Friday, 26 October 2012

The Trinquet de la Cavalerie


On a curve of the Rue de la Cavalerie, not far from the Ecole Militaire and Eiffel tower, stands a rather grandiose art deco car park. Even more impressive than its exterior though is the fact that tucked away on its 6th floor is an unexpected Basque pelota trinquet.

Looking above the ground floor it is difficult to imagine that this 1920s building is a car park, but in many ways this is no ordinary structure - and indeed no ordinary car park. Bring your eyes down to ground level and you'll see that alongside the entrance is an Aston Martin garage! 

My interest though is in a discreet doorway to the left which leads - via a small and creaking elevator - to the 6th floor and a terrace that offers views across the neighbouring rooftops towards the Eiffel tower.


I had been invited here to discover an unsuspected and seemingly secret world, the Club de Pelote Basque de Paris, for a tour of the establishment, an explanation of its history - and a chance to play the game myself!

One thing is immediately obvious - this is a place that was designed as a gentlemen's (sporting) club. Although the building itself sports the clean lines of the art deco movement, the interior of this club is rather stuffy (or cosy), with a predominance of wood and ochre coloured walls. It is easy to imagine members in previous times puffing away here on cigars, the smoke drifting upwards, slowly deepening the tones of the walls and ceilings.


Although the sport itself is ancient in origin, and today based roughly on the French jeu de paume, this particular trinquet - as well as the tennis court alongside and a (now closed) restaurant above - were built by an Argentinian. The facilities were for the Club de Pelote Basque de Paris, founded in 1929 by the same man - the country's ambassador to France, and many of the original fixtures and fittings remain.

Taking up most of the space is the fronton, the court where the game is played, but surrounding this are seating areas for spectators, a small bar and a lounge area. The space has become multi-purpose, offering a centre for other activities for the Basque community, including a choir.


Highlighting the 'gentlemen's club' origins of this trinquet is the fact that it only has one changing room. Even today though this does not provide any major problems as there is currently only one female member at the club!

This is not to say that there is a policy of exclusion here - far from it. The members are all very friendly, taking time to explain the rules, demonstrate the game and lead us through a practice session.



The game is fast, exciting, even rather primitive. The top players are ambidextrous, swapping the paleta bat easily from hand to hand, flicking their wrists to add spin and to search for tight angles. When I play though, it is all about just hitting the ball as hard as possible to make sure it reaches the front wall, a sensation that takes me back to schoolyard games from my childhood.

Sitting watching the game, it is interesting to take note of the surroundings. Almost everything is in wood - the ceiling above the fronton, the seats, the lockers in the changing rooms, the fittings in the lounge and corridors - and clearly most of it dates back to the 1920s. It gives the place an organic feel, the wood slightly battered and humid to the touch, an odour of perspiration in the air from over 80 years of intense physical activity.


It is tempting to imagine using the place as a local club, but annual subscriptions cost upwards of €1200 (although they are cheaper for younger members and students). These prices though are not designed to exclude, but are rather a simple necessity to ensure the survival of the club. The club pays a high rent, and although the building and its interiors are protected, the facility does not yet have listed-status to ensure that it can only ever be used for Basque Pelota in the future.

Although club membership is probably only for those truly passionate about the sport, the members did tell me that visitors are welcome to come and watch games or have a drink at the bar. The whole facility can also be rented out in the evenings if you have a special event to organise!

Thanks to the CPBP for the invitation and initiation, and to happycurious for organising the event. Similar initiation sessions will shortly be organised as part of Mastercard's Priceless Paris programme.

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