Where Nudism Took Off

On Rab Island, now in Croatia, the bare-all movement first thrived a century ago.


Two men are sunbathing at a nudist colony for intellectuals. One asks, “I say, have you read Marx?” “Yes,” replies the other, “it’s these wicker chairs.” I’ve heard all the jokes by now. But for my American wife and me, naturism is entirely normal—so normal that by now we barely remember the zeal for simplicity that originally inspired us. We do exactly the same things at the beach as you do. Eat chips. Read books. Play badminton. But we don’t like to sit in wet swimwear. And we use a lot more Coppertone than most.

This year, we set our sights on Croatia, the Holy Sepulchre of all-over tans. Our pilgrimage—which took us from Rab Island, where Europe’s bare-all trend first flourished, to Koversada, the Continent’s largest naturist resort—elicited the usual familial unease when we shared our plans. On our Sunday Skype call to New Jersey, my mother-in-law asked, “Will you also be nude?” Nancy, we’re going where there are bylaws against covering up. My teenage nephew in London can never resist calling me a weirdo. Myles, in Croatia I’ll be asked why we Brits choose to swim in our clothes.

“We all look like pigs,” my wife says, “but in the nicest possible way.”

Rab is a jewel in Croatia’s Adriatic crown. Like the country’s 1,199 other islands, it pairs Italianate piazzas with an abundance of seafood. Its unkempt interior is a sun-kissed stink of rosemary, thyme, and Aleppo pine. The town of Rab, several miles from the mainland, has cultivated a homegrown seclusion. The supermarkets are cooperatives selling local goods; the ferries are all community-owned. The island is ringed by tiny islets and secret coves. Little wonder that Europe’s early naturists started the bare-boobs-and-buns trend here soon after the 20th century arrived.

The world’s first Freikörperkultur (FKK) club had opened in western Germany in 1898. This “free body culture” movement espoused strength and pride through being nude in nature. The holiday island of Rab—then governed by the Austro-Hungarian empire—was a natural place to strip down.

Above Rab’s Venetian-built harbor, the Grand Hotel Imperial displays photos of those pioneering naturists. Strong-backed, bare-butt German husbands stare boldly out to sea, their dainty nude wives standing alongside them. The same black-and-white prints appeared in newspapers in what is now the Czech Republic. Local pastors told their parishioners to “simply ignore” the photos of naked people cavorting in the hot sunshine on a deserted beach. Good luck with that.

The Grand Hotel Imperial also features a Royal Corner, right next to its Internet Corner. This glassed-in enclave charts the lunchtime stopover, on August 11, 1936, by the hotel’s most famous visitors: King Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson. Photos portray dapper off-duty royals, him in a baggy cream suit with white loafers, her in trousers and big sunglasses. After lunch, Wallis and Edward took a taxi boat from their 300-foot yacht, the Nahlin, to Kvarner Beach and skinny-dipped. News of this royal daring spread faster than a TMZ blog post. Croatian naturism, hitherto confined to a few naked Germans, was exposed to the world.

Yet ever since, I’m happy to report, Kvarner Beach has been more Garden of Eden than Studio 54. It’s a fragrant tangle of holm oak and maquis herbs slowly roasting as the day heats up. Even as a moderately experienced naturist, I still feel a childlike glee when I pull off my pants and fall into a bath-warm sea—just sun, sand, and my bare body.

It’s certainly not sex that sells on Rab, according to Luka Perčinić. I meet the island’s young marketing manager—yes, fully clothed—back at the hotel. Waiters in striped bow ties with matching waistcoats bring us glasses of iced Malvasia wine. “FKK is a way of life,” he proselytizes, although he doesn’t need to. “It’s a sense of holiday freedom away from your daily work clothes.” Perčinić also explains that Rab’s 100 kilometers of biking and hiking routes, and its perfectly preserved Venetian old town, bring in other wealthy visitors willing to travel this far out to sea.

The Grand Hotel Imperial (Popperfoto/Getty)

Our fellow naturists on Rab are mostly older Germans—feeling flush these days seems to be reserved for Europe’s retired classes—who bask like iguanas on a drip of $1-a-glass beer. There is nothing titillating about our pink Teutonic brethren. “We all look like pigs,” my wife says, “but in the nicest possible way.”

A few days later, we sail through the sunshine to the Istrian Peninsula. This vine-covered ex-playground of the Austrian empire sits between Venice and Zagreb. Here naturism isn’t merely skin-deep. We’re entering what was, not so long ago, a politically charged pleasure beach. Naturists once flocked here from across the former Eastern Bloc to sunbathe on Socialism’s sunniest shores. For East Germans, going nude was a declaration of individual liberty; naked Czechoslovakians packed up their Škodas with tins of sardines and survived on a discount diet of cooperative wine. Many of them pitched tents at Naturist Park Koversada. Since 1961, its 300 pine-perfumed acres have welcomed up to 8,000 nudists at a time. That’s 16,000 buttocks of all shapes, sizes, and colors.

In the world of naturists, there’s safety in numbers. Once you’ve seen 10 willies, you’ve seen them all. This town-size community isn’t erotic. It simply seems like guests have forgotten to put on any clothes. Our daily naked shopping trip to the organic market isn’t awkward. Nor is the male camaraderie as we watch the World Cup in a beachside bar, stark naked and chugging beers. Granted, our naked round of mini-golf is slightly off-putting. But our Adam-and-Eve holiday is enough to make us wonder why we bother with clothes on a sunny day at all.