ready for immediate gratification. Black squid ink polenta topped with a whipped baccalà mantecato (dried cod) and curry coated shrimp looked too interesting to not order. Dense, creamy and lightly colored with curry, I consumed quickly and wondered how soon was too soon to order another without drawing attention to my wolfish tendencies.
2. Cantine del Vino Gia Sciavi, Fondamenta Nani, 992, Dorsoduro
In contrast to Osteria Bancogiro, this bacari serves the more traditional of Venetian fare and offers a good selection to choose from. Baccalà mantecato on bread comes topped with salmon roe, another comes with sliced egg on bread with marinated mushroom and a hint of truffle oil, and then there’s the octopus on with greens on bread. It’s cicchetti heaven in here. There is no seating available so be prepared to stand while devouring the small treats. It’s so good, you really won’t mind.
The views available are also a treat in itself, on the one side you can catch a lively San Giacometto Square, on the other is that of a canal.
3. Enoiteca Mascareta, Calle Lunga Santa Maria Formosa, 5183, Sestiere
Here you’ll encounter an unusual collector of sorts who is usually in a bow tie and dons different colored All Star shoes. Mauro Lorenzon is the endearing proprietor of Enoiteca Mascareta, a restaurant and wine bar that is often fully booked. It’s not just the food you go for – though I found their light baccalà mantecato extra decadent – it’s the ambience that will leave you with the fondest memories. Before I even understood why, I took Mauro’s lead and pressed my ears to the open mouth of my wine glass, the better to hear the soft secrets it was whispering I assume? When the bowl of mussels arrived we ditched the forks and picked the meat from the shell of another mussel as advised by Mauro. “This is the Venetian way,” he said.
One wall is lined with bottles of wine, another hangs different sketches of Mauro along with a small collection of hanging bow ties while the bar area boasts a row of his ongoing gin collection. Booking ahead for dinner is strongly advised.
Shopping in Venice
I rarely shop when I travel but even I couldn’t resist picking up a few treats along the way during the four hour Westin food shopper tour. Our local food expert led us to some of her favorite shops and market stalls while offering color into Venetian life. It was at Enoteca Mascari where we crammed into the small shop that boasts over 1,000 bottles of wines, of which 600 originates from Italy, spices, chocolates, biscuits and specialty local jams. The subtly sweet quince mustard (mostarda) she introduced us to was the perfect partner to the chunk of friulano cheese I greedily bought from Casa del Parmigiano initially to share with the Brit but devoured on my own within a day.
What to see: Venetian secret gardens
Did you know there are over 500 gardens in Venice? Most of them are private, hidden behind the gates of palazzos, which seems a shame since the micro climate of the city makes it particularly conducive to successfully growing plant-life. Our Westin secret gardens tour was led by Mariagrazia Dammico, author of Venetian Gardens. She held the golden key for our access to two private gardens that afternoon: the Palazzo Nani Bernando and Fortuny showroom in Guidecca.
A typical Westin secret garden tour would take guests to 2-3 garden visits depending on the pace of the guests and their preferences. We visited two gardens at a very leisurely place by foot and via water taxi. The rain also slowed us a down a little bit but did not dampen our spirits!
Where to stay in Venice
Westin Europa & Regina, San Marco 2159 · Venice, 30124
I couldn’t help but be entranced by the elegance and grandness of the Westin Europa & Regina hotel, even for someone who typically prefers smaller boutiques. For two mornings, I woke up to the hums of canal life and a view of the Santa Maria della Salute that always inevitably led to a sigh. It’s a charmed life here in room #110.
If their trademarked bed wasn’t so comfortable I would have loved to get up early and try the Westin gear lending program where for just £5 for the duration of your hotel stay, you can rent New Balance workout garments & sneakers to exercise in! I love the sound of this program since packing sneakers always takes up so much luggage space. But while I didn’t get to take advantage of their other offering I made up for with the delights of room service.
Note: I was a guest of the Westin Europa & Regina hotel. All views are my own.