If you’ve driven through towns or villages in this south west corner of France you must have passed a fronton, like this one adjoining the church in the captivating village of Ainhoa. Look for a church and you’ll probably find a fronton, maybe sharing one of its walls. This is the playground of pelote (pelota over the border in Spain). A variation of this is Jai alai, traditionally played in an indoor fronton but our local version of pelote is Joko Garbi, played on the open court. Cancelled at the start of the lockdown our annual tournament restarted this month.
Other local events were not so fortunate and have been postponed until 2021. The Basque Games, that demonstration of masculine prowess (tug-of-war, bale carrying and so on) is not just a pleasurable afternoon’s entertainment; it provides valuable cash for the local church and parish. Traditionally our parish priest chairs the panel of judges. The proceeds of the annual village petanque (boules) competition go to the local primary school. Even lone cyclists were banned, not just the lycra clad pelotons that labour up the hill in front of our house.
Primitive balls have been hit or thrown since recorded time but 12th century French monks are credited with inventing a game hitting an improvised ball against their monastery wall with their bare hands and which developed over the centuries into the pelote we know. Whether this is authentic is not significant; someone had to invent it so the monks may as well receive the kudos. What they could never have foreseen was the abundance of games that were spawned from this. It was the French, again, who devised the game of Jeu de paume, literally ‘game of the palm’ and played with bare hands, a more sophisticated variation of that played by the monks. La pelote à main nue is alive and well in our village. It’s not much different from the game of ‘fives’ we played at school but, being British, we wore leather gloves! It is a game of precision and wits and where hard hitting is not an advantage.
When I said to an acquaintance that a version of pelote was the fastest game on earth he dismissed the idea saying that it had to be real tennis. There is a grain of truth in that because real tennis is descended from jeu de paume. Somewhere around the 16th century someone hit on the idea (apologies for the pun) of hitting the ball with a racket, either a solid bat or a rudimentary affair with a wooden frame and strung with sheep gut. The game then took off, particularly with the aristocracy. To list all the games that have proliferated since our monks started the ball rolling, as it were, would make your head spin.
This august bible of statistics is in no doubt that the version of pelote known as Jai Alai is the game with the fastest projectile speed of any moving ball game at 302km/h 188mph. It is also one of the most lethal as Madame found out when we were watching our local team.
It also has the distinction of having been an Olympic sport. The winner of the gold medal in 1908 was an American, Jay Gould II, while the silver and bronze went to Great Britain. The Basque region obviously could not provide a competitor, probably for financial reasons. Moreover, it is the oldest ongoing annual world championship in sport, first established over 250 years ago.
Its high speed makes the ball (the pelote) capable of causing serious injury. The spectators are sometimes protected by a chain-link fence, but this is rare in the villages. The players on the other hand have no such protection, and injuries are not uncommon. You should never, ever, take your eye off the ball when it’s in play.
Last year Madame and I went down to the fronton to see the regular Wednesday evening joko garbi game. Entrance is free but a former player comes round with a basket for contributions. A villageois, Gerard is our deputy mayor and the local undertaker. Young players give you a ticket which could win you a gateau basque. The winning team is the first to score 40 points. The accruing score is first sung in Basque then repeated in French.
We tend to sit on the highest concrete level trusting that it is safer up there. There is chain link fencing but it’s not to protect spectators from random balls but put there to stop people falling back and rolling down the slope to the car park. It was one of those calm, sultry evenings and the ball was being hit higher up than usual, so high that its flight was obscured by the line of tree on the opposite side. The next we knew was the ball hitting the iron stanchion next to Madame‘s head with a resounding crack then ricocheting off the post on to her shoulder. The game came to a standstill. Hundreds of pairs of eyes swivelled in our direction, the anxious players gathered round and Gerard came to assess the damage. A few centimetres to the left and Gerard might have been looking at a potential customer. Fortunately the iron post had taken the sting out of the trajectory but had still left an ugly bruise.
It is the Chistera (cesta in Spanish, meaning basket) that gives this version of pelote its appeal. The Basque word is xistera. It doesn’t begin with a ‘c’ because there isn’t one in the Basque language. (Nor will you find q,r,v,w or y). The long, curved basket (starting with a leather glove) ideally is made from steamed chestnut wood and woven reeds. The genuine article is not factory made. Tests showed that plastic chisteras cannot cope with the temperature changes that they undergo during a game. Players are able to put enormous spin on the balls which makes them less predictable. Needless to say they are expensive. I looked for a secondhand one last year for a present and it was 100 euros.
It requires strength and good eyesight to handle the chistera. During World War II Ernest Hemingway suggested that jai alai players should be used to lob grenades down the hatches of German submarines. He didn’t explain how they were to approach near enough.
Not far from here is a memorial to Victor Iturria who was evacuated to England during the battle of Dunkirk where he joined the Free French Forces. In 1944 he parachuted into occupied France and fought with the French resistance and was killed in an ambush. This memorial shows him throwing a grenade adding…. exécutant le même movement comme un joueur de pelote basque.
Madame and I went to town for the final. While the linesman always has to touch up the boundaries we have never seen the court watered. Still, it was the final and we have had a drought for two months. We were warned to wear masks – a warning that most people ignored. History repeated itself. A high ball came dropping swiftly in our directions – but was fortunately caught by me! Years of youthful cricket practice paid dividends. During the game four gendarmes appeared. Masks miraculously appeared. They watched the game for a while then went away. Maybe it was too much hassle to interrupt a final. Result: Baïgorry 40 Navarrenx 29.
Should you ever find yourself in Madrid try and find time to visit the Prado Museum, Spain’s national art museum, widely considered to have one of the world’s finest collections of European art. Unlike French museums Spanish ones are bilingual and English is used for all exhibits. There you should find this masterpiece;
Once somebody had the idea of putting a net across a court then the dynamics of ball games changed dramatically.
Tennis was born and, for the first time, there was a game that ladies could play. Come to think of it, in all the years we have been here, we have never seen a female pelote player.
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