In a quiet corner of the Cyclades, where hippy campers rub shoulders with A-list celebrities, our writer summons up the courage to go as nature intended…
Naked people of varying ages and shapes sit conversing underneath shades made from white bed sheets and bamboo sticks, the only shelter from the heat. A dry wind sweeps across the beach, and the shades blow back and forth. An Australian man, wearing nothing but a sunhat, asks if anyone fancies a game of boccia, and immediately the most competitive Italian on the beach jumps up, excited at the prospect of winning the much-coveted prize: rice pudding.
This is my fifth time to the small Greek island of Antiparos, neighbour to the more commercial and larger island of Paros. It is home to Antiparos Camping and the nudist beach attached to it, the first in the Cyclades. The beach is only a small curve of soft golden sand but has the feel of a lagoon, enclosed on one side by the island itself and on the other by the uninhabited island of Dipla; the sea is so shallow it is possible to walk across to Dipla, where goats appear and disappear upon its peak. In the distance, a lone cloud lingers over Paros; in the foreground, tanned hides punctuate my vision, stark against the water’s glint.
The nudists appear totally normal to me now, but five years ago, when I first came to the beach with my sister and her boyfriend, I was not so relaxed. I remember it clearly. We sat not far from the nudists, but not so near as to be imposing, and began our beach routine. I became increasingly aware that wearing swimwear somehow excluded us, and I felt like I owed it to their nudity to undress. One nudist in particular frightened me into revealing myself. I like to call him Nordic Sea God: a Swede, around 60, an artist, and equipped with a handlebar blond moustache. He sat under his own shade like the beach’s royal authority and eyed our swimming costumes with derision. I was afraid he might come and whip the bikini top straight off my chest.
Looking nervously at my sister’s boyfriend I disrobed, while he did the same. Nordic Sea God’s face lit up. The faces of several other nudists did the same: yes, you’re just like us, they seemed to say, creatures bearing disappointing forms. It was time to go for a naked swim. Whereas I can’t recommend anything more highly than nude swimming, walking out of the sea afterwards is a different matter. You are suddenly aware that the point will come when your unsheathed form will rise into full view and that the whole beach is facing the water, like an audience. As I came out of the sea that first time, I was met by Nordic Sea God’s Swedish accent booming: “What a pale woman!”
Ioannis Kalargyros set up Antiparos Camping (where most of the nudists stay) in the late 1970s, drawing in the last stragglers of the dying hippy movement. He still runs the campsite with his family, and they welcome you there as though you were old friends. This year Ioannis took my sister and me out on his little fishing boat and caught sea urchins for us to eat, which he served up with homemade wine. It is that sort of kindness and generosity that has had people returning for more than 30 years.
The campsite is built on a plot of land so beautiful that, according to Ioannis’s son Theologos, Roman Abramovich once tried to buy it from the family. Theologos shows me photographs from the 70s of dust-settled plots with nothing but a few bamboo shoots. In those days visitors simply brought a sleeping bag and slept under the stars.
Today the site is composed of small clusters of tents which the family provides for a few extra euros a night, complete with proper mattresses. Low-hanging trees and lush crops of bamboo provide shade; there is a constant verdant glow from the light filtering through the branches and a continuous sound of shoots bristling gently in the wind.
The town is a short amble away down a dirt track. A cobbled street, lined with whitewashed, blue-shuttered tavernas, bars and houses, winds from the port up to the square. By the evening this street is filled with people, every bar and restaurant alive with chatter and music. Tom Hanks and Madonna both have houses on the island, and as soon as I discover the number of celebrities who have been here (Theologos is the man to ask), I begin to think I can see them everywhere.
In fact we do see Tom Hanks. While on a mission to find an ice-cream one evening by the port, my sister turns to me and casually remarks: “That really sounds like Forrest Gump,” and when I turn I find that it really is Forrest Gump – in shorts and sandals, getting out of a battered Jeep. So it seems highly probable that the man who bears a strong resemblance to Dustin Hoffman, a lone traveller who plays football by himself most of the day, could be Dustin Hoffman. We speak to him one evening in the square; he tells us, in a gruff Greek accent, that his name is Georgios and he has come from Athens to escape the city heat. We are deeply disappointed. But then again Dustin is a talented actor.
Antiparos doesn’t liven up until midnight; they might be old, but the hippies have not lost any of their drive. The focal point of the town square – previously the Orthodox church – is now a small cluster of bars and cafés dominated by a large oak tree, where people sit sipping their ouzos and local men play backgammon to the unexpected sound of Dire Straits.
I sit talking to a Dutch man who is keen to tell me how his mother met Leonard Cohen in the 60s, on the island of Hydra. He invites me to go dancing at the Doors, a local bar that’s dedicated to Jim Morrison – apparently Bruce Springsteen went for a dance there while on a visit to his mate Tom’s holiday home. The owner is a moustachioed Greek man who has a penchant for white linen suits; if you know all the words to Bob Dylan’s “Hurricane” he gives you free shots, and the next morning you wish you didn’t. Still, as I’ve learned, on Antiparos it is important to keep an open mind.