Sylvia Sabes. I am dazzled by the rural beauty of France's Basque Country, where the untamed coast and rolling green hills are dappled with red tile-roofed villages and surrounded by clouds of white sheep. Walking through these towns, I'm always on the lookout for a singular wall, measuring approximately 16m wide and 10m tall. It's often pink, sometimes pale yellow, and the date it was erected is usually emblazoned on the façade. It's possible, but not required, that the top of the wall rises into an arch and is lined with a mesh fence.
Once I've found the wall, chances are high that I'm near the town hall, with signs identifying it in two languages: "herriko etxe" in Basque and "mairie" in French. And next to the town hall, I'm sure to find a stone church with a reverently tended cemetery.
This trio of buildings is so sacred to locals that it's known as the trinité: the town hall, the church and that wall, which the Basque call the plaza, or fronton in French. Communities gather here to watch and play a dozen different ball games known together as Euskal pilota – Euskal meaning Basque, and pilota meaning the specific type of ball, a nut of latex wrapped in yarn, then covered in leather.
Developed in these mountains hundreds of years ago, the games (commonly known as Basque pelota around the world) vary from hand pilota, in which the ball is thrown and caught with bare hands, to pala, a collection of games played with a wooden paddle or a cord-strung racket. In an age of football idols and video games, it's a testament to the strength of Basque culture that plazas are still busy with players vying for time on any given Sunday afternoon, while enthusiastic friends, families and fans watch from the sidelines.
These wall sports are generally considered to be the descendants of jeu de paume, a 17th-Century game that originated in France, and the direct ancestors of tennis, squash and racket ball. Today they are played all over the world, thanks in large part to Basque entrepreneurs who exported one of the games, cesta punta, to Florida in the 1920s. They rebranded it as "jai alaï", which means "joyful celebration", and it sparked a betting trend with an international following.
Cesta punta, along with its sister sport grand chistera, are among the fastest ball games on record. They are played with a chistera, a leather glove attached to a long, thin basket that curves like a hook. Players catch the pilota with the basket, swing it back in a dramatic arch and then send the ball hurtling against the plaza at fantastic speeds. In fact, cesta punta holds a Guinness World Record for a ball that clocked in at 302km/h.
The best chisteras are still made by hand in traditional workshops, such as the family-run Atelier Gonzalez in the seaside town of Anglet. When I visited, sunbeams pierced a small room that was littered with wood shavings and cluttered with chisteras in every state of repair. Peio Gonzalez, the fourth of five generations of chistera makers here, was deftly building a frame out of chestnut, while his father, Jean-Louis, stood nearby weaving willow branches into a glove's basket. The family's fifth-generation artisan, Bixente Gonzalez, was at a plaza, practicing cesta punta for the pro circuit.
"The frontons are a lieu de vie [community centre]. You go on a Sunday to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port or Hasparren and the entire village is there," Gonzalez explained, naming two nearby villages that lie in the heart of the Pyrenees, not far from the Spanish border. "We drink. We laugh."
At my next stop in the coastal village of Bidart, Patxi Tambourindeguy agreed: "These traditions keep the culture alive." He and his brother Jon are world jai alaï champions who have competed in Cuba, Acapulco and Miami. When not on the circuit, they are at Ona Pilota, a light-filled atelier they opened six years ago to answer the growing need for custom-designed chisteras and hand-crafted pilotas.
The Basque are as proud of their locally sourced cuisine as they are of their unique sports, so it is no surprise that plazas are often near a restaurant or bar. In February, strolling through Bayonne, the popular resort port city on the Basque coast, I followed the sound of a pilota game echoing through the Petit Bayonne quartier and stumbled into a brasserie serving fans and players beside one of the oldest indoor plazas in France, the 300-year-old Trinquet Saint André. Similarly, in the small village of Arcangues, 15km inland, Jean-Claude Astigarraga's Restaurant du Trinquet was built with a viewing window, allowing diners to watch a match while savouring traditional specialties, like pigeon or acorn-fed pork, grilled over an open flame. From behind the bar, the owner threw out his arms exuberantly, "You see this? How lucky am I to live with this every day?"
Visitors who want to learn more about the various games can start at the Pelota and Xistera Pilotari Ecomuseum in St-Pée-sur-Nivelle, or get tickets to professional matches held throughout the summer in Bidart. But the best way to truly understand to power of the pilota is to head to the nearest plaza on your own, or to sign up for lessons like those offered cesta punta champions Patxi and Jon as they teach the fun of this Basque tradition.