In Corsica, it's not just philosophers who understand the meaning of freedom

You won't find any theme parks or many other attractions to distract the kids. Just landscape. But then it's the absence of stuff that keeps Nick Coleman and his family coming back to this little piece of France in the middle of the Mediterranean
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The Independent Travel

The runaway train runs down the track, a sheer granite cliff face to the landward side, a precipice to seaward. The train is completely and utterly full. My daughter is clinging on to the driver's seat. There is nowhere else for her to go and nothing else to cling on to. I am holding on to her by her hair, a ginger bush which can be easily spliced with strong fingers. She peers over her shoulder at me, alarm playing across her features in tiny ripples. "Daddy, the driver's taken his hands off the steering wheel!"

I can't see where the driver's hands are, my nose being pressed into the back of a Corsican farmer's hat, but I feel confident enough in my limited understanding of how trains work to reassure her, sight unseen, that it isn't a steering wheel and that the track decides which direction the train goes in, not the driver. She doesn't seem very reassured by this. I can see why. The driver is a charming fellow, but he is all of 22 years old and doesn't appear to be paying much attention to where we're going at all. In fact, he has one foot up jauntily on his dashboard and is chatting away to the farmer's fat wife, who has been rammed up on to a bulkhead in the front corner of the train, slightly crumpled but safely wedged in there like a cardboard box with the corners caved in.

"Darling, don't worry," I bluff. "There's only a couple of stations to go. Hold on tight. The driver knows what he's doing. Trains never come off their tracks. Never. It's impossible, in fact." And as I deploy this palpable untruth, I reassure myself that while trains do come off their tracks, sometimes, it's usually when they're belting through English suburban stations at 70mph, not chuffing through the Corsican countryside at 20.

Corsica. It's a wonderful island. I've known this for a number of years now. But my family has only ever tackled the southern curve of its bashed-in coconut shape, never the top half, for reasons unknown and indeed unspeculated upon. So this time we were decisive: hell, let's go for it, eh kids? Let's exchange the windy heights of Bonifacio and the chic marina at Porto-Vecchio (there's a Prada shop there, you know) for the softer, greener climes of the northern edge; for Calvi, its fortified citadel and its weary Princess Margaret-y chic; for L'Ile Rousse and its small-town, peasant neo-glam; for the mountains which press down hard on the fringes of the coastal rim, growing straight out of, or so it seems, the thick, clinging, scratchy, overpoweringly herbal maquis which girdles the whole island like a heavy green comforter. Let's do it and hang the consequences. After all, it can't be any more expensive than the south and, you never know, the microclimates might be more clement.

Two practical issues stand tall for English tourists in the prospect of a stay on Corsica. One: it isn't cheap (not being cheap does not, however, always preclude agencies from putting you up in the Mediterranean equivalent of a potting shed). Two: the microclimates are something of a challenge. You can be up in the mountains pottering among the mighty boulders that churn every mountain stream into a magnificent froth, when the clouds descend and before you know it - strike a light! - you're bang-slap in the middle of a right pea-souper. So you hop in the car before the rain catches up with the cloud, belt down the mountainside - using the expansive view before you as a kind of weather-cum-route map - and head for the brightest spot you can see, where you will roast under a pitiless sun for the rest of the day undisturbed by pea-soupers or indeed hail and snow. It's meteorological kiss chase, and, to play the game well, you need to show real commitment.

We fancied a week's kiss chase but were keen to avoid potting sheds at all costs. So we booked with Simpson Travel, who certainly aren't cheap but are unquestionably the real deal. Maison Fornello looked good on paper. But the reality is better. Jacuzzi, steam bath, whirlpool bath, swimming pool. Huge sliding glass frontage and balcony with a view of a "private" bay. Simple but tasteful furniture on a cool expanse of tiled floor. Tiptop equipment levels. Uninterrupted five-minute passage through the maquis to a soft granite-gravel beach (no nasty sand to cloud the perfect water). Railway track running through the front garden. Frankly, things couldn't get any better.

There are only half a dozen trains a day, plus the occasional shunter out for an indolent puff, and the passengers always wave, even when they're falling out of the windows and doors in the competition for breathing space. There's a request stop 100 yards up the track from Fornello, so you check out the timetable in the villa then leg it up the rails in time for a loll among the lizards on the dusty platform before flagging the thing down as it chuffs up the gradient from L'Ile Rousse. You're in Calvi in three-quarters of an hour or thereabouts and the kids have been thrilled. Furthermore, the occasional incursion of a whiffy Sixties diesel into the front garden brings animation to a somnolent day; animation, stupendous noise and the sense that Corsica and the kinetic are not mutually alien concepts.

For one of the chief pleasures of the island is that it is a cultural void. Well, not a void exactly, but pretty much a cupboard-under-the-stairs. There's nothing much here, you see, apart from the extraordinarily perpendicular landscape (read Dorothy Carrington's fine Granite Island, and examine Edward Lear's drawings), the sea, the fishing, the locals (the ones who haven't legged it to the mainland to pursue 21st-century ambitions), and a modestly tenanted tourist industry. That's why we love it in our family. The absence of stuff. No Luna Parks, no giant inflatable bouncy chickens, just landscape; landscape and a whisper-quiet atmosphere of brooding malevolence, deriving perhaps from a combination of the Gothic topography, a long and blood-curdling tradition of social vendetta, and the bullet holes you see riddling every road sign not written in the local dialect. Which isn't the same thing as saying it is like Wales.

My children absolutely love it. The older one is seven and a bit of a nature boy. And if there is one thing he is articulate about in life it is how it feels not to be in Hackney.

"Dad," he says, wistfully snuggling into an armpit one night as we survey the sun setting in the general direction of Spain. "Dad, this is what it's like to be free, isn't it?" There is no useful answer to that, except to make a few solemn noises about how lucky we are to be able to come to places like this. But there is always the silent qualifying thought that follows: heavens, yes - how fortunate to be able to go to a place that not only has a swimming pool and a steam bath but actually makes you feel something.

The next morning I am attacked by 4,000 jellyfish in the bay. They have blown in on an overnight storm and are jostling like so many rubber ghosts to creep out the English guy as he stands quivering in his shorts on the shingle, a picture of abject fear and loathing. So we decide to explore the hinterland behind Fornello, which means legging it a few hundred yards in the opposite direction up the railway track, taking a sharp left through a thicket and dragging ourselves up a steep slope onto the coastal plateau, which is as magnificent in its brooding, broken way as any landscape of the soul imagined by Cormac McCarthy. Up there, against the background of the purple-grey mountains and, nearer at hand, a brake of Arizona-style cacti, we find a house built into the slope.

It's clearly been empty for half a decade. Doors hang off their hinges at crazy angles. Windows gape. Pink stone walls rise in a series of layers to a fourth-storey pinnacle - a single room with double doors and its own lookout balcony.

We fight our way down through a decaying tangle of a garden, ripping shins and arms as we go, mentally positioning our swimming pool, our shrubbery, our orange grove, our melon patch. We deconstruct the nasty stone wall surrounding the property and replace the busted-up tarmac driveway with granite gravel. We decide to leave the gatepost lamps just as they are. We look up at our new balcony overlooking the bay - the bridge of a ship, almost - and imagine ourselves watching the night come in, every night.

And by the time we've got our feet up on the balcony at Fornello, and taken six inches out of our umpteenth bottle of the local rosé, we've jacked the whole project in, on the grounds that it's always better to feel free.

GIVE ME THE FACTS

How to get there

The writer travelled as a guest of Simpson Travel (020-8392 5851; www.simpson travel.com), which offers seven nights at Maison Fornello in Corsica from £515 per person, based on six sharing. The price includes flights from Gatwick, self-catering accommodation and two air-conditioned cars.

Further information

Maison de la France (09068 244123/ calls cost 60p per minute; www.france guide.com). Dorothy Carrington's Granite Island is out of print but is available second-hand.

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