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.

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor