Looking at naturists can be life threatening – as I found out to my cost

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Parisian naturists in the Bois de Vincennes have complained about voyeurs ruining things for them. Nudists have been allowed to do their thing in the park for two years, but it seems they are being spied upon. I sympathise, but also wonder – in the spirit of an age-old conundrum – if nudists in a forest are actually nudists at all if no one is watching them. If you are hidden away, in your own special area, you kind of invite fascination. How much better if there were nudists everywhere.

In 1992, I cycled from Hamburg to Zagreb, passing through both Germanys (though united by then, they felt very different), the Czech Republic, Austria, Slovakia and Hungary. I saw many wondrous things along the way, none more so than a small urban park I pedalled past in the middle of Berlin. It was a sunny autumn lunchtime and the park was busy with office workers taking a break. Doing a comedy double-take, I saw that many of these people had removed all their clothes and were sunbathing quite naked. All sizes and shapes of birthday suits were on display.

I managed to hit a kerb, come clattering off the bike and bang my knee without once taking my eyes off them. A few people observed me, with rather more interest than anyone was paying to the nudists. I went and sat on the grass for a bit. Before long, lunch break over, clothes were re-donned and work stations returned to. It struck me as a very sensible way of going about things. Do it all in plain sight, and take the absurd mystery away from the naked form. What purpose does it serve, other than help to idealise the flesh, when it’s the mind we should be attracted by?

With family in the former Yugoslavia and then Croatia, I had been exposed, as it were, to nudism from a young age. In the old eastern Europe it was a big thing; I’m sure social scientists will have stroked their chins about the reasons for it. As a somewhat repressed British adolescent on holiday, the nudity was quite something to deal with. On arrival at the rocky bay we went to, it was mostly toplessness on display, but the further round you went, the fewer clothes were worn. I’m deeply ashamed to say that I used to swim round for a look.

Later, in my 20s, I holidayed with Croatian friends at a quiet little cove on the island of Hvar. Before I first went they warned me that none of them wore a stitch of clothing on the beach. There are two moments when you feel ridiculous in this venture. The first is when you drop your shorts for the first time. Mortifying. The second is when you are next on a beach and have to leave your shorts on. It just seems so unnecessary.

That said, I remember as a kid on some deserted bit of Dalmatian shore, a speedboat full of Italian naturists turned up. “I wonder,” said my dad, “what it’s like to get your willy sunburned.”

I’ve been very careful in that department ever since.

Adrian Chiles is a writer, broadcaster and Guardian columnist

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