It looks like a street. There are sidewalks, doorways, windows and wrought iron balconies. But look closer. The doorways have no doors. The windows are painted onto the walls. There is no access to the balconies. There are no parked vehicles, no pedestrians.

width=336A gate opens and six people seemingly dressed for soccer troop into view. The truth is revealed: This is not a street, it is a sports court.

In two teams of three, the players start battering a small ball to and fro with the palms of their hands, ricocheting it off the disrupted surfaces. The sport is galotxa, one of the myriad forms of Valencian pilota, a family of handball games that can be traced to the ancient Greeks.

Although the lineage of pilota stretches back millennia and spans all of southern Europe, in this part of eastern Spain it has become a potent symbol of regional identity. Even the smallest towns of the Valencian hinterland boast their own pilota courts - known as trinquets - and major tournaments receive live coverage on local television.

To an outsider, pilota can easily be confused with the Basque sport of pelota. However, there is a fundamental difference. In pelota, the players alternately hit the ball against a wall; it can be regarded as a primitive form of squash. Pilota is more akin to tennis, with competing teams facing each other across a net or a line painted on the ground.

The most prestigious forms of pilota are escala i corda and raspall, played on dedicated indoor courts. The main playing surface is rectangular, paved with flagstones. Steps running down one side of the court serve as seats for spectators, who are regarded as being in play. When you attend a pilota match, you have to accept that you are in the line of fire; balls are often hit deliberately into the crowd, with players diving after them.

At the highest level of competition, escala i corda and raspall are played by professionals.Galatxa and llargues are more informal street games often played on the backstreets of the city of Valencia and in rural towns and villages. The inherent dangers to passersby and vehicles have led to some municipalities constructing fake streets solely for pilota.

The different variants of the game employ different kinds of balls. A vaqueta, a small wooden ball covered in leather, is used for escala i corda and raspall. In street games, a larger, softerbadana ball is used.

At first glimpse, the players appear to hit the ball with their bare hands. On closer inspection you see that their playing hands are protected with homemade gloves. In advance of a game, players cut sheets of leather and plastic around custom-made templates. Then, with tape and strapping, they patch the shapes together to provide vital protection for their palms and fingertips.

Pilota is currently enjoying a resurgence. In Valencia's old town, especially during the Fallas festival each March, you can turn a corner and find yourself in the midst of a frenetic match.

There are usually warning signs. Up ahead, cheering and banter resound off the venerable buildings. You hear what sounds like arrhythmic rifle fire. It turns out to be the report of ball on palm, asphalt and stone walls.

Reaching the source, you find the sidewalks lined densely with spectators. People lean out of windows above for a grandstand view. The ball zips in every direction as the teams battle it out ferociously. This looks like a sports court, but in fact it's a street.