Naked on the Loveliest Beach in the World

Myrtiotissa Beach, Corfu, Greece

First published by The Expeditioner, February 2017

Steep, narrow and lacking guardrails, the crumbling cement road to Myrtiotissa Beach appears to be headed over a cliff, and my husband, two young daughters and I along with it. Leaving the car parked slantwise along the shoulder, we continue on foot, the trill of cicadas rising and falling in the dusty summer heat. Around the bend in a hairpin turn, our destination bursts into view and we stop to take pictures. A secluded crescent of golden sand, the beach nestles beneath the limestone cliffs on this otherwise rocky stretch of Corfu’s west coast. The Ionian Sea shimmers into the horizon in deepening shades of turquoise, umbrellas sprout from the sand, and we can just make out the tiny figures of people lounging in the sun and bobbing in the waves. From this distance, however, we cannot yet see what is missing: bathing suits.

Named after a small fourteenth century monastery, Our Lady of the Myrtles, perched above it in the forested hills to the north, Myrtiotissa is the only officially tolerated nude beach on the island of Corfu. But we are not nudists, and have come for the famed beauty of this place rather than a full-body tan. Writer Lawrence Durrell declared Myrtiotissa “perhaps the loveliest beach in the world” in Prospero’s Cell, a memoir of his life in Corfu as an expat during the late 1930s. More recent travel guides contain similarly glowing reviews, one calling Myrtiotissa Europe’s “most stunning beach.”

With these superlatives in mind, and not a second thought about the dress-code, we set off from our hotel in Corfu Town this morning, rental car loaded with all manner of beach paraphernalia, bathing suits included. Yet now that we are here, I begin to doubt whether this was such a good idea, hesitating for a moment before leading my family through the towels and lounge chairs where mostly middle-aged tourists sprawl naked and sun-burned. Others drift about knee-deep in the clear, shallow water, their private parts on full display.

“Should I smile and nod hello or avoid eye contact?” I wonder, suddenly realizing that I know nothing, about the rules and etiquette of nudism, or naturism, as the practice is also euphemistically called.

There is no turning back now, so I opt for the safer, less conspicuous approach, and make a break for an unoccupied shaded area at the base of the cliffs. My husband settles in against the rocks with a sigh of relief, while the girls bound off into the sea. I soon scamper after them with my camera — as I am wont to do — and begin snapping pictures while they frolic in the crystalline water.

“No photos,” says a bronzed brunette who seems to have sprung like Aphrodite from the sea foam and into my personal space just as I’m getting started.

She gestures toward a ramshackle drink stand in a far corner of the beach. There, scrawled across a scrap of wood in faded paint are the words “no Foto.” Several onlookers frown and shake their heads, and it dawns on me that I have just broken one of the cardinal rules of nudism only minutes after arriving here. I want to explain that I was merely taking photos of my own children, but instead mumble an apology and retreat to our encampment, camera between my legs.

Once my embarrassment subsides, I decide to go for a swim. A corpulent sixty-something wearing nothing but sunglasses and a visor looks up from her magazine and scowls as I make my way across the hot sand. While bathing suits don’t seem to be expressly prohibited, I’m sensing that to wear one is a major faux pas. For the first time in my life I’m self-conscious about showing too little skin in my string-bikini.

“So why not give it a try?” asks a quiet but persuasive voice inside my head, and then I’m untying my bathing suit and tossing it onto the ground in an uncharacteristic fit of impulsivity.

The girls giggle and splash as I plunge into the water and my husband, still hiding in the shade, looks on with amused interest.

“You are the mommy mermaid!” my daughters announce with glee, piling onto my back in a flurry of elbows, knees, and slippery skin.

As I enter their imaginary salt-sprayed world, all my preoccupations, as well as the strangeness of being naked in public, quickly fade away. Time stands still as we play together, diving like dolphins and eating sand cakes at under-water tea parties. There are none of the everyday distractions that so often keep me from being present; no piles of laundry to fold, no emails to answer or appointments to keep. And here at Myrtiotissa, even the compulsion to point and shoot, yet another diversion from truly living in the moment, has been eliminated. As the sign says, “no Foto.”

Later, I wade further out from shore, where three massive rocks stand sentry in the deepening water, craggy and gnarled like petrified sea monsters. Beyond, a few ambitious swimmers set a course due west toward Calabria, their shining bottoms rolling from side to side in the gentle waves. I, however, am content to laze here by the rocks and admire the mountains that rise up over the beach, lush and green from winter rains. Sandwiched between their sheer cliffs and the vast, blue sea, the beach looks small and vulnerable. Myrtiotissa is, in fact, slowly shrinking as each year the Ionian washes more of it away, a reminder that nothing in life is permanent. Beaches erode and children grow, so we must treasure their beauty while we can.

Closing my eyes, I lay back to float beneath a cloudless, azure sky and melt into the sea. The water is soft and cool, swirling around me like liquid silk. Myrtiotissa, as Durrell observed, is exceptionally lovely. And perhaps, I have come to learn, even lovelier in the nude.