Travel: Pelota is a real pain in Spain

It is the fastest game in the world. Eric Kendall tried the macho, bare-handed version
THERE'S NOT a great deal to pelota. After my first hit, I began to wish there was more: such as a racket with which to hit the ball, or even just padded gloves. But in this Basque version of squash, played either with bare hands or with a pala, paleta or cesta, the most macho and excruciating version is still going strong and happened to be the game of choice at the club I was visiting, where they called it pelota a mano, which means, simply, hand-ball.

Next to other traditional Basque sports such as stone-lifting, log-chopping and grass-cutting, pelota is the height of frivolity, but to non-Basques it is the self-flagellating, primitive precursor to squash and tennis.

Despite not knowing the Spanish for "You must be joking, mate" and "intense pain", I managed to get the drift of what my teacher was saying as he waggled his hand with an agonised look on his face. His playing days were clearly over and I was about to find out why.

I bounced the rock-like ball in the service area and took a swipe, trying to gauge a sufficient level of ferocity which would get the ball to the front wall while causing minimum trauma to my hand. Failing on both counts, I recovered enough to opt for the karate principle whereby hitting something sufficiently hard turns physics on its head, allowing your hand to travel through bricks. A small rubber ball should have been a piece of cake, but for me it was more like a large lump of concrete.

A spectator came to my rescue with a beechwood paddle or "paleta", flat and ungainly with three holes drilled in it to cut down-wind resistance. Closer inspection revealed plugs in the end which, I suspect, concealed lead shot.

The noise and feel of bat on ball was the most satisfying sensation in the world. So dense is the ball that it rebounds off the concrete walls with incredible zing, inviting you to pound it ever harder.

Later research revealed that it is made from hand-wound virgin rubber and a bit of linen or nylon thread, topped off with hardened goat skin.

After a few violent rallies to restore my confidence, I had a final paddle- free go. The spirit was willing but the flesh was feeling like steak tartar, so I graciously gave way to two junior champions, Ruben and Nacho, whose 17-year-old hands were about twice as thick as mine. Without any sign of pain they hammered the ball with long, ferocious curve-armed swings, driving it deep to the back of the court.

Moving in long, loping strides, they stepped into each shot at a half- run for extra impetus. An eye-watering smack resounded round the three walls with each strike.

While pelota a mano is the world's most routinely painful ball game, the glamorous version known as jai alai, which uses a huge wicker scoop to sling the ball, is the world's fastest. The cesta - custom-made from Pyrenean mountain reeds woven over a ribbed frame of chestnut, with a sewn in leather glove - is used to catch and sling the ball in one smooth movement.

Get four people on court with the ball whizzing around at 150mph, and it is not surprising that spectators like to gamble on the outcome - like how many players are going to survive the next point. A squash ball might really sting on the back of the thigh, but in jai alai, it might just take your leg off.

After that kind of excitement, a relaxing bit of gardening - stone-lifting, log-chopping and grass-cutting - could be just what you need.

On the pelota trail

Though most common in the Basque regions of Spain and southern France, forms of pelota are played all over Spain, Mexico and parts of the US. The court can be one, two or three walled and is open to the skies. Spectators usually watch from above the back wall and stands along the side.

Jai alai is played on the biggest courts which are more than 50 metres long.

Trying pelota requires persistence. The club at Casa de los Navarros, Paseo/Passeig Maragall 375-381, 08032 Barcelona is a friendly place where you might get a game between 6pm and 9pm. Call the club secretary, Rosalia, if your Spanish is good (0034 93 420 4591 or fax: 0034 93 429 4727).

Spectating is a more likely option; lookout for posters in towns and villages advertising professional games, most of which seem to be played at 10pm or later. If betting on the nags is a bit of a mystery to you, prepare yourself for untold complexity and confusion when it comes to pelota.