Pelota: A Sport with Basque Roots

Basque pelota is a sport closely linked to the Basque Country. There is no Basque village that does not have a pediment (one or two-walled court), a trinquet (four-walled court), or the mur à gauche, a court with a long left-hand side wall. There is the Pala (wooden racket), the Chistera (curved woven racket), the Bare Hand, and many other variations of the game. There are up to 13 variations of Basque Pelota. It is played in about 20 countries, thanks to the diaspora of Basque people around the world. Let's find out more about this sport, the practice of which keeps Basque traditions and language alive.

Fronton et mairie de Guéthary (1992)Fondation du patrimoine

Mythological origins

In the Basque Country, each village has its own court and it is not uncommon to see children, young and not so young, throwing a ball against the court walls, using their bare hands or various instruments. The practice seems to date back to the very first origins of the Basque people and is even evoked in its mythology: the giants, or jentilak, used to play with stone balls, one of which was 10 feet (3 m) wide, and even visible in Mutriku, Spain, from the Mendibeltzuburu mountain. The first written record of grassy areas near villages where pelota could be played outdoors dates back to 1524. It is also sometimes confused with the game of paume (palm), which was practiced indoors throughout the Kingdom of France. This sport took off in the 19th century and became the one we know today, using more powerful rackets and faster balls.

Match de pelote sur le petit fronton de Bidart (1st quarter of the XXth Century)Fondation du patrimoine

In Basque, pelota is called Euskal pilota.
In France, it is usually played on open air courts, many of which were built in the 19th century.
The small court in Bidart is a typical example. It was built in 1869, according to the date inscribed in the center.

Fronton de BidartFondation du patrimoine

This small pediment was made higher twice, once in 1912 and again in 1925. It still welcomes players every evening. They play here with wooden or rubber rackets.

Inauguration du grand fronton de Bidart (1958)Fondation du patrimoine

The big court in Bidart was formally inaugurated in 1958. Today, the city has no less than six pediments, a trinquet court, and a left wall court.

Fronton d'AscainFondation du patrimoine

In Ascain, the pediment in the city center was built in 1863 and made higher in 1932.
The playing area is called the cancha and is marked out by lines that vary according to the area.

Plaque Joset Laduche à AscainFondation du patrimoine

Joset (Joseph) Laduche is a well-known figure in Basque pelota. Born in Ascain, in 1941, he won the French championship of pelota played on a fronton (two-walled court).
He passed his passion for the sport down to his sons, Philippe and Pampi, who also became world champions in pelota played on a trinquet (four-walled court) in 1972 and 1974.

Trinquet d'AscainFondation du patrimoine

Joseph was keen to promote his sport and he built this trinquet court in Ascain in the 1950s. His descendants donated it to the town and it was restored with the support of the Fondation du Patrimoine (Cultural Heritage Foundation) in the early 2000s.
The trinquet courts are directly descended from the game of paume (palm), the forerunner of tennis.

Pasaka is a discipline that is played only on trinquet courts and it is one of the oldest specialties of pelota, derived from the game of paume.
A net is set up in the center of the court and two teams of two players face each other wearing a leather glove.

Trinquet d'AscainFondation du patrimoine

The other forms of pelota that use the trinquet court are played facing the pediment. A sloping roof runs along the left wall, under which a net is stretched that is used during the games.
This game is either played with a leather paddle, a solid rubber paddle, a criss-crossed rubber paddle, a soft racket, or just with bare hands.

Joueur de pelote au trinquet d'AscainFondation du patrimoine

The ground markings are used to delimit the playing areas, depending on the number of players on the field and the discipline. Bare hand pelota can be played face to face or two against two.
You have to hit the ball against the pediment and then hit it on its return before the second bounce.

Matériel de joueur de pelote à main nueFondation du patrimoine

For protection, barehanded players stick rubber strips on their hands, made by double-sided adhesive tapes bound together and finished with adhesive plaster.

Mur à gauche d'AscainFondation du patrimoine

The court with the wall on the left originates from Spain and is third type of space in which pelota can be played.
This left wall measures 98.5 feet (30 m) when using the hollow rubber paleta and the frontenis and 118 feet (36 m) when using either bare hands, the pala corta, the leather paleta, the full rubber paleta, or the joko garbi (short chistera).

The Cesta Punta is the most spectacular and internationally known discipline of pelota. It is played on a Jaï Alaï-type court, with a 177-foot long (54 m) left wall and large chisteras (hollow and curved woven rackets).
The pelota can reach speeds of up to 186 miles per hour (300 km/h) when it is flung from the chistera.

Jon et Patxi TambourindéguyFondation du patrimoine

Patxi and Jon Tambourindeguy: Founders of Ona Pilota

These two brothers, born in Bidart, began playing Basque pelota at a very young age. Patxi, the eldest (on the left), is a former World Champion of Cesta Punta and he played professionally in Miami for 10 years. Jon (on the right) is also a Cesta Punta World Champion. To share their passion and to spread the word about their sport as widely as possible, they created Ona Piloa (Good Pelota in Basque). They offer introductory courses to the general public and advanced courses for more accomplished players. In order to preserve their pelota-related knowledge, they have also started to make and repair large chisteras and balls.

Instruments de joueur de peloteFondation du patrimoine

In their Bidart workshop, there are many large chisteras and full rubber rackets hanging on the walls, and of course many balls.
It takes between 25 and 35 hours of work to make a large chistera.
The curved frame, made of chestnut wood, needs to be made by a cabinetmaker.

Chistera et osierFondation du patrimoine

Wicker is woven around this frame to make the chistera.
A leather glove is created on the wicker structure, so that the player can put his hand in and it won't slip.

Chistera joko garbi et grande chisteraFondation du patrimoine

Here you can see a small chistera, known as a Joko Garbi and a large chistera, side by side.
The same manufacturing techniques are used for making both implements.
During the World War I, a pilota player threw grenades at the enemy using a Joko Garbi.

Plaque de latexFondation du patrimoine

The pelota ball is made of latex cut into strips and then stretched and wrapped around either itself or a boxwood core. The end result of this is a ball that responds and bounces well.
For an adult-size pelota ball in the Cesta Punta game, the latex core must weigh between 3.2 to 3.8 ounces (90 to 110 g).

Étapes de fabrication des pelotesFondation du patrimoine

Wool is wrapped around the latex core to hold it in place and prevent the ball from flying off. A first layer of leather is sewn on to this and then a second.
For the Cesta Punta game, the total weight must be between 4.5 to 4.7 ounces (128 to 132 g).
The quantities of wool and latex vary according to the discipline.

Pelotes en attente d'être restaurées et peaux de chèvresFondation du patrimoine

The final layer of leather is sewn by making a small protrusion, which allows the thread to be hidden and the seam to hold for as long as possible.
This top layer, of goat leather, is replaced regularly. Ona Pilota undertake this activity frequently and they use a Spanish supplier.

Jon Tambourindeguy cousant une peloteFondation du patrimoine

Patxi learned the creation and restoration techniques for chisteras and pelotas in Miami, from a Mexican cestero and pelotero (basket and ball maker).
He passed this knowledge on to his brother Jon when he returned to France to create Ona Pilota.

Rencontre avec Jon et Patxi Tambourindeguy - Joueurs de pelote basque et fondateurs d'Ona PilotaFondation du patrimoine

Video interview with Patxi and Jon Tambourindeguy, professional pelota players and founders of Ona Pilota.

Credits: Story

Many thanks to Jon and Patxi Tambourindeguy and also to the Laduche family for their valuable help in creating this content.

To support the Fondation du Patrimoine's (Cultural Heritage Foundation's) activities, please click on this link:

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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