Liminal Moments on the Way to & from Guimarães

Diving from the Pont D. Luis I, Porto, Portugal. Source: Dale Barbour

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This is the 4th in a series of posts written by recipients of NiCHE New Scholar Travel Grants to attend the World Congress of Environmental History in Guimarães, Portugal.


Lisbon/July 6, 2014—I wake up to the sound of rain. That’s too bad, because I’m going on a nude beach hunt today and those can be elusive prey at the best of times.

Coast of Portugal. Source: S.Kheraj
Coast of Portugal. Source: S.Kheraj

I’m here for the World Congress of Environmental History, which is being held in Guimarães, Portugal, from July 8 to 12. My paper is “A Tale of Two Rivers: (Un)linking the Undressed Male Body and the Environment in an Industrializing Canadian City, 1870 to 1935.” My research looks at the changing practice of bathing and the cultural spaces that contained that activity in an urban setting. For this conference, I’m looking specifically at how people bathed and often skinny dipped in Toronto’s Don and Humber Rivers. I’m interested more generally in how people occupy and claim space with their bodies and how this process reveals itself neatly in the shared space of the beach. I also don’t mind an excuse to go to the beach.

Eventually the clouds break but it’s a cool day by Lisbon summer standards. The high doesn’t get over 22 or 23 and as I walk down the Costa da Caparica the crowds are scarce. (There’s a little train that runs the 10 km or so length of the beach but the weather had made it equally scarce and it studiously avoided being where I needed it to be.) The character of any beach is determined by the weather, as if the energy on the sand is drawn from the energy beating down from the sun.

This is particularly true when I reach the nude section. I miss it the first time — yes, it is possible to miss a nude beach — and I have to retrace my steps. The fact that there are so few nude bathers has driven them to beach’s headlands.

Clothed people walk the length of the beach and the strength of their presence unsettles the handful of nude sunbathers. A few of them wrap themselves in a towel when clothed people walk by. Others, usually older men whose leathery skin suggests a commitment to tanning without clothes, stride out boldly, their very presence acting as a stamp of possession on the shoreline. In the headlands, men—and they’re all men—are tucked among the copses of bushes and grass. Some are gay men cruising for sex, its own dance of silent suggestion and acquiesce or rejection. Others, indifferent to the sexual tension that weaves around them, strip down and curl up on their towel; their body language protecting them from the activity around them even as their clothes have been stripped off to embrace the elements.

If I had woken up to sun, if it had been a few degrees hotter, the beach would have been a different space. The presence of undressed bodies would have been sufficient to take control of the space from water to headlands; it would have claimed the shore as nudist space. Gay and straight people may have shared the space or claimed different sections of shoreline. The activity in the headlands probably would have been more active, but it would have been the backyard to the active and socially engaged front yard of the beach.

Porto/July 12, 2014—There are children bathing along the Cais Da Ribeira in the Douros River. Girls and boys, decked out with waterwings, paddle in the sloped lanes that enter the river as their elders keep a watchful eye. At the Ponte D. Luis I, a muscular male puts on a show by diving from the lower span and then stroking against the current to pull himself up the bank. A group of teens head to the south bank to put on a similar display; the nooks and crannies of the river on that side make it easier for them to swim with the current and pull themselves up downstream. A crowd of tourists is happily snapping pictures.

When I presented at the Congress, I quoted The Globe from 1925 as it waxed eloquent about the sight of boys skinny dipping in secluded swimming holes along the Don and Humber Rivers.  Even as pollution threatened the future of the rivers as swimming spaces, to The Globe these “lithe little forms” were indicative of the health of Toronto. The swimming holes were “reservoirs of civic health.” The lack of clothing among these secluded bathers allowed for the creation of a tangible link between them and the environment. The body becomes the environment and the environment becomes the body; the health of one speaks to the health of the other.

This discourse is still hard to resist. I don’t know what the environmental condition of the Douros River is, but when I see people bathing in the water—in bathing suits, I might add—I can’t help but imagine that this is a healthy space. The presence of the body that lends a gloss of health to the river.

Dale Barbour is a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto and entirely too active on twitter @DaleBarbour

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Dale Barbour

University of Toronto PhD and now H. Sanford Riley Post-doctoral Fellow in Canadian History at University of Winnipeg (2021). Penned a book on Winnipeg Beach and new this fall is Undressed Toronto, an innovative look at how Toronto used its waterfront in the nineteenth century.

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