Tourism off, Munich seeks greater exposure

Park: A drop in nudists prompts worries about losing foreign visitors and societal changes.

September 20, 2002|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MUNICH, Germany - It's just about noon at a giant green park in the middle of the city, and the tourists are stalking like hunters. Armed with cameras, eyes darting like Secret Service agents', they are in search of the increasingly elusive Naked German.

The hunting isn't what it used to be.

Munich's English Garden was once a place where hundreds of Germans would gather, peel off all their clothes and read a book, take a nap, wade in a creek or - as Michael Proc fondly recalls - simply party naked. There are still plenty of unclothed people in the garden, but the nudist numbers have been steadily dropping.

"I don't know that I blame the tourists, but they probably haven't helped things," says Proc, who at 46 has been coming to the garden and baring all for 30 years. "I think it's more that all the freaky people have gotten old - like me."

He is still hanging out there, and so are some of his friends who first flocked to the gardens in the 1970s, when officials estimate that 10 percent of the visitors took their clothes off. Some estimates put that at less than 1 percent these days.

The lack of skin has become so noticeable that when news reports in Munich and elsewhere started cropping up that tourism was off because the clothes weren't, Germans became concerned. Worried particularly about the loss of Asian and American visitors, the park director told several news outlets that a fresh batch of fresh bodies was needed if the vitality of the 900-acre garden was to be maintained.

But the truth is, says Thomas Woelher, vice president of the Bavarian Administration of Castles, Parks and Lakes, that the English Garden has about as many visitors as it can handle. "This whole naked question has been a joke, more or less, that people started to take seriously. There are fewer nudists in the garden, but that's not going to keep people away from Munich. Anyway, we charge to get into the castles but not the garden. By this logic, we should put naked people in the castles. And I promise you, you will not see naked people in our castles."

Still, Woehler says, and Proc concurs, the character of the garden has changed.

Nude beaches and sunbathing in the buff are common throughout Europe, and perhaps nowhere more than in Germany. But the English Garden - a park, really - became an unlikely spot for nudists because it is in the heart of Munich, much like Central Park is in New York. An exiled American, Count Rumford, conceived of the garden in 1789, the year of the French Revolution, as a place for unemployed soldiers to use for planting.

Looking toward the revolutionary spirit in France, though, and the poverty in Bavaria, the count decided people needed a place to enjoy, lest the Germans follow the lead of the French.

Germany's Free Body Culture Movement, which began around 1900, may have contributed to the garden's skin scene. But not until the 1970s did the clothes really begin flying in the garden, when an odd alliance of hippies and young intellectuals used nudity as an act of defiance.

When the sun became too much, they'd get up, walk outside the garden gates to a subway stop and ride the trains, still naked, two stops to a swimming pond. Those who wanted refreshments walked about 200 yards to one of Munich's largest beer gardens.

"It was very free; there was music, there were a lot of people smoking marijuana and there were a lot of naked bodies," Proc says. "Now it looks like I'm one of the last of the freaky people. The children of the freaky people are very conservative."

Maybe so, but others have a list of reasons why sunbathers are less likely to take their clothes off. First are the tourists, particularly those from Asia and the United States, who put seeing naked Germans on their sight-seeing list just ahead of the Nymphenburg Palace.

"There's too many people who walk by and stare, especially if you're a woman," says Julia Schweitzer, 27, who, nevertheless, had her top stuffed into her duffel bag. "It's strange for them to see naked women lying around in a park in the city, but that's not reason to stare. It's OK to look, but don't stare."

She had just returned to Munich from two weeks' vacation on the island of Sylt, where so many people remain naked, she said, there's no reason to stare.

Her friend, Miriam Rieder, 26, has also noticed the stares and decided not to put herself on full display. But she says she thinks the number of nudists has been decreasing because many of them took part only for the shock value - and that has diminished as body parts once publicly unseen have been demystified by the media.

"You go to the movies, people are naked," she says. "You watch television, even, and people are naked. On the computers? Everybody's naked. It's naked, naked, naked. Except for the tourists. Maybe if they took their clothes off, everybody here would be naked, even the young people."

Never have people who have come to see so much seen so little. But for some, tourists or no tourists, naked is the way to go.

"I think it looks better when you are brown on every part of the body," says Georg Schlitt, 34, who, on his lunch hour from his job as a computer programmer, rode his bike to the park, stripped down to brown and began reading as if he were fully clothed on a commute to work. "The tourists don't bother me because this is just me but with no clothes on."

His wife will spend an afternoon in the park with him, but she stays clothed, he says.

"She minds people looking at her," Schlitt says. "I tell her: `That's fine. You be clothed because you're more comfortable; I'll be nude because I'm more comfortable.' It works for both of us. Whatever makes someone happy is what they should do."

And, he adds, joking about the need for tourism, "I guess I'm a better German than my wife."

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