Along the coast of Corsica a little two-carriage train – known as to the locals u trinighellu (‘the trembler’) in the traditional language of the island – runs along a track that is over 100 years old.
The track was first laid – by hand, which explains its historic wobbliness – in the last twenty-two years of the nineteenth century. Up until four years ago, the trains themselves were lovely 1940s models – red and cream affairs that wouldn’t have looked out of place in the pages of Thomas the Tank Engine. They were replaced with less charming but supposedly more efficient versions in 2007 (much of the track was relaid at the same time) and these trains now trundle across the island from Bastia in the north, to Île Rousse, Calvi and Ajaccio on the west coast, via Corte and Ponte Leccia in its centre. In the low season, there are about four trains a day along the Ajaccio-Corte-Bastia stretch (connecting with about two between Bastia and Île Rousse and Calvi). This increases in the high season. The long east coast line was destroyed in the Second World War and has as yet never been replaced.
Rattling along in the sweltering heat between the little platform at Marine de Davia and the tourist town of Calvi, the ‘modern’ incarnation of the trembler certainly didn’t feel like luxury. At every stop, sunburnt tourists crammed on with beach mats and umbrellas, cool boxes and tents. The air was stifling and you’d have more chance of a seat on the 18:27 from Waterloo to Kingston. But the views through the dusty panoramic windows more than made up for the lack of comfort. As we rounded each bend, another perfect little jewel of coastline was revealed – deep blue waters contrasting vividly with the lush green of the vegetation, the occasional picturesque white boat bobbing on the waves, tiny fishing towns and the bigger beaches, usually with their attendant sprawling campsites.
The open doors at the stops brought welcome blasts of cooling sea breeze, pleasantly scented with the pine, rosemary and mint that are everywhere detectable in the this part of the lush island. We passengers were all in good spirits – laughing with each other in our different languages, offering seats where needed. And why wouldn’t we be?
After about forty minutes, we finally pulled up at the platform in the pretty town of Calvi (one of surely hundreds of towns that claim to be the birthplace of Christopher Columbus) – its buildings all in eye-pleasing peach and orange hues. The passengers poured – never have I used that expression more literally – off the train and onto the surrounding streets with their plethora of somewhat overpriced cafés and shops full of tourist tat.
Earlier in the week, I had walked along the tracks to pretty and popular Junquidou beach, further north towards Île Rousse – hopping off into the scrubby undergrowth as the train crept past at a snail’s pace, beeping cheerily as it went.
In fact, it struck me that exploring this part of Corsica entirely by train would provide a great opportunity to discover some smaller, less busy beaches – particularly at quieter times of the year. And the inland track offers a path into the beautiful, verdant, less touristy interior of the island, where the majority of the island’s produce is grown and locals go about their lives much as they always have done.
The trinighellu may not have quite the nostalgic charm of its youth, but it still rewards visitors prepared to put up with a little discomfort with a refreshingly different view of this gorgeous corner of the Mediterranean.