Watching the Winter Olympics with all its weird and wonderful sports that I’ve never heard of, and won’t again till the next Games, makes me think of another unusual game that no one’s ever heard of, but features strongly in our household: pelote basque.  JF plays in the local league and loves it, but honestly I can’t work it out.

It seems to go like this:  it’s a racquet game originating from the Basque region of France/Spain loosely based on the ancient game jeu de paume. Yet when I say game, it is in fact a grouping of between 12 – 22 different games, one of which doesn’t even use a racquet!  Now this is what I don’t really get; some of these games seem to me as similar to each other as tennis is to badminton or even volleyball; i.e not very. These are different sports, not the same one.  So forgive me if I don’t really get pelote basque.

pelote collage

What I do get is that it is tough and a little crazy.  It’s played in pairs and in the majority of the 22 versions players hit a small hard ball with a wooden racquet (no strings, no give) against a wall (called a fronton) up to 30 metres away.  This is not a soft(ish) tennis ball, nor a fluffy shuttlecock, it can be made of wood, leather, latex or a combination of wood and latex.  As far as I can feel, it’s rock hard.  It’s so hard players must wear protective goggles to avoid injury.  So it strikes me as madness to hit a rock-hard ball with a wooden bat, really far, ouch!  But then I’m not known for being very sporty, or very good with pain


Pelote basque as mentioned above comes from the Basque area of South-West France and Northern Spain and has spread across the globe through immigration, mainly to South America, particularly Argentina. There is, surprisingly, an International Federation consisting of 27 participating countries which recognises 22 versions of the game.  The French Federation only recognises 12.  The most spectacular one called Chistera is played with an open sort of scooped glove, there’s also “main nue” with no racquet just a bare hand and the most common form, simply pelote basque, played with a slotted wooden racquet called a pala. The game has once featured at the Olympics, in 1900 in Paris, when only two countries, France and Spain competed (photo above). Spain won.

                         pelote wall collage

Now back to the title of this post, a very un-Provençal game.  Provence is known for pétanque not pelote and ask most people in the South-East if they’ve heard of pelote and they’ll shake their heads.  It just happens we live between the 3 clubs (Cannes, Grasse and Villeneuve-Loubet), which together with Corsica and Marseille, make up one of the very few leagues not in the South-West. And this is where JF plays, at Villeneuve-Loubet, where there has been a fronton since 1920.  For anyone who likes finding unusual morsels of local history, when visiting Villeneuve-Loubet look out for the old fronton that now forms one wall of an apartment block on the square “Jeu de Paume”.


Do you have any unusual or wacky sports where you are?  Do you play? I’d love to hear from you.

Further Reading

Visiting the National Museum of Sport – Nice, France

Cycling on the Côte d’Azur

Golfing Holiday on the French Riviera

PIN it for later!

PELOTE BASQUE racquet sport

credit for first photo wikimedia commons and  black & white photo wikimedia commons

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