Fencing may be the only sport in the world in which you can strike your opponent on the head with a sword and get a handshake when youre done. Such a blow would surely draw the whistle in a basketball game, while swordplay has been all but eliminated from the soccer pitch. In fencing, this attack is considered a well-earned point, and widely encouraged.

It is this very assault that draws scattered applause from the spectators of Daniele Annibaldis practice duel at Il Club Scherma Roma. As his opponent lunges forward with his sword, squatting low with head tucked, the agile Annibaldi jumps back and deftly slaps his blade on the left side of the attackers mask. A buzz from the electronic scoring system signals a point for Annibaldi, as do the smiles of onlookers and the dismay of his sparring partner.

Every few seconds, other buzzers announce other points scored across the gym where dozens of white-clad fencers hone their crafts at the expense of their adversaries, all wearing the protective metal masks that bring to mind a swashbuckling beekeeper. This amusing image quickly fades, however, when one has the privilege to behold the clash of opposing sabres, glinting under the clubs fluorescent lighting as they defend and attack, deflect and parry.

But be on guard: to spend more than five minutes in Il Club Scherma Roma is to want to fence. The price is low: a free, week-long trial; a medical certificate; a shirt, mask and sword; e300 a year; a few hours a week. The dividends are great: good exercise, new friends and a chance to play Zorro three times a week.

Lining the clubs brick walls, Italys great fencers look down on future champions from large framed photographs. The giddy eight year olds, the sweaty teens and the pensive Annibaldi are oblivious to these Olympic medallists, world champions and national heroes enshrined in black and white. Many practised at this very club. But now there is only time to study opponents and react aptly to an oncoming sword.

Fencing is like a chess match at light speed, says the 19-year-old Annibaldi, a first-year university student in Rome. Intelligence is the most important thing. You must think and react so quickly that you are not thinking anymore. Today is Annibaldis second consecutive day practising at Il Club Scherma Roma, the second of what will surely be five days. Monday through Friday he is here, sometimes in the morning as well as at night. A love of the sport and a quiet hope to one day have his photo on the clubs walls keep him in this modest brick building in Romes Campi Sportivi near Acqua Acetosa.

He started lessons here, as most do, as a child, an eight year old with simple aspirations, as most have, to be nothing more than Robin Hood, Peter Pan and a pirate. As he grew, so did fencing, from a childs game to a science, and later to an art form. His weapon of choice is the sabre, reminiscent of the cutting swords used by cavalry in the 17th and 18th centuries.

There is also the foil, a smaller sword and one of the many contributions from the French. And there is the heavier pe, known as the duelling sword. In the 18th century, as duelling to the death was no longer in vogue, the pe was developed to settle disputes in a non-lethal manner. Without an edge, it was intended to incapacitate foes with a quick thrust to the arm or leg. This is represented in modern pe scoring as it is legal to strike the entire body.

Fencings roots can be traced back as far as ancient Egypt. In a temple near Luxor, a pictograph dated 1200 BC was found showing swordfighters wearing masks and protective sword tips. Italys contributions to the sport are numerous as well. In 1553, Camillo Agrippa invented the four fencing positions. A few years later, Italian masters Vigiani and Giacomo di Grassi invented the lunge. Most recently in the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, Italy tallied seven fencing medals, more than any other country.

For the majority of the athletes at Il Club Scherma Roma, the Olympics are a world away. The teachers here stress learning and fun above all else, which is ironic, since most have Olympic experience themselves.

There is Elvis Gregory, a three-time Olympic medallist for Cuba. He started fencing after watching The Count of Monte Cristo on television. Following the 2002 World Championships in Portugal, Gregory skipped the flight to Havana and defected. Today, he stretches with a group of small children, their own dreams of becoming a musketeer or Sir Lancelot slowly coming true.

There is former Soviet national fencer Oleg Pouzanov, now the wise old sage of the club, coolly batting away attacks from his students with just a flip of the wrist. He brings to the club the eastern European school of fencing, based on speed and mobility. But as Pouzanov notes, there is no best school of fencing.

There is not a Spanish technique or an Italian technique, he says. There is only the technique of fencing.

Well, at least in Il Club Scherma Roma, there is also the technique of speaking Italian, which is required for all lessons. One interested American took a few hours of her vacation to stop by the club. Wearing a T-shirt that reads, I fence, therefore I am, Gillian Abineri gazes around the room at various duels and remembers why she started fencing years ago.

Id like to say that I love the sense of honour and tradition, she says. But honestly, I just like to play with swords.

Il Club Scherma Roma, Largo G. Onesti 1, tel. 068083282. To sign up, simply stop by the club or visit the Federazione Italiana Scherma (Italian fencing federation) at www.federscherma.it for a list of all fencing clubs in Italy.