The Basque sport of pelota

A version of this article, translated into nearly a dozen languages, was published in Le Monde d’Hermès in Spring 2013


Traveling through Basque country along the surf-lashed Atlantic coast in southwestern France, I turn inland from the 19th-century imperial resort of Biarritz to the quiet village of Anglet.  There I find a house like its neighbors, distinguished by a sign that says ‘fabricant chistera’ and a door that is usually open: it is the atelier of the Gonzalez family, the last in France to make entirely by hand the scooped gloves used in the electrifying sport of pelota basque.  Like tennis, pelota is derived from the royal French game jeu de paume but it is played in a long two- or three-walled court called a frontón and uses a hard ball that is hurled at speeds up to 300km per hour and has been known to shatter bulletproof glass.

As I pass through the open door, the brilliant sunshine gives way to the dim light of a workshop, its walls hung with archaic sports equipment and its rough floor strewn with curling skeins of shredded willow and chips of chestnut.  The patriarch, Jean-Louis, stands over a partially formed chistera secured to the worktable by a clamp.  He is repairing the woven basket that extends before him, a leather glove affixed to one end, with the gentle expertise of a village doctor.  He glances at his work only intermittently, his fingers doing the intricate weaving through a muscle memory developed over decades.

His son Pierre sits on a low bench beside him.  For many years, he had resisted learning the craft from his father and his father had allowed him to resist, knowing such a thing could only be learned when you are ready to be taught.  Then, one day, Pierre was ready and the apprenticeship commenced.  The making of a chistera begins with a frame crafted out of chestnut, which is favored for its strength and pliability: the wood is stripped and wetted and bent and then left to dry for three months with a cord tied from handle to tip to give the chistera its signature curve.  Then the basket is woven onto it with narrow strips of wicker from the willow tree, a process that can take as much as thirteen hours of work.  Finally, there is the glove: a square of leather webbed with canvas for the fingers that lies flush to the flat end of the basket.  Though it does not resemble the human hand I find that when I try on a chistera it fits so perfectly that it would seem likely to stay on during play even without the strap that secures it to the wrist.

During the last century, Basque emigrants carried the sport with them throughout the Americas where local variations in equipment and play emerged, but it remains to this day an almost uniquely Basque game.  When I watch a match I find that the speed of play is deceptive: long arcing balls off the front wall are caught in the chistera and thrown in a single seemingly unhurried motion, searching for an angle that can leave an opponent out of position; then, suddenly, the advantage is seized, the pace accelerates and the ball becomes a blur ricocheting wildly through the corners.  The enthusiasm of the crowd surges forward: this is their game and they understand its esoteric rhythms.  But to catch the ball at such moments is, truly, to attempt to stop a bullet and a chistera might last a month during tournament season before the frame is shattered by a hard-flung ball or damaged beyond repair.

The atelier, then, is a place to which players return often throughout their lives and this makes it something more than a workshop.  The maker of the chistera lies at the center of a sport that is itself central to Basque culture.  This naturally positions the Gonzalez family at the heart of their community, so the atelier’s open door welcomes everyone from champion players to amateurs and some who are not players at all but friends or neighbors who stop by to pass the time or share news.  Jean-Louis greets them all.  The sport, he knows, like the craft, often runs in the family so the champion who stops by today was the young boy just learning the game whose father came by not so long ago.


Click here to see all of Sean’s blog posts about France or Europe.  Or here to see others in this Hermès series from Europe, including an encounter with a master Dutch typographer and the strange fishing platforms of Abruzzo.


Sean also shot the photographs for this article. Click images below to view the tear sheets.

The Basque sport of pelota, Le Monde d'Hermes, text and photos by Sean Rocha