While in Biarritz Pierre, our contact there, insisted that we attend a tournament of one of the regional sports, ensuring us that we would not have seen anything like it before. He was right. Biarritz is one of the major towns in the French Basque country in south-west France, and the sport recommended by Pierre is traditional to the area.
The competition was held on a week night in a large purpose-built stadium. The court looked like a cross between a squash court and a royal tennis court. It was a three-sided rectangular shape, with walls on one side and at each end.
The players came on to the court holding very large scoop-like paddles that looked like they were made from wicker. Facing the spectators, who were seated to the side, the players were introduced by a compere.
Then the game began. Before we knew it the ball was flying around the court; we knew it had hit a wall when we heard a loud ‘thwack’. These loud noises occurred at a fast rate, and we found keeping up with the ball a challenge. This game is fast!
For the game, the ball is hit towards the front wall; the returned ball must be caught in the scoop – in the air, from the side wall, or after a single bounce – by a player from the other team, and hurled in a single movement. The ball can’t be held – it must be continually moving.
The players used their paddles like an extension of their hands; indeed, it was difficult to tell where their hands ended and the attachments began. The dexterity with which they manoeuvred the paddles to get to and hurl the ball back towards the wall was astounding. The players will leap in the air, often with great flourish, and climb up the walls to get to a ball.
For the tournament, a number of games were played between two teams, with two players each. The players changed onto the court frequently – it turns out that the team that loses the point is replaced by the next team in a round-robin format. The teams keep rotating until one team reaches seven points.
We didn’t know the rules but that didn’t matter as the physicality and athleticism of the players, and the speed of the game, kept us enthralled.
The game is called cesta punta, and it is one of the more than twenty forms of the sport broadly termed la pélote basque. Cesta punta is touted as ‘the fastest ball game in the world’ (the ball can reach speeds of up to 300 km per hour).
Some terminology: la pélote is the name of the ball; the generic term for the court is le trinquet; and the paddle that is used is called le chistera.
The sport, in its various forms, is played everywhere in the French Basque country. Every town has an outdoor court, called un fronton – a concrete court with a wall at one end, and with the top of the wall rounded. The everyday game, played à la main nue, is like handball.
Touring through this south-western region of France, we had seen boys and men playing a ball game on concrete courts in all of the towns we drove through. They were playing la pélote basque.
An interesting side-note is that Pelote basque is a recognised Olympic sport. It was included in the Summer Olympics in 1900. Since then it has been played as a demonstration sport at the 1924, 1968 and 1992 Summer Olympics.
Here is a short clip showing the excitement of cesta punta.
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