For most visitors, Split's city beach of Bačvice is a modest affair - a half-moon of shingly
sand a short walk from the main harbour, a couple of showers, a little greenery and
shallow sea that's just right for children. But to locals, Bačvice is Wembley, the home and
temple of the city's best-loved sport: picigin.
As much an art form as a sport, picigin is something like volleyball in shallow water, but
with a much smaller ball, no net and usually no points. Here it is played according to the classic rules: five players and a bald tennis ball, or balun. Traditionally non-competitive,
the aim of the game is to keep the ball out of the water for as long as possible. To this end,
players bat it between each other with the palm of either hand. The artistry comes in
keeping the ball dry. A dazzling leap or dive to keep the balun on its journey should score
well - if scores are being kept.
Bačvice makes a perfect picigin pitch for two main reasons. Firstly its sandy, gently
sloping beach allows for optimum acrobatic performance while minimising the risk of
injury. Ideally, for speed and a cushioned fall, the water should be just above the ankles and
well below the knees. Just as importantly, the beach is lined with a number of bars and
cafés, so that players can strut their stuff to a relaxed and appreciative audience - in other
words, females. No more peacock sport was ever invented.
Non-competitive its origins may be but picigin is being taken increasingly seriously by
its aficionados. Associations and competitions are growing up around it, not least the New
Year's Day's dive-off for die-hards. Off-season, you'll recognise seasoned and serious players
by a distinctive limp caused by repeated injuries to their big toe. In summer, any picigin
player worth his salt will be wearing the obligatory figure-hugging Speedos.
Other picigin pitches include the beaches at Sunj on Lopud near Dubrovnik; Medulin, on
the southern tip of Istria, and Baška on Krk. It is even played inland, on the banks of the Drava river in Osijek, as far as you can get from Bačvice without being in Hungary.