So, it was a year ago to the day that we set off on our “naturist odyssey” across Europe; a three month expedition that would begin on the small island of Ile du Levant, circle around to the south of Barcelona for a stay at El Templo del Sol, and following an extended stay at our naturist home base, La Jenny (from whence I am writing this post – now a year later), straight across Europe with two stops in Provence before making our way to the Adriatic coast where we would finally end up in Greece.
At least to my sensibilities, Provence is what people think of when they think of the South of France, along with the nearby Cote d’Azur and the legendary St. Tropez peninsula, which seems to have a reputation in the imagination of most Americans as the land of a thousand topless Brigitte Bardots! We made our first visit to naturist Provence in 1997, carefully tracking down secluded nude beaches with highly detailed Michelin maps in hand, finding that more often than not, the officially sanctioned nude beach was about five kilometers down the road from the stunningly beautiful beach that was clearly the more scenic destination. But alas, it turns out there are many options for total sun worship in the region, and for this journey, we had chosen two: Domaine naturiste de la Sabliere near the Roman ruins and the Ardèche gorge, and Origan Village, in the foothills of the Alps above Nice.
Ironically enough, one of the most challenging things about taking a naturist vacation in Provence is finding the balance between naked time on the terrace, and doing normal tourist things, like going to the local market, visiting ancient castles, and exploring the nearby villages to taste the wine, honey, and lavender ice cream. Unlike some of the more remote naturist destinations (take La Jenny, for example) Provence gives you a myriad of reasons to put your clothes on, and in fact, once you get home people will say, “Oh you went to Provence! Did you see … ???”
“No,” you reply, “It just seemed like too much trouble to get dressed in the morning.”
An important factor in this equation is that when Europeans go on vacation, they tend to put down roots and stay for two or three weeks, minimum! If it’s a naturist place, and the sky gets cloudy on the tenth day, that might be an excellent time to see the ruins of the local chateau with a bit of wine tasting en route. You choose a naturist resort the same way you choose a summer camp for your kids. “They have archery, horse-back riding, water aerobics, yoga classes, art lessons, and a camp orchestra – good choice!”
Such is the case at La Sabliere on the Cèze river gorge near the village of Barjac. In French naturist circles, this place seems to be an anchor of naturist ideals, family owned and operated for nearly four decades now. Set on the steep hillsides of the gorge, the areas near the river are mainly camping for tents and small trailers, with small neighborhoods up the hill sporting small portable chalets that have all the amenities of home (with the exception, perhaps, of a lot of space).
We first visited La Sabliere back in 2004 on a day trip while staying elsewhere in Provence. Having become regulars at La Jenny by that time, where there always seems to be a perpetual controversy about whether “this is a naturist place or a clothing-optional place,” we were pleased to see that nudity was much more the norm at La Sabliere, with many families with adolescent children. As in the US, family nudity has become increasingly controversial in Europe as well; a frequent topic in French naturist publications and web forums. In fact, my comment elsewhere in this blog noted that during this visit (2013), most of the kids swimming in the river were wearing swimsuits; an observation that stirred up quite a few pointed replies on a French naturist forum, in that publishing such remarks may well do harm to a place that is renowned for strong naturist values. (I have subsequently changed the language in that review.) In fact, La Sabliere is about as naturist as it gets in a country celebrated for upholding naturist ideals, but the business of family naturism has become increasingly complicated in this age of obsession with fashion, body image, and the proliferation of publishing digital photos on the web. Seems that it’s a challenging time to manage a naturist resort, even in France.
All that aside, if you can manage the basic accommodations of a simple chalet, you will likely be mesmerized by the ever-changing ambiance as the sun moves across the sky. The clever design of the pool gives you the sense that you’re at the edge of a waterfall on the precipice of a steep canyon, and watching kids jump from the twenty-meter boulders into the river Céze provides hours of entertainment for those of us who are too cowardly to do it ourselves. The summer climate in this region typically facilitates dawn-to-dusk (and beyond) nudity, which is permitted throughout the resort – even in the restaurant.
Should you compromise your naturist resolve, there are innumerable options for immersing oneself in typical Provençal delights, such as the aforementioned Roman ruins, charming local marchés such as the one in Goudargues, and the incredible Cascades du Sautadet (sadly – not naturist) where hundreds gather to scale the rock formations before going airborne into dozens of fresh water pools. A great spot for swimming and people watching. And to my palette, it’s difficult to find a poor restaurant in this region, where even the unassuming pizzeria will have a local specialty and charming atmosphere.
Our next stop in Provence represented our second visit to Origan Village near Puget Théniers in the Alpes Cote d’Azur above Nice. Also a family establishment, there had been many upgrades since our last stay about ten years ago, including several modifications to the pool area, renovations to the restaurant (where you have a breath-taking view of the valley below), and several new options for rental chalets amidst the expansive campground. Our favorite feature at Origan remains the wilderness trail that runs straight up the mountain behind the resort, then along the ridge for perhaps two kilometers before bringing you down on the other side of the property – about a 90-minute circuit that became our morning exercise routine – au natural! Naturist hiking is quite popular in France, but is best done in an organized group of card carrying naturists should you inadvertently wander your way into trouble. Of course, that requires that you are available to meet up with such groups when they have an organized naturist trek, and quite likely, some facility in the French language as well. Origan satiates our naturist hiking desires, on our own time at our own pace, and again, even a time deviation of fifteen minutes remarkably changes the landscape as sun and shadows morph throughout the day.
Our son and his girlfriend would visit us near the end of our stay at Origan. For her, it was the first visit to a naturist place, and while a good sport about the whole thing, you could tell her brain was working overtime trying to figure it all out. This became even a bit more complicated the last night of our stay when we went to the Friday Night Spectacle in the resort restaurant – a cabaret extravaganza of sorts. We had remembered a similar production from our visit years ago that featured an older couple who were once renowned for their professional ballroom dancing. It was dated, but nonetheless, charming.
This time I think it’s safe to say the show had a more burlesque feel about it, with a bizarre mixture of clichés that you might associate with the sort of tawdry humor that one associates with, well… burlesque! It all seemed a bit peculiar to me in this “holistic naturist environment,” and I daresay, a bit awkward while sitting across the table from our son’s girlfriend who was still grappling with all things social nudity. It appeared that most other people in the audience were French, (and thus, they likely got the jokes!) laughing uproariously throughout the show. Even a year later, I’m not sure how to contextualize that evening, except to say that it was memorable, and will likely resurface at family gatherings for a long, long time under the banner of, “Hey dad, remember that evening we went to that cabaret show in Provence…”
Both Sabliere and Origan are situated in stunningly beautiful locations that would be well worth the effort even if naturism was not part of the deal. That is something I long for at home, but even when one finds such a place in the US, it’s so remote that you have to drive for hours to find a supermarket or tourist attraction. Seems that in Provence, you are never farther than an hour from a naturist place.
There are a lot of options, especially if you broaden the brushstroke a bit to include the region near Montpellier (including the offerings in and around Cap d’Agde), the well known Bélézy to the north of Avignon, or any number of smaller camps in remarkable locations, such as La Messidor, a modest naturist resort near the village where we resided for a year. I suppose ultimately one needs to decide if you’re going to Provence to see Provence, or if you’re going to Provence to exploit her most precious resource – immeasurable doses of sunshine. That’s the problem with naturist travel, especially if you’ve only managed to carve out a week or two. Places like La Sabliere and Origan Village beg you to step out of the fast lane and simply absorb the ambiance and conviviality of a real holiday in France. I suspect that’s not the way most Americans experience Provence. For my naturist dollar, it’s the only way to experience Provence.
You may also be interested in our other Naturist Odyssey installments: