Friday, October 21, 2005

Bonjour, please take off ze clothes...

Bonjour, please take off ze clothes...
Pierre Rochiccioli -
October 12, 2005

ILE-DU-LEVANT, FRANCE -- Back in the 1930s, early pioneering nudists settled on the remote and wildly beautiful Ile-du-Levant off the coast of Provence. Today, mod-cons such as electricity have come to the Mediterranean isle, but to save the environment there are still no street-lights at night.

Lying some 12 kilometres off the French coast, not far from the port of Toulon, the long skinny island covered in thick vegetation was electrified only 25 years ago.

A pirate haven in the sixth century and a penitentiary for child criminals in the 19th, the eight-by-two kilometre isle is 90-percent owned by the army, while also boasting one of the world's oldest nudist colonies, Heliopolis, which in ancient Greek means the city of sun.

Nature, sun and nakedness

"Heliopolis must be ... a simple rustic settlement where lovers of fresh air and sun can bask in the splendour of nature to rest from the fatigue of artificial urban civilisation," the founders of the community, Drs Gaston and Andre Durville, said in 1931.

Seventy-three years later, 230 owners, half of whom live on the island all year round, share the 100-hectare domain which is privately-owned, but open to the public. That is, to lovers of nature, sun and nakedness.

"The island has always attracted people in search of liberty," notably homosexuals, recalled Claude Lutz (90), a fervent nudist and the doyen of the island.

The new generation of nudists often are more financially well-off than older residents and aspire to modern creature comforts, but only on condition the environment be left unspoilt. "We have exceptional surroundings, but we would like to evolve just a little," said Jacques Ollive, who manages Heliopolis.

Stargazing with the naked eye

Change first came in 1989 with the installation of the underground electricity network. "But public lighting was banned so we could continue to see the stars and the milky way. Flashlights are the rule here at night," said a resident.

As the island slowly opens up to the idea of development, it has become easier in the last three years to reach the island, but the journey by boat remains relatively expensive, at €22 return from the port of Lavandou.

Water, which is not fit for drinking, is supplied from bore-holes and purification is in septic tanks. The next step in developing the island is a plan to slightly extend the port and its facilities.

"People who want comfort above everything else just don't come here," said Philippe Fourneau, a former manager of the domain. "The island has found a proper balance."

Traffic is banned, bar for utility vehicles. The terraced village, built around a square, has cafes, a baker's shop, a grocer, a town hall, post office, and even a school with six pupils.

Footpaths cross through a natural park and follow the coastline, where a beach facing onto crystal-clear waters has been laid out complete with rocks for the swimmers.

Nudism is allowed everywhere across the domain except on the village square and at the port. On the seashore, it is not only allowed but is obligatory, under a local council decision of 1978.

The rule is enforced by a uniformed policeman, whose job it is to order some people to undress, and others to dress, depending where they may be. "I've never had to hand out a fine, it's all very friendly here," said the officer, who asked not to be identified.

Each summer some 25 000 tourists, around half of them foreigners, disembark on the island, which has a number of hotels and guest-rooms. But this pales in comparison to the "sex boom years" of the 1960s, when 60 000 people visited Ile-du-Levant each summer.

"The island's main attraction in those days was sex," said Pierre Perrin, who is part of the management team at Heliopolis. "Each summer we used to get a swarm of swappers. These days they tend to go to Cap d'Agde (the nudist camp in France's southern Herault region)".



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