My Adventures At A Nudist Colony In France

Monday, October 31, 2011

I arrive at the entrance to the nudist colony on a beautiful late-September afternoon. It’s in the mid-80 degrees Fahrenheit so I figure there will be plenty of (naked) people on the beach. I’m no enthusiast, but I’m here because I have to be.

I just moved into an apartment in Le Cap d’Agde, a small seaside town in the Languedoc-Roussillon region of south-central France, because I got a job as a teaching assistant at a local high school. The other day, a co-worker was showing me a map of the area.

“What is ‘Le Village Naturiste’?” I asked, pointing to a little enclosed section of town just northeast of my neighborhood.

“Oh, that’s the nudist colony,” she said matter-of-factly. “It’s the largest one in Europe.”

I was in a bind. I didn’t exactly want to go, but I have this compulsion to explore every aspect of a culture that I can whenever I’m traveling. And a nudist beach seems so quintessentially European. How could I say I’d lived in Le Cap d’Agde for an entire year and never saw this famous Mecca for nudists the world over, especially when it was only a 15-minute walk from my front door?

Stopping at the gate, I look at the day-pass prices. Zut! I realize I didn’t bring any money and, anyway, six euros seems a bit much considering I have no intention of staying long or taking off my clothes.

I approach the woman at the counter. “Do I really have to pay if I’m just checking it out for a few minutes?” She smiles and slides me a ticket. And with that, I’m in.

I pass parking lots and hotels as I walk toward the ocean, surprised and kind of disappointed to see that everyone around is at least partly clothed. This is downright normal, I think.

Le Cap d’AgdeBut nearing the beach, I see my first naked couple walking hand-in-hand towards me. I can’t keep a chuckle from escaping. I don’t know where to look. I don’t want to look directly at them, but I don’t want to seem like I’m averting my eyes. So I look straight forward and meet their gaze when they nod and say, “Bonjour.” I wait until they’re out of earshot before bursting into giggles.

I find the idea of nude beaches and villages funny, impressive and disgusting all at once. Probably because I’m so uncomfortable with nudity myself. Even among my American friends, I’m one of the most prudish. I grew up in a conservative Midwestern household where it was less than encouraged. Add to that teenage body-image insecurities, and you get a girl who wore only one-piece swimsuits until she was 22 years old (even now it’s a tankini).

Still, I admire people who are carefree when it comes to their own and others’ bodies, people who view nudity as what it is: natural. When I think of nudist communities, I picture hippie families gathered in the yard, grandma naked in her lawn chair and brothers-in-law discussing social issues while passing around a pipe.

But I’ve heard this particular naturist village isn’t so innocent. You wouldn’t know it from reading Le Cap’s Office de Tourisme website, but the colony has gained an x-rated reputation. My French friend Céline informed me that it has become a libertine vacation spot for those specifically seeking a partner-swapping getaway. It’s apparently normal for couples to go at it openly on the beach or in the discos. Céline said there’s been talk for years of shutting the village down, or at least enforcing more family-friendly behavior, but the mayor opposes such efforts for the local economy’s sake.

I look out at the mile-long stretch of fine yellow sand dotted with nude bodies. I stroll along the path running parallel to the coastline and pass restaurants, shops, playground equipment and Pétanque courts. People ride bicycles stark naked. I think to myself that that has got to be unsanitary, not to mention uncomfortable. Many people watch me curiously (I am after all the weirdo with the clothes on). Others smile and say bonjour.

A pudgy middle-aged man approaches and asks, “Is this your first time in the village?” I nod.

“I’ll give you a tour,” he says. “Where are you from?”

I tell him the United States. “And you?”

“I live here in the village and work at the bar over there.” He tells me the bar is closed until next summer like many of the other businesses. There are far fewer tourists here now than there were in August, he says, when there were close to 40,000. Most of them will leave in October.

“But you live here all year?” I ask.

“Yes, about 300 people stay full-time.” He looks down at my shirt.

“You don’t want to be naked?”

“Um, no, I’m just looking around.”

“So you came to look at the naked people?”

He’s making me sound so creepy. “I guess,” I stammer.

“Why so shy?” he teases.

“I’m just not used to it. We don’t really have these in America.”

We continue walking. “Here is the beach for families and over there is the beach for sex,” he points farther down the coast. “There is also one for the gays.”

My expression prompts him to ask slyly, “What, you no like sex?”

“Not on the beach.” And not with you, if that’s what you’re insinuating, I think.

Sensing things getting weird, I say I think I’ve seen enough and should go.

“What are you doing tonight? I can get you into the disco for free.”

“No thanks,” I say, walking away.

I’m about to turn down the road leading to the village gate when another man, this one much younger and more muscular, looks at me quizzically and asks, “You new around here?”

“Yeah, but I was just leaving.”

“No, let me show you around. I’ll introduce you to my friends.”

I stop. I guess I really have nothing else to do today. One come-on shouldn’t scare me off, right?

He introduces himself as David, a 25-year-old from the biggest nearby city, Montpellier. I’m guessing from his brown body that he’s been here for weeks. We walk to the water’s edge, dipping our feet in the sparkling sea.

Now I’m really among the nudes. To my right, people splash around in the waves; to my left, sunbathing adults of all ages and sizes watch children build sand castles. I’m suddenly self-conscious. I’m wearing a spaghetti-strap tank top and short-shorts, not exactly the epitome of Victorian modesty, but I feel like I might as well be wearing full hijab.

“You’ll be cooler if you undress,” David says.

I laugh at him and say I doubt it would make a difference.

“Suit yourself,” he smirks. “There are pretty girls everywhere, but I like it here because they are all free and they all want to have sex with me.”

So I’m looking at it: A bona fide sex tourist.

“Oh really?” I mock. It’s true that of all the schlongs I’ve seen today, his distinguishes itself. But the stereotypical “hot guy” just isn’t my type. “Maybe not all of them,” I say, and he laughs.

We walk along the shoreline while he scopes out the playing field. One time, he leaves my side to petition a woman who could be tonight’s lucky lady. But she replies sorry, she’s married.

David identifies some people up ahead as his friends, one of whom is a Russian blond he says he slept with last night. He introduces me, and I’m greeted with enthusiastic bonjours and the three cheek kisses common in this French region. An Italian man hands me a sarong to sit on and David plops down next to the Russian.

A Frenchman named Pierre asks me where I’m from, then exclaims, “My neighbor here in the village is American. He’s from New York. He’s a fashion photographer.” The irony does not escape me.

I ask Pierre what he does for a living. He describes his work in undersea archeology, and I excitedly say that I really liked the archeology museum in Le Cap. We discuss the Roman and Greek influence in Southern France. The conversation is so normal that I soon forget the man is naked.

The strong Mediterranean sun is making me sweat. If I take off my shirt, my bra will be just like a bikini top, right? I remove it and am surprised by how refreshingly cool I feel.

“Oh, so white,” the Italian says, referring to my stomach which never sees daylight and is an entirely different shade than my tanned arms. “Like milk.”

“Um, thanks,” I say.

“No, white is beautiful too,” Pierre says. “No one judges each other here. All kinds of people can be comfortable.”

He’s right, it’s not like this place is filled with supermodels. There is quite a bit of flab and sag.

“Take the bra off too,” a French woman tells me. Her voice is raspy, presumably from decades’-worth of cigarettes. “What are you afraid of?”

“I just don’t feel comfortable,” I squirm. But then again, would it be such a big deal? “Well, maybe, I suppose, ok.”

“Here’s some sunscreen.” The woman scoots next to me and tugs on my bra. “Take it off!”

I notice that people in line at an ice cream cart are watching me.

“Well now they’re all looking.”

“That’s because you’re clothed,” she says.

“No, it’s because you’re yelling.” She grins because she knows I’m right.

I take a deep breath and unfasten the hook. Everyone cheers, and I raise my eyebrow as if to say, are you happy now?

We go back to chatting, about housing prices and regional accents, and everyone meets each others’ eyes. After a few minutes, I don’t feel embarrassed at all. The breeze feels good on my skin. At one point, I consider myself from an outsider’s perspective — topless me, surrounded by naked people, mostly men, one of whom is a midget wearing only a baseball cap that says “Cowboys” — and am hit with the hilarity of my position. I am thoroughly enjoying myself.

Turning my head to look at the ocean, I see a woman performing oral sex not ten feet away. He looks kind of bored. I turn away, shocked.

“Oh yes,” Pierre says. “Sex is very open here. Half the tourists come with their families, and the rest are, how do you say in English? ‘Swingers.’ Look over there.” Pierre points to a mass of men crowding around something on the ground. “In the center of the circle, they are having sex.”

My jaw drops. “And people gather around them like that to watch?” I ask, repulsed.

“Yes and when it’s finished, sometimes they clap.”

I laugh. Well, this is definitely a cultural experience.

“I just don’t know how the couple in the middle does it,” I say.

“I agree, I like it to be more private,” Pierre says. “But, you know, the village is well-known throughout Europe. In the summer, couples come from countries like Germany and Russia to make love on the beach.” He adds sincerely, “It is very beautiful.”

I find that I respect his reverence for nudity and sex. While some here, like David, are just looking for their next lay, others truly enjoy the freedom from judgment and the beauty of the human body.

By the time I wave goodbye to everyone, I’m starting to forget why we need those pesky pieces of fabric we call clothes anyway. As I step onto the path and head towards the exit, I pass three middle-aged men, each of whom obviously and unabashedly stares at my chest. I hurriedly pull on my shirt. Oh that’s right, now I remember.

By Cathy Martin


About the Author

Cathy Martin is a traveler and aspiring writer from Madison, Wisconsin. She currently lives in southern France where she tries to convince teenagers that learning English is fun.

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