Wednesday 26 June 2019

Croatia: Golden wonders

As one of the new major European holiday destinations, Croatia is becoming increasingly crowded, but Tyler Wetherall has found the perfect antidote to plastic sun loungers and screaming children -- if you're feeling bold, that is

Tyler Wetherall

I feel as if I'm having one of those nightmares in which you leave the house and, half-way down the street, you realise you've forgotten to get dressed.

Except I'm not dreaming and everyone else is naked too. Most importantly, it is really very enjoyable. I am walking towards a glistening sea with the sun blazing on all my bare bits on a near-empty beach. Not even a bikini could make this moment better.

I have come to the island of Rab, off the northern coast of Croatia, which is known not only for being one of the greenest of the often rocky and barren Croatian islands, but also as the birthplace of naturism. Austrian Richard Ehrmann opened the first naturist camp here at the turn of the century, but the real founders were King Edward VIII and his lover Wallis Simpson, who were granted permission by Croatian authorities to go skinny dipping on Kandarola Beach in the summer of 1936. Ever since, tourists have flocked to follow in their footsteps.

Now, Croatia has one of the highest densities of nude beaches in Europe, with more than 60 naturist resorts and space for 20,000 naked sunbathers on its official naturist beaches, labelled clearly with FKK, from a German phrase meaning Free Body Culture.

The country earmarked the tourist industry as the saviour of its post-war economy, and has welcomed visitors with open arms ever since the war ended in 1995. But this has brought an influx of foreigners, which threatens to change the landscape of the previously empty, bucolic and wild rocky outcrops of stunning coastline. There are more than 1,000 islands, and while many remain gloriously untouched, others are swiftly developing to meet demand.

Rab has long been a favourite destination for German holidaymakers -- boasting 120 years of tourism -- but this is starting to take its toll on the island. Rab Town is a stunning cluster of medieval stone buildings on a fortified peninsula boasting four elegant Romanesque church bell towers and steeped in history and culture. But the konobas (local restaurants) are increasingly offering family-friendly fodder of burgers and chips over local delicacies, and the winding streets become crowded in summer. It is, nonetheless, irresistibly charming.

Paradise Beach, on Rab's northern peninsula called Lopar, is one of Croatia's few sand beaches, stretching for 2km in a sheltered shallow bay -- perfect for swimming and surrounded by pine forests giving well-needed shade. It would be paradise, were it not for the screaming children, fleets of pedalos and towel-to-towel sunbathers.

Just a 35-minute walk away, or a five-minute scenic boat trip (€3 in taxi boat), there is cove after empty cove of pristine beaches ripe for the more intrepid traveller. But it's not the distance that puts off punters; this is official nudist territory.

After wading through the maze of windbreakers past the harbour offering island tours, banana boats and water taxis, my boyfriend and I opt for the walk, which winds along the coast, sometimes scrabbling over boulders, at other points dipping down to the bays. The pine forest gives way to windswept yellow stone and a mixture of pebble and sand beaches with epic views across the deep blue Adriatic Sea to the mainland. We envy other people who have come earlier and sequestered tiny coves big enough for one family -- fundamentally their own luxury private beach -- as we walk on looking for one for ourselves.

Clad bathers give way to nudists, who stretch out unashamedly in the sun. There is a mixture of families, kids and couples of all nationalities, but it is predominately middle-aged German couples working on their tans or wandering casually along the surf. There is one game of naked beach ball just to fit the stereotype.

We settle for one of the wider beaches called Stolac. As we claim our spot still in beachwear, we notice a few hostile sidelong glances from the handful of other people. 'Textiles' -- as clothed bathers are called -- are often frowned upon by committed nudists, who want to protect their territory from invasion. So, the moment of truth has come when we must disrobe. Nakedness is all very well in the bath or in bed, but the idea of exposing myself to anyone but my closest has never appealed. Being naked out in public is a taboo so deeply ingrained that it seems absurd to even consider walking around among strangers without a stitch.

Going topless is fine -- I have never understood the fuss about breasts. But I feel deeply reluctant to strip off my bikini bottoms to reveal my reflective backside and, worse still, pubic hair. But once I am there, naked on the beach, it suddenly seems like the most sensible and natural thing in the world. Swimming naked is a thrilling experience. There is not the discomfort of a wet bikini and no silly triangle-shaped tan lines. After all, why shouldn't we be naked when it is more than 30°C?

After a blissfully refreshing dip into cool water that quickly plunges down to clear depths, we walk towards the next beach, aptly called Sahara for its wide expanses of barren rock and sand. There are no roads leading to the beach, no shops, no fresh water and no facilities, which is what gives it that wild and rugged beauty, but it also means you must come prepared. We have brought ample water, snacks and an umbrella for shade, which can be scarce here. It is only in passing a clothed couple en route that our nakedness seemed ludicrous and shocking, despite it being a clearly marked nude area, and I suddenly understand more clearly why naturists take exception to 'textiles'.

The next beach is busier with bronzing bathers, who look as if they have been sat ripening for months. Being naked has the distinct advantage of discouraging excessive proximity and nudists seem very respectful of each other's right to beach space, to privacy and to quiet. Nudists also seem quite dedicated to their tans, and every one of the bathers has a perfect, full-body, deep-orange hue. You do see a lot of people naked who you may not, under other circumstances, choose to see. But it is liberating to be naked without feeling censure, scorn or scrutiny. Apart from cursory glances, people tend not to look and certainly not to judge.

On Rab alone, there are half a dozen official nudist beaches and countless deserted coves accessible only by boat where visitors tend to strip down. It is similar throughout Croatia. The highest concentration and largest naturist resorts are on mainland peninsula of Istria, where people eat, drink and socialise naked. One entire islet, Koversada, went nudist in 1961 and now accommodates more than 6,000 people. The general rule is that you are always naked unless it is cold or dark. Other guidelines are encouraged, such as always placing a towel on a chair before sitting down and avoiding excessive displays of public affection. Erections are feared events.

The resorts are for the committed and philosophical naturists, but if you are just looking for an idyllic patch of empty beach away from the noisy hordes, then both nudity and obscurity have protected many seaside treasures, such as Stolac and Sahara.

As the sun began to lower in the sky, we started the trek back to Paradise Beach, from where it is a 20-minute bus journey (€3) to our B&B in Banjol, a development of villas in walking distance of Rab Town and the sea. That evening, we head into town for an enormous fish platter and a few carafes of locally produced wine from a charming konoba with an open-wood grill.

Despite being thrilled to be back in clothes again for this particular outing, I decide I have been converted. If getting your kit off is necessary to escape the summer crowds, then it is well worth it.

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