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New Europe

Day Seven: Split

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Picigin, Split's very own beach sport, demands style and shallow water.
Michael Palin - New EuropeThere is a compact horseshoe-shaped bay just below the hotel called Bacvice, its sheltered waters and strip of well worn sand packed with people on this hot weekend. In the shallows a group of men of a certain age are, literally, throwing themselves into a game I've never seen anywhere else. It's called Picigin, pronounced Pixigin, and is so local that none of the contestants in the World Championships last year lived anywhere apart from Split. The aim is simple, to keep a tennis ball in the air using any part of the human body, and it's best played in water just above ankle deep, allowing the maximum foot movement and a minimum cushion for the falls. There is only one rule: to keep the ball in the air. Beyond that the game is less about what you do, than how you do it. Execution is all.

Aerial leaps, back-foot flips, skimming headers, scissor-kicks and wildly reckless full-length falls are all encouraged. Improbably, it was first developed here in the 1920s by a group of academics, journalists, professors and others who were looking for a new form of exercise they could play in the middle of the day. It was very much an anti-club game and one of the first stipulations was that it should be played only on public beaches. Now a group is as likely to include truck drivers as it is night editors. They fling themselves about with enormous good humour, while paddling children scarcely bat an eyelid as middle-aged men come flying through the air. Watching Picigin in full flow, I understand better why Yugoslavia was the first non-English-speaking country ever to buy Monty Python.

I leave Split on the ferry to the island of Hvar. It's Sunday night and all seats on the deck are taken by a combination of tourists and Hvar-ians returning from a weekend in Split. Cans of beer are ripped open and long-suffering waitresses chatted up. We find some space below in a cabin thick with an old-fashioned fug of cigarette smoke and the sound of gruff voices getting louder by the beer. A game-show plays to nobody on a TV screen in the corner.

Maybe she's just trying to cheer me up, but a bright, intelligent girl, educated on the mainland, but now living back on the island, can't stop raving about the attractions to come. Hvar, she says, is, quite simply, paradise.
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Picigin, Split's very own beach sport, demands style and shallow water.
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  • Series: New Europe
  • Chapter: Day Seven: Split
  • Country/sea: Croatia
  • Place: Split
  • Book page no: 25

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