Italy is not quite itself. As we climb the Dolomites from Venice, snaking our way up precipitous mountain passes and through tranquil towns, their verges blanketed in spring greenery, it's apparent that something strange is afoot. Where are the hectic piazzas and the ramshackle houses? Where is the laundry strung from windows like jaunty flags; the dashing Romeos preening on scooters; the old men sitting out the front of bars, smoking, drinking, gesticulating and arguing as the passing cars kick up whorls of dust? Where, in short, is the chaotically joyous sturm und drang we foreigners so fondly attribute to Italian life?
Given the bracing crispness of the air, it's not such a stretch to imagine these slopes and valleys covered in snow and the colourful hiking gear replaced by equally vivid ski outfits. Winter is by far the most popular season here, and even in spring there is the ever-present hint of frost in the air and patches of ice at the top of the higher peaks.
It becomes apparent why so few of San Cassiano's inhabitants ever permanently leave the village. Hugo drives us to the nearby town of Armentarola to meet his cousin, Stefan Wieser, who runs another Michelin-starred enterprise, La Siriola restaurant. After Champagne on the terrace, we repair downstairs to a romantically lit cavern for a lavish multi-course dinner prepared by a precocious young Sardinian chef, Claudio Melis. We taste regional dishes such as mountain hay soup with speck-wrapped char, reindeer ravioli with truffled butter, and potato dumplings with porcini mushrooms.