The campground looked normal at first. Tents and RVs were planted across a tired lawn, and kids milled about. A woman rode by on her bicycle, clothed. Then a man walked past, naked. My boyfriend Michal and I exchanged glances.
On the nine-mile bicycle ride from Ulcinj, Montenegro, we’d passed a billboard for this campground, Ada Bojana. The advertisement showed the silhouette of a sexy lady, rising naked from the Adriatic Sea. Ulcinj, that tourist trap of a city, had driven us to a nudist resort of our own free will.
We leaned our bikes—panniers ripped and coated with dust—against the registration office and walked inside. A man greeted us. We paused, uncomfortable.
“Do we have to be naked here?” Michal asked. He spoke in Czech, his native, Slavic language that had so far helped us find bike mechanics, bargain for rooms and procure apples.
“No,” the man said in English. He waved his arm dismissively. “Some people are, some people aren’t. You can do whatever you want.”
Michal looked at me, I looked at him. I shrugged.
“Ok,” Michal turned back to the man. “We’ll stay.”
The man smiled. As he wrote out a receipt, I zipped up my bike shirt as high as the collar would go.
By the time we arrived on the southern coast of Montenegro, Michal and I had biked more than 500 miles from Pec, Hungary, our tires punctured daily by thorns. It was our first bike trip. We built muscle up the gentle hills of Hungary, and spent nights in wheat fields in the hot plains of the Serbian Danube. There were busses—through the steep Javor Mountains into Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and on to the city of Mostar. But from there, we biked along the hard blue jewel of the Croatian coast, and around the Bay of Kotor. On my last legs in the Dinaric Alps in Montenegro, I saw a viper, immobile and bloated, with the legs of a frog sticking from its jaws. I stopped on the road side, gasping.
“Who’s more dead, snake?” I asked aloud. “You or me?”
Michal and I liked to think of ourselves as adventurers. He, a Czech, and I American, had met on hammocks in a jungle hostel near the Guatemalan coast. I followed him back to the Czech Republic, where we worked; I taught English to teenagers, and Michal sat in front of a computer, assessing development projects. We were happy, more or less. But after two years of staying still, we thirsted for more. So in the summer of 2011, we decided to travel the Balkans by bike.
I knew a bit about the Balkans, but Michal was more informed. He’d grown up vacationing on Yugoslavia’s Adriatic Sea. In 2003, when he was 23, he’d spent a summer with other European volunteers, picking up bottles, syringes and old shoes on Montenegro’s Velika Plaža, the eight-mile beach that stretches between Ulcinj and Ada Bojana.
Three weeks into our bike trip, Michal and I arrived in Ulcinj. We sat in exhaust fumes at intersections where barefoot boys begged for money. The stores to our right and left advertised all your beach needs: blowup rafts, swimsuits, kite boards. Women at tables on the street sold smaller wares: watches, sewing kits, underwear. There were ice cream parlors, chic hotels, and tourists—throngs of beach hungry tourists—obliterating the sidewalk in one long, sun-creamed stream.
Hungry, we found a Ćevapčići stand, and devoured the ground meat and pita bread over a greasy outdoor table.
“There is a campground at the end of this peninsula,” Michal told me, licking his fingers. “I think it’s really quiet there, lots of nature.”
Usually, we kept clear of big towns, looking for a field or piece of woods in which to camp. The night before, we’d slept near an old, mountain road, the sounds of cowbells faint and comforting from the village below. Ulcinj was another story.
“I’ve heard it’s a nice campground,” said Michal.
“How far is it?” I asked.
“Maybe an hour’s ride.”
I sunk into my plastic lawn chair. It was three in the afternoon. We’d already biked five hours, making an ill-chosen short cut out of a thorny cow path along the Bojana River, a brown waterway that served as a border between Montenegro and Albania.
“The thing is…” Michal continued, “it’s FKK.”
“Freikörperkultur,” he said, grinning. “You know, Naturist. Free Body Culture.”
He was being mysterious, but I was getting the gist.
“You mean it’s a nudist camp,” I said.
“Well, it used to be. Now, who knows?” Michal said. He shrugged. “We could go have a look.”
Loud pop music blared from the Ćevapčići stand; cars honked. I thought about the sleeping options in the city: overpriced hotels or dusty roadside campgrounds. The ground meat was already turning in my stomach. “Let’s get out of here,” I said.
The New York Times put the southern Montenegrin coast—Ulcinj, the Velika Plaža, and Ada Bojana—on its list of, “The 31 Places to Go In 2010.” It noted that Americans would appreciate the great weather, long, gray-sand beach, and thermal winds that brought throngs of kite surfers. But Europeans discovered the Montenegrin coast long ago. On the Velika Plaža, beach squatters tent in dry grasses, kite surfing classes thrash the waves, and years of beer cans, cigarette butts, and toilet paper nestle in the sand. Michal walked the beach, wishing his volunteer trash-picking efforts could still be seen.
Only the three-mile island of Ada Bojana remains relatively untouched. The island is formed by a delta of the Bojana River which then runs into the Adriatic Sea. Just the southwest corner has been developed; tranquil, natural beauty abounds. The only caveat? Nudity.
We pushed our bikes around Ada Bojana’s campground, looking for a spot to pitch our tent. RVs outnumbered tents; nudists outnumbered those clothed. The naked campers washed dishes, hung laundry to dry, walked to the beach—all the while wiggling openly. No one resembled the sexy lady’s silhouette from the billboard.
We put up our tent, not speaking. Finally, I looked at Michal.
“You gonna get naked?” I asked. A large woman was striding across the grass towards the toilets, her breasts boinging crazily across her chest. Michal’s expression was hard to read.
“No,” he said. “Are you?” I grimaced.
As the sun headed toward the horizon, the air became threaded with an evening chill. A corpulent Serbian man at the campsite next to us had been active and naked for hours. When it got colder, he put on a t-shirt. We waited for him to complete the outfit, a pair of shorts maybe, some jeans, but he did not. Instead, he walked up to a thick, velvety air mattress he’d propped on the grass, raised his arms, and fell backward. His body bounced on impact. He boomed with laughter.
Michal and I kept to ourselves. Mainly we envied the lawn furniture that sprang from well packed RV’s, and the chilled beer that came from interior fridges. From our dirty packs, we pulled out our “beach towel,” a stained piece of fabric, which we sat on uncomfortably while eating pasta. Our clothes—however salty with sweat and dirty from sink-washings—remained on.
The next morning, Michal and I put on our swimsuits, and picked our way past the shabby buildings and warped basketball hoop. When the grass stopped and the sand began, we looked out to an aqua sea. It was easy to understand why people kept coming back: Ada Bojana had a gorgeous beach. Careful to put our towels out of reach of the nude volleyball game, we lay down.
After a few minutes, Michal said he was going swimming.
“Ok,” I murmured, “Have fun.” I drifted back to sleep, but was woken up by a loud whistle. And then I heard Michal: “But you’re wearing your shorts,” he said.
I sat up. Michal was standing in the water, his arms folded at his chest. In front of him, slightly higher because of the slant of the beach, were two men, tanned and muscled and broad. They were lifeguards. Each had an orange whistle hanging against his chest. Michal is six feet tall, but next to the lifeguards, he looked like a boy.
“But you’re wearing your shorts,” he said again, lamely. One of the men pointed at Michal’s shorts, and then pointed down to his ankles. Shorts off! The other man put his hands on his hips. They waited. Michal turned around and walked back to me.
“I thought this place was clothing optional,” I said. I was laughing.
“Looks like the beach is not,” he said.
“Well…” I looked at all the body shapes around us: fat, thin and in-between. “When in Rome.”
Michal was already pulling off his trunks. His tanned legs were dark as chestnuts after all that biking, but his bum glowed white like the moon.
“Come on,” he said. “You too.”
“Ok,” I said.
I took off my swimsuit. We ran until the sea enveloped us.
About Sarah: Sarah E. Earle is an MFA student at the University of New Hampshire.