I just returned home from a wonderful week in San Sebastián (Donastia, in Basque), a small city on the Bay of Biscay. With one of the best urban beachfronts in the world, it’s impossible not to love this salty, turquoise coast.
We ate endless pintxos (Basque-style tapas), hiked up a point to the remnants of a castle destroyed by Napoleon’s troops (where you can now get beer and a plate of olives to fuel the trip back down), swam, surfed (aka got tossed and thrown around in the ocean), and wandered. Each evening, while sitting in a square and walking back along the boardwalk, buskers would emerge with instruments, magic tricks, or circus-inspired oddities. Some were fantastic, some less so, but they were all eye-catching.
Street performance has been around since Antiquity, but the English term “busking” dates to the 1860s in Great Britain. According to the London Performers,
Busking did not mean street performer at the beginning, it used to have the meaning of “seek” or “procure”… The word “busk” comes from the Spanish root word “buscar”, meaning “to seek or to wander”.
So it’s appropriate it was in Spain that I saw such a wealth of performance art. Some was mundane, some awkward, some beautiful, and some expertly executed. Below, I’ve shared a few photographic highlights, with some accompanying thoughts…
The walk along the beach provided ample space for entertainers, patios, and leisurely people-watching.
This square was once famous for bullfights, as evidenced by the numbered doorways. Each door opened onto the square for a prime view, and each had a small salon behind it, rented by the wealthy. Now, the small salons have been combined to create apartments. The square itself is the perfect spot to drink cafe con leche or a glass of wine with your partner, friends or family.
San Sebastián is exceptionally child-friendly, with a multitude of state of the art jungle gyms, public toilets, and antique taps that offer free, fresh drinking water for personal refills. Perhaps most importantly, it’s committed to a mentality that allows for children almost anywhere at anytime. At 10:30 pm the parks were still full, and parents were still found with wine glasses in hand; babies slept in old-fashioned, lace-umbrella festooned prams, or were passed around; nobody blinked an eye at open-air nursing, seemingly without the oragami-like specialty tops I’ve seen in Canadian shops, which ensure no extra millimetre of flesh is shown. Children amassed to play soccer or just watch a busker in the square. (I hope parents tipped well at the end of his show – the man below was the ultimate babysitter extraordinaire.)
He was also my personal favourite. There was an obviously well-trained mime (poor guy; he commanded less authority than others, and children kept attempting to steal his juggling pins…), lively musicians, and a creepy, squeaky guy whose disembodied head would appear nightly (either in a baby carriage or as a “talking” (?!) plant in an artificial garden (ahem, not my personal favourite). But this movement artist was truly captivating. He could defy gravity with this hoop. And before he even began, everyone would start to stare in anticipation. He just had a certain presence that commanded attention.
This gentleman was a fairly average slight-of-hand magician, but I couldn’t help but watch for a few minutes (perhaps because I’m currently reading Robertson Davies’ World of Wonders, about the fictional master illusionist Magnus Eisengrim). His mini-monologues were engaging even in a language I couldn’t understand, and his volunteer assistant was like an adorable, minature Amélie. I was reminded that any performer, first and foremost, must perform – at all times – not just execute their art.
Although I’ve never been one to seek out busking, there was something calming about the nightly appearance of performance art. Perhaps I was encouraged by the degree to which nobody hesitated to watch for a few minutes, and throw in a few coins. It was communal. There’s also something special about being in such an old space, with brick and mortar evidence of centuries lived; to help feed a tradition, see it live on. To know that amongst Apple TVs and Netflix, small, obscure arts are still passed along, and die hard.