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.

Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Arts and Entertainment

Will Poulter will play the shape-shifting monsterfilm
Arts and Entertainment

books
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
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.

    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
    Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

    Flesh in Venice

    Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
    Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

    Juventus vs Real Madrid

    Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
    Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

    Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

    Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power