'All atremble to the end of the line'
The Weekend Australian 4 Feb 2012

Jolts and judders on a tiny train in Corsica by Kerrin O'Sullivan

In mid-transaction, while purchasing a ticket for Corsica's u trinighellu, or the Trembler, at Calvi's sleepy peach-hued railway station, the bench behind the grille dismantles in pieces on to the ticket-seller. Helpless to intervene I peer through the bars as the peak-capped chap dives to catch a sliding laptop, dropping not only the EFTPOS machine, but a few choice French expletives in the process.

Airborne pens, whirling paperclips and spinning pencils lend the moment a circus feel. As an omen it's quite prophetic; this little bone-shaker of a train isn't nicknamed the Trembler for nothing. Taking fifty minutes, this classic rail journey on the rickety Tramway de la Balagne trundles passengers from Calvi to Ile Rousse and back each day. The two-car train offers a lifeline that links the isolated coves and villages of Corsica's ruggedly spectacular Balagne coastline.

Ticket in hand and order restored, I wait for the carriage door to crank open and the little train to shudder into action. Seated opposite me is a Welsh train enthusiast whose daughter has brought him to Corsica for his 80th. His birthday wish? To ride this train.

Our carriage windows, daubed with sea salt and dust, frame Calvi's medieval citadel and palm-lined marina. The ticket inspector, satchel strapped over one shoulder, squeezes between backpacks and dodges baguettes poking from baskets. The Orient Express this is not, but that only adds to its charm. As conversation replaces the static crackle of the radio, stories trickle out. He talks of childhood summers, the Depression, of serving on an island off Borneo in a world at war. When Ol' Blue Eyes purrs "It was a very good year", I join in with gusto, vanquishing the lump in my throat.

We chug past bronzed sunbathers on citrus-striped lounges under 1960's lollipop umbrellas. Beyond the beach, the blue Ligurian Sea sparkles. Glimpsing evocatively named stations such as Lido and Tennis Club, we jolt onwards past terraced cafes where bikini-clad diners are sipping glasses of chilled rose. One such sun-drenched restaurant is named Le Bout du Monde; if this is the end of the world, then things are looking up. Inland of the track, the granite massif rises, slicing Corsica in two - and it's no surprise this French island is nicknamed the Mountain in the Sea. Wild reaches of aromatic vegetation - rosemary, thyme, mint, sage, juniper and myrtle - stretch to the chestnut-covered slopes of towering Capo d'Occi.

Not all of the tiny stations are named, adding to the mystery. Only the locals are in the know and one, waiting at a crossing of Lego-like boom-gates, waves u trinighellu on its way. Long-haired Corse goats gawp at us trackside, and javelin-needled cacti dot the arid landscape. Every so often an ancient watchtower or crumbling fortress appears, then vanishes around a bend.

From Sant Ambroggio we shake our way to Algajola, where the lovely shell-pink station house displays its name in bold black letters. As we edge up a gentle incline, the train-loving birthday bloke claps his approval, "It's the little engine that could!" he laughs. We press on. At Marine de Davia, waves hurl themselves half-heartedly on to lumps of limestone. As we near the legendary scorched russet rocks of Ile-Rousse, the train gets a sniff of the finish line, working up a teeth-chattering vibration. A long toot heralds our arrival.

"Just a few shudders and shakes," says the Welsh octogenarian.

"Nothing a good Corsican chiropractor couldn't fix," jokes his daughter.

We disembark and look towards the Riviera-style promenade where petanque is being played in the shade of Place Paoli's plane trees. Beyond the stone-walled harbour, the bright yellow bulk of the Corsica-Sardinia ferry is slipping into dock. The train driver, suntanned and sporting aviator shades, sprints off and returns juggling parcels from the postmaster to stack in the driver's cabin. There's a thirteen minute wait before the return to Calvi, and u trinighellu's engine softly quivers.

The dilemma is whether to stay awhile amid Ile-Rousse's old quarter cafes or depart on the Trembler's final trip of the day.

The judders and jolts win; I bag a seat on the seaward side to savour it all again - in reverse. Besides, I can't help wondering if the Calvi ticket counter is back in one piece.

© 2012 Kerrin O’Sullivan