“Leave your bikes in the trinquet,” we were told on reaching our hotel on the square in St Palais, one of the main towns of the Basque Country and a centre of espadrille production. We had selected the hotel because it has its own indoor pelota court – le trinquet. Paul is or was a keen real tennis player, and as a schoolboy I swung a rackets racket and lost the occasional painful game of fives.
We imagined ourselves playing pelota before breakfast, but although it is on the hotel premises the trinquet belongs to the town sports club. After watching some locals knock a ball about with what looked like standard issue beach bats, we met former local, national and possibly world champion Michel Berrogain, who retired from serious pelota long ago to run a shop in St Palais. “It’s the sort of thing players always do,” he said. “You don’t have to pass exams.”
M Berrogain is one of those sublimely gifted individuals who excel at any sport. As a rugbyman he flew down the wing for Bayonne and, after taking up tennis at 40, in no time found himself national veterans champion at Roland Garros, swapping the racket to play forehand off both sides with equal ease. Why not? Once you have learned to play main nue (bare hands) pelota you can play all kinds, he says, and what is tennis if not dumbed-down pelota?
At the core of every Basque village stand the church, the cemetery and the fronton (a gabled wall that makes an outdoor court). The 5-year old Michel Berrogain spent his Sunday mornings with all the other boys, hitting a ball against the fronton with his bare hands; after Mass, naturally.
“The Basques are traditionalists,” he tells us. “They have la Messe, le chant, le folklore et la pelote.” When they go abroad, as they do for they are seafarers, they take their pelota with them and stick together. Different forms of the game flourish in different countries, but in the Basque Country it’s all about la main nue. “It’s the cheapest and simplest way, and it’s how children start in the villages,” says Berrogain. Pelota is a village game, a popular game. Women do not play bare handed – only with the bat, la pala.
As well as all their chanting and churchgoing the Basques like to bet. All the serious money goes on main nue pelota, so this is what the top professionals play. Yes, there is match fixing, and some professionals have grown rich from it. Not Berrogain. “I played to win.” He now plays championship bridge.
Pelota is quite bewildering in all its variations: with and without bats, gloves and pelican’s beak gauntlets; against the wall, face to face across the net, indoor, outdoor, singles, doubles and team games. There are different balls too, stitched differently for different bounces and spins.
Outsiders are often drawn to the version using the biggest gauntlet – grand chistera. The scoop generates power, the ball flies at high speed and players may be up to 70 metres from the wall. But the skill level is relatively low, the weapon is expensive, and few Basques bother with it. A good main nue player can send the ball 40 metres. Now that takes skill.