Story type: Essay
A LITTLE-KNOWN TOWN OF UNEARTHLY BEAUTY
Slowly, reluctantly (rather like a vers libre poem) the quaint little train comes to a stand. Along the station platform each of the fiacre drivers seizes a large dinner-bell and tries to outring the others. You step from the railway carriage–and instantly the hellish din of those droschky bells faints into a dim, far-away tolling. Your eye has caught the superb sweep of the Casa Grande beetling on its crag. Over the sapphire canal where the old men are fishing for sprats, above the rugged scarp where the blue-bloused ouvriers are quarrying the famous champagne cheese, you see the Gothic transept of the Palazzio Ginricci, dour against a nacre sky. An involuntary tremolo eddies down your spinal marrow. The Gin Palace, you murmur…. At last you are in Strychnine.
Unnoted by Baedeker, unsung by poets, unrhapsodied by press agents–there lurks the little town of Strychnine in that far and untravelled corner where France, Russia, and Liberia meet in an unedifying Zollverein. The strychnine baths have long been famous among physicians, but the usual ruddy tourist knows them not. The sorrowful ennui of a ten-hour journey on the B.V.D. Chemise de fer (with innumerable examinations of luggage), while it has kept out the contraband Swiss cheese which is so strictly interdicted, has also kept away the rich and garrulous tourist. But he who will endure to the end that tortuous journey among flat fields of rye and parsimony, will find himself well rewarded. The long tunnel through Mondragone ends at length, and you find yourself on the platform with the droschky bells clanging in your ears and the ineffable majesty of the Casa Grande crag soaring behind the jade canal.
The air was chill, and I buttoned my surtout tightly as I stepped into the curious seven-wheeled sforza lettered Hotel Decameron. We rumbled andante espressivo over the hexagonal cobbles of the Chaussee d’Arsenic, crossed the mauve canal and bent under the hanging cliffs of the cheese quarries. I could see the fishwives carrying great trays of lampreys and lambrequins toward the fish market. It is curious what quaintly assorted impressions one receives in the first few minutes in a strange place. I remember noticing a sausage kiosk in the markt-platz where a man in a white coat was busily selling hot icons. They are delivered fresh every hour from the Casa Grande (the great cheese cathedral) on the cliff.
The Hotel Decameron is named after Boccaccio, who was once a bartender there. It stands in a commanding position on the Place Nouveau Riche overlooking the Casino and the odalisk erected by Edward VII in memory of his cure. After two weeks of the strychnine baths the merry monarch is said to have called for a corncob pipe and a plate of onions, after which he made his escape by walking over the forest track to the French frontier, although previous to this he had not walked a kilometer without a cane since John Bull won the Cowes regatta. The haut ton of the section in which the Hotel Decameron finds itself can readily be seen by the fact that the campanile of the Duke of Marmalade fronts on the rue Sauterne, just across from the barroom of the Hotel. The antiquaries say there is an underground corridor between the two.
The fascinations of a stay in Strychnine are manifold. I have a weak heart, so I did not try the baths, although I used to linger on the terrace of the Casino about sunset to hear Tinpanni’s band and eat a bronze bowl of Kerosini’s gooseberry fool. I spent a great deal of my time exploring the chief glory of the town, the Casa Grande, which stands on the colossal crag honeycombed underneath with the shafts and vaults of the cheese mine. There is nothing in the world more entrancing than to stand (with a vinaigrette at one’s nose) on the ramp of the Casa, looking down over the ochre canal, listening to the hoarse shouts of the workmen as they toil with pick and shovel, laying bare some particularly rich lode of the pale, citron-coloured cheese which will some day make Strychnine a place of pelerinage for all the world. Pay homage to the fromage is a rough translation of the motto of the town, which is carved in old Gothic letters on the apse of the Casa itself. Limberg, Gruyere, Alkmaar, Neufchatel, Camembert and Hoboken–all these famous cheeses will some day pale into whey before the puissance of the Strychnine curd. I was signally honoured by an express invitation of the burgomaster to be present at a meeting of the Cheesemongers’ Guild at the Rathaus. The Kurdmeister, who is elected annually by the town council, spoke most eloquently on the future of the cheese industry, and a curious rite was performed. Before the entrance of the ceremonial cheese, which is cut by the Kurdmeister himself, all those present donned oxygen masks similar to those devised by the English to combat the German poison-gas. And I learned that oxygen helmets are worn by the workmen in the quarries to prevent prostration.
It was with unfeigned regret that I found my fortnight over. I would gladly have lingered in the medieval cloisters of the Gin Palace, and sat for many mornings under the pistachio trees on the terrace sipping my verre of native wine. But duties recalled me to the beaten paths of travel, and once more I drove in the old-fashioned ambulance to catch my even more old-fashioned train. The B.V.D. trains only leave Strychnine when there is a stern wind, as otherwise the pungent fumes of the cheese carried in the luggage van are very obnoxious to the passengers. Some day some American efficiency expert will visit the town and teach them to couple their luggage van on to the rear of the train. But till then Strychnine will be to me, and to every other traveller who may chance that way, a fragrant memory.
And as you enter the tunnel, the last thing you see is the onyx canal and the old women fishing for lambrequins and palfreys.