Home Features History Letters from Spain New Arrivals Profiles Recipes Sightseeing Vocabulary Weather

Chapter Thirty-six – Pelota (part one)

Pelota (part one)

PELOTA is a Basque game with a hard ball made of dogskin. From a distance it looks as if a shindy had just started and that the noise of shooting was being added to the wild uproar; but when you get nearer, you discover that the uproar is not caused by the players or even the onlookers but by the betting-touts who rush about in front of the crowd and take bets on Blue and Red, these being the distinctive colours of the teams.

From a dramatic point of view these betting-touts are the most interesting feature of the show; for they yell like monkeys, leap about, wave their arms and indicate the bets on their outstretched fingers, the bets and winning being flung to and fro between touts and onlookers in hollow pellets, which whizz past your nose like nuts shaken from a tree where a gang of apes are squatting.

While this passionate betting-game is developing, the pelota in the narrow sense of the word is being played lower down in front of the crowd.

On each side there are two players with a sort of long wicker pod or trough, fastened to the right hand by means of a leather glove.

Elola catches the flying ball in his pod, and wallop, he swipes it against the high wall which is known as the fronton. The ball bounces off with a crash, and whizzes back with the momentum of a projectile; bang, now Gabriel has got it in his pod, and whirls the racket round, and flings the ball at the fronton like a bomb.

And bang, now Teodoro has got it in his trough and whacks it against the wall with a thud; now it is Elola’s turn again to catch it as it bounces off. That is what it looks like in terms of a slow-motion film; but in reality you see four white figures, each leaping in his line, and smack bang, smack bang, smack bang, the ball flies above them and remains almost invisible; if the player misses it, if the ball bounces on the ground twice, or if some other mysterious slip is made, that ends the round and the other team scores a point; the touts begin to wave their arms and with a terrific yell announce fresh bets.

And so it goes on until sixty points or thereabouts have been scored. Then a fresh set of Rojos and Azules arrive, and they begin all over again, while the crowd is re-shuffled, as if they were so many roulette-players.