Euskal pilota: the age-old ball games of the Basque Country

I am dazzled by the rural beauty of the French Basque Country, where the rugged coast and green hills are dotted with villages with red tiled roofs and surrounded by flocks of white sheep. Walking through these towns, I’m always on the lookout for a singular wall, measuring around 16m wide and 10m high. It is often pink, sometimes pale yellow, and the date it was erected is usually inscribed on the facade. It is possible, but not required, for the top of the wall to rise in an arch and be lined with a chain-link fence.

Once I find the wall, chances are I’ll be near the town hall, with signs identifying it in two languages: “herriko etxe” in Basque and “town hall” in French. And next to the town hall, I’m sure to find a stone church with a respectfully maintained cemetery.

This trio of buildings is so sacred to locals that it is known as the trinity: the town hall, the church and this wall, which the Basques call the square, or pediment in French. Communities gather here to watch and play a dozen different ball games known as Basque PilotBasque meaning Basque, and drive i.e. the specific type of ball, a latex nut wrapped in yarn, then covered in leather.

Developed in these mountains hundreds of years ago, the games (commonly referred to as Basque pelota around the world) range from manual pilota, in which the ball is thrown and caught with the bare hands, to pala, a collection of games played with a wooden paddle or corded racket. In an age of football and video game idols, it’s a testament to the strength of Basque culture that the seats are still filled with players jostling for time every Sunday afternoon, while friends, families and cheering fans watch from the sidelines.

These wall sports are generally considered to be the descendants of palm game, a 17th century game originating in France, and the direct ancestors of tennis, squash and racket ball. Today they are played all over the world, largely thanks to Basque entrepreneurs who exported one of the games, this point, in Florida in the 1920s. They renamed it “jai alai”, meaning “joyful celebration”, and it started a betting trend with an international audience.

About Ethel Nester

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