Modernism and naturism meld at the world’s biggest nude town, Cap d’Agde in France, which swells to 40,000 people in summer. Could there ever be a naked metropolis? Phil Hoad exposes himself to nude urbanism
Taken from The Guardian
We were born naked, but no one shows you the way back. I’ve just paid my €8 and walked through the pedestrian gate at Cap d’Agde’s world-famous naturist resort in the south of France. What now? A stark forecourt stretches out imposingly ahead. Is there somewhere to change, I ask the guard on the gate, as a group of baseball-capped lads stride blithely through. He nods at a set of lockers. But hauling down my kecks right here at the entrance feels wrong. Only one thing for it: do as naturists do, and make for nature. Several minutes and half a bottle of sun lotion later, I’m huddled tentatively in my birthday suit on a Mediterranean beach, one halloumi-hued Englishman in a griddle-pan of sizzling brown cheeks.
The entry procedure is a bit unforgiving, but beyond is something unique: a fully functioning town with largely naked citizenry, which grows to 40,000 in the summer. Only a day later, I’m happily part of a nude queue in the deli lining up for tabouli and octopus salad, while a hardbodied gay couple pore over a side of beef. Since the 1990s, Cap d’Agde has gained a lurid reputation as a meat market par excellence. Europe’s libertines and swingers flock here to participate in what Michel Houellebecq envisioned in his book Atomised as the perfect “sexual social democracy”. But every facet of ordinary city life is here, too: a bank, a post office, several supermarkets, concrete arcades lined with hairdressers, fishmongers, opticians and clothes boutiques. Throughout, fully dressed staff (a formality that apparently developed of its own accord) cater, with surreal nonchalance, to the great unclothed.
Nothing on this scale exists anywhere else in the world. Most naturist resorts are arcadian retreats from city life. Last year, Munich created six urban naked zones, but they were in secluded parkland. In 2012, the supposedly skin-friendly San Francisco chose to outlaw public nudity, except in specially sanctioned public events.
Cap d’Agde’s naturist retreat, though, is urban by conception. There had been a small nudist campsite here since 1958, but in the mid-1960s, the De Gaulle-instigated Mission Racine to develop Languedoc-Roussillon’s tourist economy created six modernist seaside resorts from scratch, each a day’s boat ride apart – still one of the largest state-run development schemes ever.
Originally, there were no plans to incorporate naturism, but someone changed their mind. No one knows exactly why, but there was some ideological overlap between the purifying doctrines of naturism and modernism: Le Corbusier himself enjoyed airing his bits on the Cote d’Azur and shared the same teacher as Cap d’Agde’s chief architect, Jean le Couteur. The Oltra brothers, who owned the original campsite, helped shepherd plans for a purpose-built naturist village, which began to rise out of the local marshes in the early 1970s.
“The village didn’t develop like that, all alone, in a corner,” says Christian Bèzes, director of Cap d’Agde’s tourist office. “It was integrated as part of a whole with the same principles of architectural unity, prioritising pedestrians and proximity to the sea.”
Maximising exposure to the elements was a particular requirement in the naturist quarter, something I appreciate as I squat like a baboon and sip water in the dry gardens of Héliopolis, the brutalist, amphitheatrical sun-trap next to the beach. Nothing here is higher than four storeys, so shadows do not impinge. Everything in Cap d’Agde, in Le Couteur’s eyes, had to serve a functional human purpose. “Architectural isn’t essential, it is ephemeral. It is urbanism that will last,” he said.
Minimalism is definitely de rigueur on the pubic-hair front. Apparently the only unshaven person in town, I parade down the sands feeling like a recently unfrozen Neanderthal yet to discover waxing. At the western end of the beach – where nudity is mandatory – a channel marks the village limits. Jetskis chug into the Med, past the clothes-wearing “textiles” (in naturist parlance) grinning and waving on the opposite bank. “Naturism is practised by millions of people – it’s not extravagant,” Bèzes points out. “But certain people might think it is. So the barrier is indispensable.” He’s not just talking about the channel: a patrolled fence leads to the entry point, filtering traffic into the resort. Only this strict cordon – inside which photography is forbidden – allows the freedom inside to exist. (Journalists are also persona non grata, as I discover after several key village players refuse an interview and I’m subjected to a stiff grilling of my intentions before one bar owner will speak to me.)
Signs threaten a year’s imprisonment and a €15,000 fine for any publicly committed sexual acts – evidence of the delicate balancing act performed by law enforcers here. The échangistes (swingers) have grown in number since the early 1990s, supplanting the traditionally chaste naturists. It is a rivalry adored by the media, many outlets of which held radical naturists responsible for a spate of late-noughties fires at sex clubs. As the cavorting inevitably spilled out of the darkrooms into the dunes, the village’s notoriety and censure increased.
At the same time, however, Cap D’Agde has come to depend economically on its horny newcomers. Fetishwear shops are ubiquitous. “It’s a naturist resort, but the most common type of shop sells clothes,” chuckles Richard, a pizzeria waiter and 11-year naturist veteran of the village. “The swingers keep the place going. They’ve got an energy, and they bring in the curious.”
So policing a naked city requires a light touch, relying on the clubs to keep their own houses in order and liaising carefully with private security to intervene when necessary. The CRS, France’s elite police division, are on hand to dampen any excesses on the beach in July and August, when the most families are present. It is a quite broad church: grandmothers and grandkids, women walking chained submissives, middle-aged couples in tasselled sarongs, cock-ringed Languedocian farmers. But I see nothing racier than one lofty Adonis flirting with a sunburnt couple in the sea, and none of the sexual harassment that is sometimes reported. Petty crime is supposedly lower on the beach than anywhere else in the city. “Where’s a shoplifter supposed to hide his swag?” says Johnnie Walker, the village’s sole foreign bar owner. “Up his ass?”
Bèzes insists that the relationship between the village and the rest of the municipality has become completely “banalisé”. But that masks a growing sense of neglect. “If you look at the boardwalks in the main part of Cap d’Agde, they’re immaculate, and [to the east] Marseillan beach is very nice. But we’ve been forgotten in between,” says one bar owner, who like almost everyone else here wished to remain anonymous. Virtually everyone I speak to points out the battered roads, the overflowing bins, the drains clogged with sand. There’s a widespread perception that the town hall profits handsomely from controlling the gate – the official figure is €1.3m a year, but I’m told it’s much more – but doesn’t reinvest enough of the cash. But the village’s inward-looking topography seems to have been reinforced at administrative level, also fostering entropy: the landlords’ unions rarely pull in the same direction to demand improvements. Adrien, at the pharmacy, thinks the fact that so many residents are seasonal, and can’t vote, disadvantages it at the ballot box.
Le Couteur also bears some responsibility. Given the monumental structures that dominate this single square kilometre (the rest of Cap d’Agde is built along more rustic “neo-Languedocienne” lines), you could dispute how geared to the needs of flesh-and-blood inhabitants it really is. His grand idealism lacked flexibility: in his zeal for pedestrianism he pushed major roads to the edge of the city, and failed to anticipate the growing numbers of people who would want to drive up to the gate; now, the lack of parking space is another bugbear. Parking and roads are top of the agenda for Ambition Agde 2020, a major redevelopment programme; it also includes plans to roll out soft-transport options, like the electric buggies used at the Oltra campsite, to the entire village.
This is the prosaic truth of the naked city: it’s as dependent as any other on nuts-and-bolts issues. But perhaps its real genius lies in the realm of human relations. If this dangly utopia could be scaled up to metropolis size, it would have one great advantage: the social levelling effect of riding around with your dick drooping over your bicycle seat. True, the village has developed its own version of a class divide – naturists v swingers – but there is more overlap (and intercourse) between the two clans than the French media portray.
Sat on the terrace overlooking the sea, Walker hails his nude regulars as they stream past on the boardwalk. Emphatically not a naturist, he nevertheless has no doubts: “If there were more spots like this, the world would be a better place.”