In praise of nudity: The nudist beaches of Central and Eastern Europe
They lie on towels, blankets and mattresses, without wind screens, but under umbrellas.
Deep in thought, they stand up to their knees in the water. Some build sandcastles and collect shells. Others play cards, backgammon, volleyball or badminton. Some are reading. They rub themselves with oils and are damp from the water or bone dry from the sun. The old and middle-aged, young people and children. They nibble on sunflower seeds, slice up watermelon and drink beer. They don’t look at each other. They lie beyond a rock, behind a bush or just past the tributary of the river. The other side of some unspoken border.
For now, I just observe them. In order to join them, I have to meet one condition: I must take off my clothes! But I don’t have the nerve.
A run-in with nakedness
My tummy’s too big and I’ve got cellulitis and uneven breasts. My swimming costume gives me a sense of security. So I sit on my towel and, from behind the scrawny bushes, I follow the movements of people who don’t bother to suntan their clothes. I lie in wait for the first people to leave the naked zone. I still believe I will get away with writing this article fully-clothed.
The first to emerge are two elderly ladies. I pull on my beach tunic and make my way over to them. Poles. Basia and Hanka. Sisters from Warsaw. I’ve hit the jackpot. We go for a beer.
“But how are you supposed to write about it if you don’t know what it’s like?” demands Hania, the older one, more as a statement than a question. “It’s simply an un-journalistic approach. You have to try it, otherwise it won’t be fair.”
“It’s unlike anything else. It’s full-on freedom,” adds Basia. “I’ve been coming regularly to Sozopol in Bulgaria for 10 years. I’ve got an apartment here. I like it because it’s understated. It’s mainly Bulgarians that come to our beach. It’s quiet and peaceful. Recently, my sister has started coming with me. Our husbands are traditionalists. They don’t share our passion. They sit in the café and we’re here, the other side of the unspoken border.”
But their experience with nudism didn’t begin on the Black Sea. Hania saw nudists for the first time on the banks of Lake Balaton in Hungary, and Basia in Sweden. Brought up under the rules of communist Poland’s socialist morality, neither of them could get enough of the sight of naked bodies.
“We got to Balaton sometime during the night and I was horribly tired. When I woke up in the morning, I couldn’t believe my eyes. Nothing but naked people: fat ones, thin ones, old, young…” recalls Hania.
While Basia reckons her experience in Sweden is one of the funniest.
“I remember the shock. I was sitting by a lake and every so often people in super white swimsuits would jump into the water. And because I’d never seen swimsuits like this, I started looking at them. Well, it turned out that they were naked,” she recalls. And after that it just happened. Hanka was living in Sweden, Basia in Canada, and they both understood that there was no need to be ashamed of their own bodies.
“I was surrounded mainly by Protestants,” says Hanka. “And they say that God created us in His own image. You are how you are, so just accept it and don’t make a fuss. Adam and Eve should be an example to us. And I really like that.”
Basia started to appreciate the convenience and the feeling of freedom that you get from being naked.
“I can’t sit in a wet swimsuit even for a moment. Straight away I get inflamed ovaries or some other unpleasant ailment. And I want to go into the water often because it’s hot. How many swimsuits would I need to take with me? And it goes without saying that taking off that soggy piece of cloth is no fun, because it sticks to the body. And then you have to put on a dry one. And on top of that find a changing room. It’s too much work. The whole performance of taking off a wet swimsuit is so unsightly that I don’t want to do it.”
Moreover, both ladies appreciate the etiquette of the nudist beach: no one stares, nobody makes fun of anyone else, and no one hides behind screens. It’s quiet and nobody hassles you.
“Everyone respects each other,” says Basia. “A naturist beach is much more civilized than a normal beach. There’s no showing off and no public displays of intimacy, which is why there are usually no screens.”
“And there’s also a rule that we get dressed when we leave the beach,” adds Hanka. “You have to respect each other and not cross any lines. Society doesn’t accept nudists, so I can’t imagine a situation where I’d go stark naked to a restaurant, or even onto a normal beach. That goes for the men as well as the women. When I see a massive, sweaty, sticking out gut in a restaurant it puts me right off my food, and this happens all the time.”
I arrange to meet up with the girls the next day. I’m supposed to practice ‘nuding’ with them. But I’m really not convinced, although I already know that I won’t get out of it.
I am held back by my Catholic family upbringing and a sense of shame, although I know very well that even the ancient Romans had no problem with nudity. I am held back by Chałupy – the mecca of Polish nudists, close to where I was brought up – and the stories of the fines issued to the shameless people there. And the mutiny of the Kaszubian people after Wodecki’s hit song brought not just fans of skinny dipping, but also voyeurs with binoculars flocking to the fishing village. And every flavour of pervert too.
But I have no option. It’s my job.
The further north one goes, the more the ‘hairstyles’ of the Black Sea nudists change. It depends which country they come from. So, while in Bulgaria they shave themselves bald, Romania isn’t so restrictive and various styles are permitted. Even playful little plaits. Ukraine mixes it up a bit. Sometimes one sees accessories: colourful turbans on the head, bracelets made from shells on wrists or ankles, or long feather earrings. And since Nessebar, my tummy, breasts and the back of my body are less and less pale.
But Rome wasn’t built in a day.
Setting aside the health benefits of swimming naked, sunbathing wasn’t always trendy. It was generally associated with agricultural work. It was Coco Chanel herself who started the whole fashion for it in 1923 when she skipped off a yacht sporting a golden tan, causing shock and scandal. She surely never imagined that she would launch the trend for the mass rejection of knitted swimming armour.
Beach fashion began to change. Men gave up wearing pantaloons and instead wore vests with swimming trunks, while women went for two-piece costumes. The 1940s saw high-waist knickers and bras from France and, after World War II, the territory occupied by material started to shrink rapidly.
In fashion salons, or rather on the beach, the bikini quietly started to creep in. It was designed by Louis Réard in 1946, but he got slightly ahead of himself because he couldn’t find any models for his show. An erotic dancer finally agreed to do it. The bikini caused a furore 10 years later when Brigitte Bardot appeared in one on the French Riviera. And another French star, Simone Silva, was accidentally photographed topless by Robert Mitchum. After that it was a breeze.
“The Yellow Sands”, 1888, John Reinhard Weguelin; source: Wikimedia Commons
Yet long before anyone knew about beach fashion, naturism was trendy. Bathing naked in the sea was going on in England as early as 1840. However, during the reign of Queen Victoria, this pleasure was outlawed. But it popped up again among the conservative Germans. In 1898, the first Naturist Club was founded in Essen and in 1900 the Wandering Birds group (Wandervögel) was scouring the country for uninhabited places and naked sunbathing. In the same year, Heinrich Pudor wrote The Cult of the Nude, winning the hearts of contemporary supporters of naturism.
In the 1920s, on the back of this, members of the Movement for Natural Healing (Naturheilbewegung) organized naked sunbathing for the improvement of health. Persuaded by Pudor’s theory of the healing properties of the sun and wind, which could be absorbed through the skin, they launched the naked revolution.
Pudor’s book became the naturists’ manifesto and soon after, not far from Hamburg, the Free Body Culture (Freikörperkultur, or FKK) movement was founded. This spread through other German centres and brought together thousands of people. The FKK still operates under the same name today.
The cult of the naked body even wrote itself into the ideology of fascist Germany, which advocated a pure, Aryan race. But in 1933, Hermann Göring issued an order that defined nudity as “the greatest threat to the German soul” and, with that, criminalized naturist organizations. But this wasn’t the end of the movement. The naturists went underground, continuing their activities under the guise of improving physical fitness.
In 1936, the idea was even floated of having a naturist display to open the Berlin Olympic Games. It was quickly dropped. Despite this, in 1939 the naturists managed to organize their own Games in the Swiss village of Thielle.
Not only the rotten West
The first state to see a true revolution in behaviour was the Soviet Union. And this was from the very outset of its existence, as it started to destroy the supposedly prudish, bourgeois order.
Homosexuality was decriminalized, mocking the West for not understanding how such behaviour was natural. It became a mecca for free sex, the results of which were eliminated with abortion – the first country to legalize this – and it welcomed naturists.
From 1924, naked people started appearing all around Moscow, decorated with a ribbon bearing the slogan ‘Out with shame!’ They travelled on the trams, hung out in the parks and wandered the streets. Riding the wave of enthusiasm to build a new society, they threw themselves into eradicating all the values of the old world: family, marriage, tradition. Everything from the past was stuffed into the same box, labelled ‘bourgeois relics’ and they enthusiastically put into practice their innovative ideology.
The followers of this new group preached that they were descended from apes, and therefore were animals and so had no need of clothes. “We are the children of the sun and the air! We don’t need clothes which conceal the beauty of our bodies. Shame is the bourgeois past of the Soviet nation,” they pronounced.
And they created the first Soviet nudist beach – just beneath the walls of the Kremlin, on the banks of the Moskva River. People threw off their workers overalls, exposing their pale bodies to the sun and the water. This allowed them a moment’s respite from the grey reality, to liberate themselves from routine and also from the unremitting supervision.
But the story of this intense freedom in the Soviet Union is a short one. Within a few years, the People’s Commissar of Public Health, Nikolai Semashko, issued an edict banning such practices, justifying it by declaring that society was not ready for this type of change. For the capitalist ‘leftovers’ of hooliganism and prostitution still persisted. Sadly, not much documentary material remains from that period. At least officially.
In the Black Sea resorts of Crimea and Georgia, however, they still managed to set up nudist beaches.
But the USSR started to fall into a civilizational coma. Men accused of homosexuality were sent to the gulags and their property confiscated. The same happened with abortion. Kissing scenes were cut from films, and prostitution, being a bourgeois relic of course, no longer existed. In 1986, Lyudmila Nikolaevna Ivanova, on the programme TV Space Bridge Leningrad—Boston, announced to the world that: “There is no sex in the Soviet Union!”
So how could there possibly be any talk about nudists? And yet, there was.
“Here in Odessa, there was always a nudist beach,” says Marina. “I’m seventy years old and I’ve been a nudist all my life. Because one is born naked. I don’t think I’ve ever bathed in clothing. The only thing that bothers me slightly is the fact that there are no beach sellers on our beaches. You can’t buy any corn on the cob, or samiczek [sunflower seeds – author’s note], and not even a cold beer or an ice cream. You have to get dressed and go somewhere. I don’t go to Koktebel in Crimea any longer, because it’s difficult for Ukrainians to enter the territory. Only Odessa-Mama beach is left. A year ago, my husband persuaded me to try Georgia. But there’s no freedom there anymore. I mutinied and refused to go in the water. Scandal.”
But it wasn’t always like that.
In the mid-1930s, the towns of Gagra in Abkhazia and Batumi in Adjara got permission to open ‘medicinal beaches for women’. These were specially fenced off areas for “the conduct of therapeutic and prophylactic procedures including sun and sea bathing under medical supervision.” Ladies were treated here for tuberculosis and anaemia, as well as for vitamin D deficiency. Heliotherapy was considered an excellent treatment for ulcers and wounds, and helped encourage the regrowth of broken bones. Similar beaches were available for men, too. They stopped functioning in the early 1990s. The Batumi beach no longer exists, but the Gagra one is still there, although no one looks after it.
And even though today the Black Sea coast abounds with nudist beaches, it is a waste of time to look for one in the South Caucasus.
That said, despite the strict, puritan bans imposed by Big Brother, nudists were able to penetrate the Iron Curtain.
Naked beauties from East Germany
“I was working as an Orbis tourist guide on Sunny Beach [Bulgaria],” recounts Ivan. “Hell, those East German beauties! At that time the Bulgarians didn’t sunbathe nude as often as today. Basically, that fashion came from the West. And it was a sight worth seeing. There were separate beaches for women and for men.”
In the 1950s, nudism got a new lease of life in the West, and this exotic wind of change also had an effect on the closed-off region of Central and Eastern Europe. Tourists from France and Germany, choosing cheaper holidays on the Baltic Coast, the Black Sea or Lake Balaton, smuggled nudity onto the beaches of the Soviet bloc. There were fines, obviously, but the wave was unstoppable. It was the call of freedom. An absurd game of cat and mouse; uniformed authority against people without underpants.
“In Romania it wasn’t so easy. We had a severe regime,” says Gabriel, whose family I caught up with on the most famous nudist beach at Vama Veche. “But at night, a few of us would get together and go skinny dipping. Today it’s very easy. We do it because we can. There’s no great philosophy behind it.”
Gabriel is relaxing with his wife, Maria, their seven-year-old daughter, Cristina and their 16-year-old son, Ioan. I watch the family from my towel. First, they play cards, then the brother and sister play with a beach ball, from time to time going to cool off in the sea. When they head off for lunch, I go after them.
It’s awkward chatting with naked people. Even when I’m naked myself. It’s easier clothed. We go together, but Gabriel is the only one who speaks some English.
“Every year the whole family comes to Vama Veche,” he says. “We can’t afford to go abroad, but that doesn’t matter. It’s fantastic here. We’ve got freedom and joy. There’s nothing to be ashamed of. We’ve known our children since birth and they know us. A body’s a body. Everyone’s got the same thing. You can only relax on a beach like this because no strangers watch us.”
But this staring business didn’t always follow the rules. At least not during the socialist era. Young boys on the beach in Chałupy were normally there out of curiosity.
“As a rule, we lay on our stomachs, because when you are eighteen years old, you tend to overreact,” says Irek about his holidays on the Baltic coast. “Once we went to look at the East German girls, obviously, and all of a sudden a clothed one comes onto the beach. And she’s got no blanket. She comes past us and sits down right on the sand, not far away. First, she takes her knickers off, then her bra. We invite her to join us, because there’s three of us and we’re happy to share our space. I don’t remember now which of us had to move but we went to bathe. She said she couldn’t swim and I promised that I’d rescue her if need be. Well, of course she started to drown. I pulled her out of the water and then my friend turned up. 6’3″… So, she goes off on a date with him.”
The milicja [Poland’s communist-era police – ed. note] went after the nudists, but today, thankfully, they can sunbathe in peace. As long as they are out of the way. The mayor of Jastarnia, Tyberiusz Narkowicz, claims that he has no intention of playing the role of a gendarme in The Troops of St.Tropez and, as long as the nudists don’t breach the conventions, they are quite safe.
“We don’t have an official nudist beach, but there’s a regular spot they use. Everyone knows about it and if they don’t want to go there, they don’t. Personally, it doesn’t bother me. The nudists normally choose secluded spots. They don’t go where the beach is full of people.”
“When the Iron Curtain fell, rebellion against the authorities, in all its various forms, ceased,” says 69-year old Jerzy, who I’m meeting in Odessa. “Then, I thought that nudity was my way of rebelling, but it turned out not to be so. I’m a nudist because I can be, not because I’m rebel. It’s got nothing to do with fighting the system, or the milicja any more. Now we’re just left with real nudists. But I don’t go to the Baltic. The Poles are very intolerant.”
This is true. In 2007, the Public Opinion Research Centre (CBOS) conducted a survey among Polish people about their views on nudism and toplessness. Barely 5% of those surveyed are happy with the presence of naked people on the beach, and 96% of them have never tried nude sunbathing.
There are 51 naturist organizations around the world, of which 33 are in Europe. The largest is in Holland. In 2008, the Federation of Polish Naturists was founded. It has 115 members, although they point out that the true number of nudists is much higher.
For the next 11 days, I cast off my embarrassment along with my clothes. Never have I experienced such pleasure from bathing in the sea. What’s more, I’ve never come back from the seaside with such an even tan.
Translated by Annie Krasińska
Reprinted with permission of Przekrój. Read the original article.