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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth McGovern as Cora, Countess of Grantham and Richard E Grant as Simon Bricker

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Art
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard, nicknamed by the press as 'Dirty Diana'

Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
The X Factor 2014 judges: Simon Cowell, Cheryl Cole, Mel B and Louis Walsh

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace was caught by a camera van driving 32mph over the speed limit

TV
Arts and Entertainment
books
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Iain reacts to his GBBO disaster

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Outlaw Pete is based on an eight-minute ballad from Springsteen’s 2009 Working on a Dream album

books
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012

film
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Chief inspector of GPs: ‘Most doctors don’t really know what bad practice can be like for patients’

    Steve Field: ‘Most doctors don’t really know what bad practice can be like for patients’

    The man charged with inspecting doctors explains why he may not be welcome in every surgery
    Stolen youth: Younger blood can reverse many of the effects of ageing

    Stolen youth

    Younger blood can reverse many of the effects of ageing
    Bob Willoughby: Hollywood's first behind the scenes photographer

    Bob Willoughby: The reel deal

    He was the photographer who brought documentary photojournalism to Hollywood, changing the way film stars would be portrayed for ever
    Hollywood heavyweights produce world's most expensive corporate video - for Macau casino

    Hollywood heavyweights produce world's most expensive corporate video - for Macau casino

    Scorsese in the director's chair with De Niro, DiCaprio and Pitt to star
    Angelina Jolie's wedding dress: made by Versace, designed by her children

    Made by Versace, designed by her children

    Angelina Jolie's wedding dressed revealed
    Anyone for pulled chicken?

    Pulling chicks

    Pulled pork has gone from being a US barbecue secret to a regular on supermarket shelves. Now KFC is trying to tempt us with a chicken version
    9 best steam generator irons

    9 best steam generator irons

    To get through your ironing as swiftly as possible, invest in one of these efficient gadgets
    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

    US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
    Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
    Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
    Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing