Striking the ball with a gloved hand in Pelota a mano (or handball)

Striking the ball with a gloved hand in Pelota a mano (or handball)

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.

Pelota a mano in a courtyard of a small town

Pelota a mano in a courtyard of a small town

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.

A powerful throw with the scoop-like xisteria in competitive zesta punta

A powerful throw with the scoop-like xisteria in competitive zesta punta

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.
——–

Paleta goma played with stiff wooden paddles

Paleta goma played with stiff wooden paddles

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.

Photo Credits: hand, outdoors hand, scooped basket, flat bats on court

email



YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE:

9 Responses to Games Around the World: Pelota or Jai Alai

  • Jesse says:

    This sport is pretty new to me. I didn’t know there such kind of game and it seem more of a ping pong and could be related to baseball, aye?

    • Mark H says:

      It is really more related to the racquet sports like squash and tennis in my view.

    • Michael says:

      Jesse if you have never seen Jai alai live you have to at some point in your life. The only place here in the US now to see it is in Florida. Use to have it up here in Connecticut and RI until the caino’t put them out of business.

      A lot of people only look at the gambling aspects of Jai alai here in this country, and its not fare to the sport. If you ever get a chance to get out there on the court and learn how to play as a professional or amateur you fall in love with the sport. The only problem is there are not very many courts around the country where you can go and play.

      Becuase you are throwing that Pelota around, it needs to be played on a court for safety reasons. There is a community of big time Jai alai fans out there and have been for years that have been spreading the word about this sport.

      I would just like to thank Mark for taking the time to post this and sharing this sport with other that are not aware of what Jai alai is. In the meantime if you would like to see Jai alai played live you can go to the website http://www.betdania.com where they have nightly perfomaces during the week where people go an bet on it.

      The objective is easy to understand, one bounce and make the other team miss that ball or Pelota as it is called in Jai alai language…..LoL

      Take care and have a nice holiday!

  • Jai alai is big in Mexico – would love to see a match sometime, though have b o interest in trying my hand at any of it and think you’re awfully brave to do so.

    • Mark H says:

      Mexico as well. Maybe the Spanish introduced it – I wonder if that was in historic times or more recent times. I’d love to try jai alai with the big scoops – I only got to try the pelota games with the wooden bat (paleta) and your hand.

  • Michael says:

    Jai alai is by far one of the best sports out there. Just which that here in the US more focus would be put on the sport then just the gambling aspects of it.

    • Mark H says:

      It’s a shame that the sport has a primarily gambling focus in some places. I didn’t see signs of that in either the official matches or the local games of pelota that I saw (mind you, it could still have been going on). It seems too good a game to be spoilt by an over focus on gambling.

  • This game looks interesting. I didn’t know that there is such existing. Are there some kind of cup or prices to be had after playing it? Can anybody play this? Where does one get the equipment?

    • Mark H says:

      In competitions there are typical prizes like in other sports and the sport is open to all. It is primarily played in the Basque areas of Spain and France but also in other parts of the wrold where Basque people have settled. Equipment etc is available in these areas.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

Follow Travel Wonders
Welcome to Travel Wonders
My name is Mark and I’m a keen traveller. In fact, over the last 25 years, I’ve travelled to every continent and over 80 countries. This blog is about the most memorable destinations – the places I regard as the travel wonders of the world. I’m also a keen photographer, and have taken nearly all the photos you’ll see. During my travels, I’ve met some incredible people, seen inspiring places, viewed extraordinary wildlife and scenery and had some amazing experiences, and I’m writing these stories not only to entertain but primarily to inspire others to discover their own travel wonders.
Awards and Affiliations