It was another Sunday morning on Balmins Beach. A group of naked old men were gathered in a circle, one of them holding hands with his unclothed 5-year-old granddaughter. The old guys were chatting and chuckling, oblivious to the fact that the little girl's eye line was located at a pretty interesting angle.
“Oh my God,” drawled my visiting American friend, a New York assistant district attorney. “That’s a crime scene right there...”
In the U.S., maybe, but here in Catalonia, Spain, being publicly naked on a beach is still the ultimate sign of liberty. On Balmins Beach in the cosmopolitan town of Sitges, famous for its association with Picasso and Dali and the jet set of the 1960s, the right to be naked and proud is as deeply ingrained as the insistence on speaking Catalan or the unspoken pressure to eat a weird kind of barbecued leek called calçots on Sundays in the winter.
But even by the standards of Catalan nudist beaches, Balmins, 30 minutes south of Barcelona by car, boasts a demographic unparalleled by any other nudist beach I’ve ever been to. Calçots eaten with the traditional almond and red pepper Romesco sauce is actually a great combination, but the reason I bought an apartment in Sitges 17 years ago is Balmins Beach with its utopian mix of gay men, Catalan bourgeoisie, and senior citizens and their grandchildren.
They all co-exist in a fascinating way that reaches its apotheosis on weekend mornings when imperious Catalan couples are out in force with their pristine sun loungers and their copies of La Vanguardia. As they liberate bosoms from bras and buttocks from underpants, they hardly notice the gay men with expensive cock jewelry strutting along the shore. The gays will, however, respectfully defer their frolicking when they pass groups of au naturel women of a certain age, ample legs planted confidently in the surf discussing the latest Spanish royal family scandal or the best way of cooking cuttlefish and potato stew.
There’s a sense of adventure when you set out to Balmins, a 20-minute walk from the Sitges railway station, although the final path down from the cemetery on the cliff head is rugged rather than wild and bristling with smaller versions of plants you find growing in Southern California. The beach itself is around one kilometer long, cradled by peach-colored Daliesque rocks and divided into three sections. The first is a small rocky cove attracting lesbians, punky locals, straight couples, and a few gay men who got lost. The central beach with its soft sand and shady caves is pretty full-on gayboy apart from weekend mornings, while the very end of the beach is a gay/straight/family mix which isn’t totally nudist and also throws a chilled beach bar and a nearby restaurant into the mix.
A poll this summer by the French Institute for Public Opinion (IFOP) revealed that topless bathing in France is on the way out. In 1984, 48 percent of women did it, but now, due to the negative effects of social media, a mere 19 percent dare to do wear the ‘monokini’ that Brigitte Bardot made famous back in the 1950s. In Spain, on the other hand, 48 percent of women still insist on going topless. Although specific regions of the country are not named in the survey, Elisabet, my Catalan bar owner friend, says she believes that nudismo culture is strongest in Catalonia.
“It’s a political thing for us. After years of oppression from that cabrón de Franco, nobody can dare tell us to cover our bodies,” she growls. Indeed, nudity in public places was specifically put on the Spanish constitutional books in 1978 as a gesture of the new ‘destape’ (literally ‘uncovering’) that took place after the fascist dictator’s rule along with the rise of night clubs, drag queen culture, and pornography.
Indeed, at the very end of Balmins Beach, built into the cliff, you’ll find a concrete bunker that once housed a machine gun emplacement. It was constructed by Catalan Republicans in their fight against Franco during the Spanish Civil War and is a well-located symbol of this region’s history of liberal ideas and radical anti-fascism.
When rumors started a few years ago that this precious beach was going to lose its nudist status, defiant graffiti immediately appeared on the iconic bunker, declaring, ¡PLAYA NUDISTA! Like a latter-day version of the famous Republican slogan ¡NO PASARAN!
History aside, there is another reason why Balmins brings in the crowds. Europeans make jokes about how Americans are always going on about “freedom,” but until you’ve swum naked in the Med, you don’t know what freedom is. I remember being chided on Venice Beach a few years ago by a Californian friend for flashing my breasts. Apparently, for the simple act of my breasts seeing the light of day for a few seconds as I changed from bra to bikini top, I could get a fine. It struck me that California is like the garden of Eden, and like the garden of Eden you have to wear a fig leaf.
Don’t get me wrong, I find such American puritanism incredibly sexy; it’s just that in a beach situation I don’t want sex to come into it. I want the amazing innocence of swimming naked alongside a shoal of silvery sardines or I want to stride out of the sea wearing nothing but the foam breaking behind me like a cloak of white feathers. The experience feels like a whole new level of consciousness, as if you have taken something of the sea inside you and it’s given you an aura.
It’s also great for women because cold water tightens up breasts (although the male genitalia doesn’t come off as well). But that’s the thing too: a good nudist beach is like medicine, it makes you come to love your body whatever your body looks like.
Bisexual author Jake Arnott jokes, “You’re never going to be the person with the smallest dick on a nudist beach.” But mainly, he finds it a relief that—shock horror for gay male society—cruising is not de rigueur on Balmins (if you want to pick up guys, you put on your Speedos and you head to the gay Picnic beach in mid-town). Arnott revels in the democracy of the whole Balmins experience. “You find yourself just talking to some middle-aged Catalan man.”
As a Brit, I wasn’t always this cool about beach nudity. I remember my first visit to a nudist beach in Barcelona with Elisabet around 20 years ago. I was outraged. My fear of being surrounded by scores of relaxed naked people translated into feelings of anger. I declared it to be terrible. Unfeminist. I wasn’t quite sure why. It was my flatmate’s Australian boyfriend who later pointed out, “But men go topless all the time. Why shouldn’t women be allowed to?” And that’s when I started to reconsider.
Since then I’ve been to a lot of nudist beaches: Baker Beach in San Francisco, the “Naturist” beach in Brighton, England (where my friends and I got hassled by some puerile local boys). The advantage of Balmins over those places is that the beach is beautiful and the Mediterranean is the most romantic sea in the world. Like an ideal woman: enchanting and sparking one day, squally and capricious and a bit dirty the next.
It’s best to get there early in the morning when you feel like the Mediterranean belongs to you, especially during the notorious Bear Week every September when hairy queens colonize it and by 4 p.m. the sea resembles a liquid blue back room. But at any time of the year, you can safely leave your possessions on the beach when you go for a dip because there is a sense of a real community here. Take Lizard Woman. She only appears when temperatures soar around July. She has cropped grey hair and blue eyes like a freshly-caught fish coupled with the deepest tan and the most serene smile you ever saw. She’s one of those people you probably wouldn’t notice off the beach, but on it, you feel as if she holds up the world.
I think of her as Lizard Woman affectionately—I don’t even know her real name. But I’ve seen her over the past 17 years and we always greet each other with a nod of respect. Like many of the other regulars, she has her way of being, her beach routine. Some days Balmins feels like going to the office.
Mumbai-born Sangeeta Pillai, host of the new Masala podcast about South Asian female power and sexuality, says that popping her nudist beach cherry on Balmins this summer was an “incredible experience.” Her work examines many of the beliefs and activities that her culture finds shocking, especially for a woman. “There’s so much weirdness around nudity in India,” she says, although even in more liberal countries there seems to be confusion around nakedness right now. The French want Muslim women to take off their “burkinis,” yet, as I was writing this, a Sitges-based Israeli friend told me she got self-conscious recently on a Sitges beach (not Balmins) and put her bikini top back on because she noticed she was the only topless woman there.
Pleasure is great and it’s also political. Taking your top off—or all your clothes off in a designated space, is not somehow “kinky.” It’s a way of gently asserting your rights, of making sure your body never again gets invisibly owned by a dictator, whoever the most current one may be.
Sangeeta was mainly struck by a spirit of something we could all do with a bit more of these days: tolerance “Everyone was so relaxed, letting each other be naked without making a fuss. A quick peek and then they left you alone—which was nice.”
Sangeeta had supposed that a nudist beach would be, “full of super fit bodies,” but the reality she took in was that, “There are big breasts, small breasts, young breasts, old breasts. All breasts are beautiful. There are big willies, little willies, wrinkled willies... all sorts of willies.”
As for my attorney friend, she left Balmins with a sigh, to return to New York with an all-over tan and some new thoughts about “freedom."