Like many children growing up, I spent a lot of time playing handball against a local school or park wall. The culturally independent Basque area (with a most mysterious language unlike any other I’ve heard) located in the southwest of France and northwest of Spain have turned this game into the remarkable sport of pelota (literally ball in Spanish). Like a cross between handball, squash and tennis is an incredibly athletic and fast-paced game played on a court (indoor or outdoor) with a front, side (and sometimes back) wall and a highly bouncy hard rubber ball.
On several occasions in travels through the spectacular Pyrenees I saw pelota played in a variety of forms and had a chance to try it on a couple of occasions at the end of competitive play.
At its simplest, two teams of two play handball (pelota a mano) scoring one point every time the other team misses. Despite wearing a leather glove, it stings the hands after just a few hits so I can only admire those who play for complete matches. In a small village, pelota a mano takes over the main square on weekends, the historic cobbles adding an extra dimension with skewed bounces. In colourful uniforms with a bandana tied around the waist, village competitions draw crowds who participate in every rally with cries and screams and appreciation of skilled play.
Indoors, games are played on bigger courts with either wooden bats (called paleta goma) or strange scoops (variation is called jai alai or zesta punta in basque) that appear like wicker baskets. The scoops are around half a metre long tied to the players arm and allow the players to catch the ball before flinging it back with incredible power and speed using a technique a little like throwing a Frisbee (see this video as an example). The game requires good judgement as the ball is extremely bouncy so you need to rush to the spot where it lands within reach (see a video here). Zesta punta is regarded by some as the fastest game in the world with the speeds that can be generated from the xisteria.
If in the beautiful Pau or Bairritz or any number of Spanish towns or villages, check out a game (or try to join in a local event). While I’ve never got to try a game with the wicker basket scoops (called xisteria in Basque) the game with wooden bats is similar to squash but much faster and on a bigger court. It is an extraordinarily skilful and fun game based on the simplest of premises. I’ve never seen a game of pelota played anywhere else and adds to the strong cultural identity of the Basque people.
At the start of each month during 2012, Travel Wonders features a popular or characteristic sport or game played or witnessed during my travels. Last month shared the athletic Asian game of Sepak Takraw while earlier articles feature table games such the popular African game mancala, my own personal favourite that always travels with me, Pass the Pigs and the Latin American game of dominoes.