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Sunday, June 13, 2010

Bastia to Ajaccio

"Un train déraille : 2 morts et 22 blessés" (A train derails: 2 dead and 22 injured)

This was the headline that greeted me when I went to the Corsica Train website to plan my travel from Bastia to Ajaccio. It wasn't until the second paragraph that the article said it was referring to an evacuation exercise held on the 11th of May, 2010. As I read further down the website, I noticed that buses were replacing trains because certain trains were experiencing technical incidents. Uh oh. Will this be a safe way to travel? But I didn't have much choice. I had already paid for a hotel in Ajaccio and there is no other way to get there.

I show up at the train station early on Sunday morning. There is only one train today from Bastia to Ajaccio so I'd better not miss it. Looking at the map I see that we'll be crossing over a high mountain pass before descending into Ajaccio on the other side of this mountainous island.

Hiking boots, backpacks, sleeping bags: the vast majority of train passengers are outfitted for a multiday trek. We get to Ponte Leccia and there is a brief panic as the multinational passengers try to figure out if they have to stay on this train or get off and change. Finally a conductor boards and confirms that those of us going to Ajaccio can stay here, while the Germans sitting next to me scramble to get off with their heavy backpacks.

Soon we start to climb and the ancient diesel engine grumbles in protest, erupting often with angry bursts of steam. The wheels shriek around each turn. Are these tracks as rusty as they sound? I'm reminded of how a steam engine might have sounded a 100 years ago, the sound even more deafening as we pass through numerous tunnels.

Most of the backpackers get off at Corte, common starting point for those accessing a hut system in the high mountain passes. The highest peak, reaching 8,800 feet has glaciers below the toothed ridges of its summit. And the train continues to climb. The scenery is more and more stunning, as we cross over narrow bridges, the ground dropping into a breathtaking chasm that reminds me of the royal gorge. The chestnut trees give way to pines and the air is noticeably cooler when we reach Vizzanova at 3800 feet.

The scenery is beautiful, but the train makes me nervous. I wish I had someone to comfort. I am usually the calm one in a crisis, my ability to comfort others masking or assuaging my own fear. But I suddenly realize that I feel alone. I wish I had someone to comfort me - to hold my hand through the scary twists and turns.

As we descend towards sea level, leaving the wild mountaintops behind; the train no longer protests. And like a horse remembering the barn that awaits, it picks up speed and quiets down. No more shrieking protest around steep curves. There are new reminders of civilization and I laugh at myself and my irrational fears. Of course the train is the safest way to travel. What was I thinking?

p.s. you can check out the Corsica train site for yourself at: www.train-corse.com

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