The unofficial sport of Valencia is pilota, a type of handball played in long halls known as trinquets. This fast-moving game is like a mix between volleyball and tennis, but looks a lot more painful than either of those.
Pilota is frequently played in outdoor courts, but the best place in Valencia to catch a match is at the Trinquet Pelayo, next to the Estación del Norte. Despite its central location, this trinquet is almost impossible to find if you don’t know exactly where you’re going. Its entrance is through the back of a low-key neighborhood bar. From the street, you’d never know it’s there.
If you’d like, grab a beer at the bar before the match, but don’t overdo it: you’ll need your wits about you while watching pilota. In this sport, spectators are part of the field, and the rock-hard leather ball frequently flies into the crowd. As you enter the trinquet, there’s a stack of seat cushions, and I was initially confused as to why most people were taking two. But after a couple minutes, I realized: one cushion for your butt, one to shield your face.
Pilota is played much like tennis, with the same scoring system and same general rules. There’s a net, and the ball can only bounce once. But it’s played three-a-side, and the ball can rebound off the walls and ceiling. A good player will be able to aim his shot in a corner, where it’s difficult to guess which way it’s going to fly.
Players wrap their hands, and many wear a traditional leather glove which has a metal plate to protect the fingers. But some players, especially those who play in the back line and need more control, wrap only their fingertips. Watching them smack that hard little ball, it’s a wonder that they don’t constantly shatter their bones. Tough hands; I would not want to get into a slapping fight with one of these guys.
There are matches at the Trinquete Pelayo twice a week, on Thursdays and Saturdays. The athletes are professional, although they don’t make a lot of money; the glory days of pilota seem to be in the past. During our visit to the hall, the crowd was made up entirely of older guys who use the sport as an excuse to get out, socialize and gamble. The man we sat next to was friendly — foreigners so rarely show up at the Pelayo, he was curious about us, and asked why we’d choose to spend Thursday evening watching pilota.
Other types of handball are popular across Spain, particularly in the Basque region where it’s known as pelota, but pilota valenciana is only played here. It’s an exciting sport… but one I’d never want to play myself.