If any sport in Navarre
has its own entity, it is pelota. The sport was born in Ancient Greece, was played by monks and monarchs, and later put down roots in this region and consolidated itself. It was played on grassy meadows, village squares and even under street arches. Navarre produces well-known pelotaris
(players) and frontones
(courts) can be found all over the region as an essential part of its villages and towns/cities. They are places where friends get together or where professional sportsmen face up to each other in the different modalities of the sport —pala
(with a bat), cesta punta
(with a wicker basket, called jai alai in the USA), remonte
(another wicker basket variation), and the king of all: pelota mano
The world of the ball in Navarra
- History and evolution
- Pelotaris from Navarre
- Enclosures and facilities
- The pelota (ball)
- Enclosures and facilities
- Watching a match
- Websites of interest
History and evolution
Pelota is a thousand-years-old game that has seen periods of splendour and decadence and has been immortalised in masterpieces such as Homer's Odyssey or Goya's painting El juego de la pelota.
Pelotaris from Navarre
The Greeks were the first to create rules for pelota. The Romans played it in their leisure time, even the emperors. During the Middle Ages it was restricted to the realm of religion, with monastery cloisters becoming common courts for the members of the clergy. Thanks to this, the game survived and later evolved until it became a popular sport.
From the 12th to the 14th centuries, the game progressed and several monarchs enjoyed playing it.
In Navarre, the first written reference to pelota dates from 1331, when King Felipe III of Evreux, a fan of the game, ordered a wooden stand to be erected in the cloister of the Dominican Order in Pamplona so he could watch a match from there. The Royal Palace at Olite also had a court, as seen in documents from 1408 that describe a "space to play peillota". This court lasted a long time, as documents from the 16th century mention repairs to this particular place.
In the 16th century, Navarre was a major centre for pelota, as witnessed by references to matches in Corella and Sangüesa. There is even a record of a complaint lodged with the law courts at the time against the monks from the monastery at Fitero for playing the game.
In the 17th century, the game became popular all over Spain. It was played by all social classes, trinquet courts appeared everywhere, the version with a bat was played more and more, and the first prohibitions of playing the game in streets, church porches, cemeteries, where some citizens considered it a nuisance. In the 18th century Navarre became one of the areas where it was practised the most, and this situation continued in the following centuries and the sport developed its own entity.
In the final decade of the 19th century the most representative modalities of pelota established themselves: mano, pala, remonte and cesta-punta. In the 20th century it started to be played professionally.
Pelota is undoubtedly the rural sport par excellence of the region. Navarre has been, and is, a place that has produced well-known pelotaris, (pelota players) among them the manistas (mano players) Retegui, Arretxe, Galarza, Bengoetxea, Lajos, the Olaizola brothers, Eugi, Beloki, Martínez de Irujo or Abel Barriola, the palistas (pala players) Óscar Insausti and Iturri, and the remontistas (remonte players) Jesús Ábrego, Raúl, the Lecumberri brothers, Kike Elizalde, Koteto Ezkurra and Iñaki Lizaso.
Modalities of the sport
Pelota modalities can be classified as 'direct' or 'indirect'. In the former, the players play opposite each other and throw the ball directly, while in the latter the ball is thrown against the wall and hit by other player on the return.
The pelota (ball)
Direct games —the oldest ones
*Bote Luzea: It only requires one ball and a rectangular playing area, with no need for walls. A stone called a botillo is placed at one end and the sacador (server) of each team makes the service from there. Matches are played between teams of 5 players: a server and 4 returners. There is a variant called "mahai jokoa", in which the service is made from a table located in the centre of the playing area.
*Guante-Laxoa: Similar to the above, but played with a glove in bigger playing surfaces with 4 players in each team and one wall located on the side opposite to the server.
*Rebote: A rectangular court with a frontis (façade), against which the service is made. The court is divided into two unequal parts: one, the closest to the wall, for the returning team, and the other for the attacking team. The game is played with gloves and baskets that are similar to the joko garbi variant.
*Pasaka: Played in a trinquet court or arkupe, using leather gloves. There are two teams in a court divided by a one-metre-high net. It is similar to tennis; the idea is to send the ball over the net and stop the opponent from returning it.
Trinquet: a closed court with a double side wall and without a parallel strip to the right of the court
Arkupe: closed space in a public building which is used to play pelota
Form of play
In all the direct versions, the pelotaris send the ball into the opposing team's area. The scoring system follows the old system: 15-0, 15 all, 15-30, 30 all, and 40-30.
If the team that reaches 40 points is equalled by the opponent, "a dos" (deuce) is called, which makes the first team go back from 40 to 30 and they remain at 30 all. The match continues until one of the teams has scored two consecutive points to end the match.
At the start of the match, the choice of court is made by the referee tossing a coin or a piece of metal into the air. The colour shown by the piece of metal indicates the team that can choose its court: red means heads and blue, tails.
*Mano: this is the most popular modality among the fans nowadays, perhaps because it is the easiest to play. Only one ball and a wall are needed, and the ball is struck with an open hand that is protected by tacos (strips of material that dampen the strike and are stuck onto the hands with sticking plaster). It can be played in a short court, trinquet or free square and the balls weigh between 101 and 107 grams in a fronton and 92 grams in a trinquet. The major championships are: manomanista (singles), por parejas (doubles), and cuatro y medio (a short fronton variant with the pass set at the 4½ line).
*Pala and Paleta: modalities in which the dimensions and weights of the palas (bats) vary, depending on the game: pala larga (long bat), pala corta (short bat), paleta cuero (for leather balls) and paleta goma (for rubber balls). Bat lengths vary between 50 cm for the short bat and 55 cm for the rubber bat. The bats are made from beech or other fine woods. The weight of the balls ranges between 35 grams for the rubber ball and 115 grams for the ball used in pala larga.
*Cesta Punta and Remonte: these are modalities that use baskets which, depending on the game, vary in the way they receive the ball: in cesta punta the ball is retained in the basket and then thrown, while in remonte the ball rolls around the basket without stopping.
*Xare: a modality that uses a tool similar to a pala with a ring of curved wood that fastens a rather loose net of string. In this case the ball is collected and expelled using the net.
Way of playing
Matches are played to a certain number of points: 22 for mano, 40 for remonte and trinquete, and 45 for pala (these championship scores can vary in exhibition matches). A tanto is the point that a player or team scores, and the player (or team) that reaches the necessary number of tantos is the one that wins the match.
Before starting the match, like in the direct games the referee tosses a token or a coin into the air, but on this occasion to decide who serves first.
For more information on the rules of the game of pelota you can consult the Federation's website
Until the last century the balls were made entirely by hand, so no ball was like the next one, some of them came out well and others not so well. This problem has persisted despite the use of machines, although as the botilleros (assistants to the pelotari during the matches) say, "every leather is different, but if the pelotari is in form, any ball will do."
Enclosures and facilities
The ball has a spherical core of wood or plastic covered by different layers of latex, wool, and cotton, and finally by two strips of leather in a figure-of-eight that are sown onto each other. The ball is a decisive element in the game and their selection is one of the key moments in championships. Each pelotari is assigned the balls he has chosen, but when his turn comes to serve he must let his opponent test the ball before he serves.
The places where pelota is played have evolved over the centuries. The pilota-soros were grassy meadows (not always horizontal) where direct games were played. These can be found both in villages and in isolated Basque farms. They are the predecessor of the long frontons.
The plazas libres (free squares) are used for direct modalities in villages; these were initially patches of earth but were later paved. Then came the frontons, which meant that indirect games could enter the world of pelota. All indirect modalities can be played in long frontons (54 metres in length) and in short frontons (30 and 36 metres in length).
The arkupes or soportales (arches), either belonging to municipal councils or to churches, are covered spaces that have been home to handball games or direct modalities such as pasaka for many years. Nowadays, they continue to be dumb witnesses of great matches.
Betting has been associated with pelota since time immemorial, so it is difficult to know when it started. This tradition, in which people have even lost their land, livestock and farmhouses, has become one of the most singular elements of the spectacle, especially in the manomanista final.
The corredores (bookies) shout out the odds or chances as the match develops, either in favour of the red (or coloured) player or the blue player, depending on the shirt or sash that the contenders are wearing. The bookies "shout out the odds"and take best continuously throughout the match.
Each better makes his/her choice, knowing that the posturas (bids) are a proportion of two fixed sums of euros that are bet. The first is the sum that can be lost and the second is what can be won. So, if the bookie shouts "100 to 50 blue" and the bet is accepted, this means that if the blues win the better will win 50 euros —a percentage (stipulated by the company) called the corretaje (broker's fee) will be deducted from this sum—, otherwise the better would lose 100 euros. The payment of bets and collection of money is done at the end of the each match in the fronton.
A curious feature is that the bets are made on small strips of paper that the bookie throws at the better inside a hollow tennis ball. The better then returns the ball to the bookie.
Nowadays it is also possible to place bets on the Internet.
The game of pelota has given rise to several anecdotes and hilarious situations. These include:
The 'angelus moment'
In the past, finals were played on Sundays at 11:30. Half an hour later, however, the referee would enter the court to stop the match and lead a prayer with the angelus. This tradition was abolished at the end of the 1990s, despite great controversy, although the morning fixture was maintained until the year 2000.
Cassocks on the court
During the 19th century priests played a key role in pelota matches. They attended as spectators, acted as referees in conflictive situations and —although it might seem surreal to us nowadays— it was quite common to see them playing, wearing a cassock and hat…
Some priests that were famous for their strong services were Celedonio Larrache, from Lesaka, Juan Bautista Chopelena, from Yanci, and Francisco Azpiroz, born in Yaben. Joaquín Gamio, from the Baztan Valley, and Zenón Echaide from Aranaz (Arantza) were excellent at returning the serve, and the latter ended up being no less than the precentor of the Royal Chapel in Madrid.
When pelota became a professional sport and money was to be made, the priest-pelotari disappeared and became part of the history of the sport.
Women also took part. They were the raquetistas (racket players) who, despite all the gossip and misgivings they caused in the male chauvinist society of the time, travelled from one fronton to the next. In Navarre there are records of the great interest in pelota shown by a group of women from Lesaka and Igantzi, who competed in the Baztan Valley championship in the 1960s.
In order to highlight the heritage that this sport and tradition represents in Navarre, in the towns and villages on the map(.pdf 325 Kb) you will find a number of posters and plaques recalling details and curiosities related to the world of pelota.
Watching a match
In Navarre, it is difficult to find a village that does not have a fronton. It is quite common, especially at the weekends, to see friends playing a serious match. Different modalities are played, although the rubber ball version is the most popular and the one that best adapts to any available space. In Pamplona, you can enjoy mano matches in the Frontón López, in the neighbourhood of Iturrama, or in the popular "frontoncico" (small fronton) in calle Mañueta in the old quarter of the city.
Websites of interest:
Among the most popular unofficial championships, we would highlight the one held from August to October in the Leku-Ona fronton in Mezkiritz, known as bost kirol ('five sports' in Basque: the five modalities of paleta goma, paleta cuero, pala corta, xare and mano) or the guante laxoa, played between April and August in the Baztan and Bidasoa valleys.
It is also worthwhile attending a professional match as a spectator (ticket prices vary depending on the category and championship, between €10 and €50; admission is free for those under 25 at Euskal Jai Berri - Reyno de Navarra) or in the frontón Labrit. On the court, the pelotaris wave to the crowd wearing spotlessly clean white trousers and a blue or red shirt or sash (gerriko), depending on their position in the league.
The noise of the betting quietens down after the first service. The players take some steps forward, bounce the ball on the ground, and strike it against the wall. The public follow the ball without missing a trick, unconsciously moving to will the ball upwards so it does not strike the metal plate on the end wall. The toing-and-froing continues: against the walls, leaving a dead ball in the txoko (corner) so the opponent cannot reach it, on the side, volleys…. Twenty-two points are needed to win in manomanista. The two pelotaris shake hands at the end, and the bookies settle debts and pay out winnings, while the fans discuss the best moves and eagerly wait for the next match to begin.
. Agendas of competitions and spectacles:
. Mano: www.asegarce.com