I felt confused the first time I saw a 'frontón'. It was early in the morning, almost silent and with a slight icy chill in the air. I had just arrived in the Basque region of France via the night train form Paris and was already beginning to notice some of the visual idiosyncrasies of Basque culture; white cottage-esque houses with colourful wooden window frames, green hills and distant mountains, old men wearing large black berets (the boina vasca), and then the frontón; there it was. I couldn’t work out whether it was a half-built football pitch or a decrepit tennis court with no net. The fact is, it was simply a frontón; the playing area for the fastest ball game in the world, Basque Pelota.
I would soon notice frontóns dotted all over the Greater Basque Region, in both France and Spain. They are there to be seen everywhere from the Basque region’s biggest cities to its tiniest and most remote villages. Frontóns are symbolic of the Basque Country like red phone-boxes are to London or yellow taxis to New York. So what on Earth is Basque Pelota? And how did it come about?
To watch professional games of Basque Pelota, here are some of the Greater Basque Region’s most popular venues.
Basque Pelota is a popular, historic and traditional ball sport played in the Greater Basque Region. The sport is comprised of a number of different games with different rule sets, each consisting of different numbers of players, teams and equipment. The 'zesta punta' version involves rubber balls being launched against a wall from basket-like rackets and is regarded as the fastest ball game in the world.
The version of Basque Pelota that really stood out for me however was 'hand pelota', which is played solely with bare hands and an extremely solid ball made from wool wrapped strongly and tightly in leather. According to a friend of mine from the Navarre village of Estella, “Any time you play this game, your hand will be bruised and swollen. You will go home in pain.” He then proceeded to show me photos on his mobile phone of his bruised and swollen hand after days at the frontón.
Basque Pelota is believed to have originated from the ancient French sport ‘Jeu de Paume’ and developed its own distinct style in the Basque Country. This distinct style emerged around Napoleonic times in the late 1700s or early 1800s.
I’ll always remember the time I was invited to share a traditional Basque meal in one of Pamplona’s peñas (private social clubs). The meal ended with those sat at the table singing songs in Euskera – the ancient Basque language. The old guy who sat next to me, by the name of Patxi, told me all about his glory days of playing Basque Pelota. But the image I’ll never forget is that of his hand. Patxi, in a dignified manner, showed me a strong but battered hand that appeared to be permanently swollen with a circular dent in the middle of his palm. “Years of playing” he told me, glowing with pride.
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