‘It is very organised’: What it’s like inside Berlin’s health-boosting nudist clubs.
With the rise of wild swimming, forest bathing (traditionally known as going for a walk in the woods) and ‘Iceman’ Wim Hof's sub-zero philosophies, there is a definite trend for reestablishing bonds with the natural world across Europe.
And it isn’t confined to rural destinations. I’m planning a trip to Berlin in December so I turned to my local friend, Johan, to find out how I can get in on the trend.
He suggests that we check out the Helios Club, which he likes to visit after work or at weekends to relax. When I asked what it entails, he said it's a family-friendly community where members eat and drink, play sports and socialise or just walk around the club's woodland sucking up nature.
I replied in the affirmative, but I could hear a chuckle in Johan's voice. “You should probably know, being British, that it's an FKK club.”
I had no idea what that meant, but Johan, an accomplished musician with an urbane wit and a mischievous sense of humour, rarely invokes my nationality unless it is to imply some cultural shortcoming. I gulped before asking what exactly FKK meant.
His reply sent an unexpected shiver down my spine. “It's kind of a nudist club.”
FKK that: Inside Germany’s Free Body Culture movement
Johan explained FKK, or Freikörperkultur, which translates as Free Body Culture, is a German tradition which dates back to the end of the 19th century. The movement encourages adherents to shed their clothing and participate in healthy activities to connect with the natural world. It promises a physical and mental boost in a community of like-minded individuals.
Johan joined the Helios Club only recently, at the behest of his daughter after she visited with a friend's family.
“My daughter rang me one day after school and said, ‘Oh, you know, we're in this club and it's quite cool. You should come and check it out.’”
When he arrived, he was immediately struck by the location. “It is fantastic,” says Johan. The club is inside a fenced-off piece of land about the size of three football pitches in the middle of the Grunewald - a 3,000-hectare forest in Berlin and the city's largest green space - which means children can't run out and strangers can’t get in.
The club has excellent facilities: along with changing rooms and lockers there is a cafeteria and a bar inside. And then there’s the sports area, with six tennis courts, a beach volleyball court, basketball hoops and a track and field area. Johan explained that most members do not play sports naked, but there are some diehards who do.
There are also occasional camping weekends where people bring their tents and stay overnight. “And then everybody goes for a midnight dip in the pool. These are fun little events where there is also music, dancing and a barbecue,” says Johan.
But this wasn't Johan's first naked rodeo. In fact, his FKK experience began as a child.
“FKK was very popular in the 70s, much more so than today. My parents were not FKK clubbers, but when we went on vacation, we often visited FKK beaches. I had an early introduction to the concept but lost interest as a teenager.”
‘A very liberal experience but done German style’
The popularity of FKK has waxed and waned over the years, but the German take on Naturism has been a part of the national psyche since it began. That is partly why a nation often seen as conservative has only scant legislation regulating public nudity.
Speaking of regulations, something that Johan finds very funny is that despite the very liberal and groovy vibes evoked by the idea of a nude-friendly community, there are lots of rules inside the club.
“I always joke because, of course, it is a club with a board, club secretary, a financier and a sports administrator. It is very organised. And wherever you go in the club, there will be laminated notes with precise, detailed instructions on where and when you can be naked. A very liberal experience but done German style.”
Johan likes to go to the club after work for a sauna. “It is awesome - if I'm lucky, I'm the only one in the sauna.”
Afterwards, he goes out in the forest for a walk. “By then, the bats are starting to fly around, the stars twinkle above and I am surrounded by nature. I'm just there in the woods by myself. It is like I rule the place!”
Amongst the pigeons: Can FKK help me confront my body issues?
The way my good friend describes the club and what he loves about it is persuasive. It is not just the mental and physical health benefits that appeal to me. I am also keen to rid myself, or at least confront my body image issues head-on.
I am not short on confidence, nor am I troubled by low self-esteem but, thanks to a mild case of pectus carinatum or pigeon chest, whipping my top off at the beach is something I try to avoid.
Unless I have some major corrective surgery, I will have to learn to become more accepting of my anatomy. Acceptance is a principle of FKK that Johan is keen to point out.
“Communal nudity is a vital part of FKK,” he tells me. “These days with the pressure to conform to an almost impossible concept of bodily perfection, the variety of humans on show at the club is refreshing.”
He has encountered people from all walks of life at Helios - including his bank manager - and with all sorts of body shapes.
“This is something I appreciate more as I approach 50,” says Johan. “I mean, you can become obsessed with chasing the increasingly unobtainable, or you can relax and let it all hang out - with dignity."
‘I found the experience to be quite wonderful’
Thus, I found myself standing behind a tree in a private woodland in Surrey, preparing for my first forest walk, relieved of my modesty, as a bemused friend got ready to take a few snaps before I set off. Acceptance of my bare behind is a learning curve for both of us.
I found the experience to be quite wonderful. Striding through the trees stripped of civilisation is akin to that first feeling you get when skinny dipping. It is amazing how removing those final layers of cloth makes such a difference.
And as the soft breeze passes by my undercarriage, I do indeed feel liberated. But it is not a one-sided experience. Yes, I am connecting with nature, but nature is also connecting with me, I think. I am just another animal who has wandered into the ecosystem, not a marauding human being coming to spoil the party.
However, this is just the first step. I may have found freedom amongst the flora and fauna of deepest Surrey, but I am still nervous about doing so in front of strangers. I have yet to progress beyond the sniggering stage (as illustrated by the schoolboy humour in the photos) but hopefully, a week spent in the company of some enthusiastic German nudists will help me address my discomfort.
Where can you experience Germany’s Freikörperkultur?
In general, you need to be recommended for membership at Helios Club. You can go as a guest of a member up to three times before being asked to begin the membership process.
There are also open days for people to look around if they do not know anyone at the club. Before membership is confirmed, applicants must go through a strict vetting process as the club is child-friendly, pass an interview and complete a probation period.
But freewheeling Berlin is packed with places where visitors can immerse themselves in Freikörperkultur without all the paperwork.
The city is surrounded by picturesque swimming lakes, many of which have a nudist area or take a liberal approach to clothing - check out Teufelssee, Plötzensee and Halensee.